To protect God’s creation, seek personal and policy change, U.S. bishops say

Mountain landscape with lake Credit Sergei Akulich via unsplash Mountain landscape with lake. | Sergei Akulich via Unsplash.

Just as Christians have been restored to God’s kingdom through baptism, they must seek to rightly order their relationships and society to God’s creation, the U.S. bishops said in an environmental reflection ahead of the Sept. 1 World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.

“We must change! Pope Francis invites us to ‘transform our hearts, our lifestyles, and the public policies [to] contribute to the mighty river of justice and peace in this Season of Creation,’” the bishops said Tuesday.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement, titled “Let Justice and Peace Flow,” linked the waters of Christian baptism to the waters of the earth. The geography and history of the U.S., they said, should predispose Americans “to recognize the image of divine blessings expressed as flowing waters.” They noted major rivers and the Great Lakes as well as the oceans on the U.S. borders, calling these “sources of life, economic well-being, biodiversity, recreation, inspiration, and beauty.”

“The abundant waterways of our country have brought productive farms and flourishing urbanizations,” the bishops’ statement continued. “Yet along with economic prosperity and ingenuity, our waterways have been filled with pollution, contamination, and garbage bringing injustice to peoples, creatures, and ecosystems.”

The bishops’ statement, released on Tuesday but dated Sept. 1, was signed by Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Philadelphia and Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois. Gudziak chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, while Malloy chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Pope Francis established the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation in 2015. It is celebrated every year on Sept. 1. The ecumenical day of prayer is seen as a sign of unity with the Orthodox Church. It launches what is called the Season of Creation, celebrated every year from Sept. 1 through Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The pope released his message for the World Day of Prayer for Creation in May.

The U.S. bishops cited the pope’s message and his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. They also cited Pope Benedict XVI’s criticism of economic “superdevelopment” that is “wasteful and consumerist” despite the “glaring inequalities” of humanity.

“In the United States, with our vast economy, we face a perennial temptation to live beyond our needs,” they said. “Yet with income gaps between rich and poor growing wider, so many brothers and sisters lack the basics.”

The bishops said it is not wrong to “seek prosperity and to enjoy the pleasures of things,” but they emphasized the need for personal change. 

“An ecological lifestyle is not about pauperism or austerity but an invitation to modesty and simplicity that increases our freedom to live as we ought regardless of our economic means,” the bishops explained. “To live simply allows both the poor and rich to share in a common solidarity with each other and with creation, remembering where all resources ultimately come from.”

The bishops encouraged Catholics to consider their lifestyle choices and “foster greater generosity towards those who have less.”

While individual change is important, public policy has a collective impact and people of faith must engage in civic life. The bishops called for public policy that seeks “environmental justice.” The bishops emphasized the need to reduce human-produced atmospheric carbon dioxide blamed for climate change.

“We must pursue rapid decarbonization — ‘an energy revolution’ — to seriously address climate change, yet without doing so on the backs of the poor and underprivileged,” their statement said.

According to the bishops, climate change and natural disasters hurt the poor the most, but the poor also lack the goods produced by energy-intensive, carbon-emitting economies. They also warned against developed nations placing conditions on developing countries struggling to provide basic energy even as developed countries try to transition away from fossil fuels. 

Pope Francis’ own message for the World Day of Prayer for Creation stressed the virtue of justice. He cited the words of the prophet Amos: “Let justice flow on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” 

The pope invited people, with the help of God’s grace, to lower their waste production and consumption, to be mindful of their habits and economic decisions, to use resources with moderation and sobriety, to recycle, and to make greater use of sustainable options.

Regarding public policies, Pope Francis said world leaders participating in COP28, the U.N. climate change conference at the end of the year, “must listen to science and institute a rapid and equitable transition to end the era of fossil fuel.”

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“Let us raise our voices to halt this injustice towards the poor and towards our children, who will bear the worst effects of climate change,” the pope’s message said.

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