Pope demands protection for ‘precious’ Earth

The worldwide head of the Catholic Church has called for action to preserve the natural world. Is the good of humans the most important reason we should be concerned about the environment?

‘The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth... We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.’

These words come not from a green politician or conservationist campaigner, but from a 200-page encyclical — a letter sent to Church leaders around the world — written by Pope Francis. Francis is the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, but he wants ‘every person living on this planet’ to pay attention to a message on the environmental issues facing humanity. His intervention may increase the pressure to act ahead of a major climate summit in Paris later this year.

The Pope’s central message was that mankind should place great value on its relationship with nature. He lamented high levels of pollution, the loss of species, poor water quality and a ‘throwaway culture’. And he reserved particular attention for climate change, which he called ‘one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day’.

Francis expressed hope that people would be prepared to make sacrifices in order to protect the environment. He highlighted the impact of environmental degradation on poor communities around the world and voiced suspicion of the extent to which markets and technology have the answers to environmental challenges. His implied criticism of the global capitalist economic system is likely to cause discomfort among the more naturally conservative part of his following.

He follows previous Popes who have taken up the environmentalist cause. In 1971, Paul VI said humanity was engaging in ‘ill-considered exploitation of nature’. John Paul II, in his first encyclical in 1979, spoke of concern at human beings’ tendency ‘to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption’. And in 2011 Benedict XVI promoted the virtues of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology.

Our natural world?

Commentary on environmental issues often focuses on the impact upon our wellbeing and prosperity. We must limit climate change because it will destroy people’s homes and livelihoods, and we must protect ecosystems because we all rely on the food chain. Human beings’ best interests must always come first.

But the Pope’s words tie in with those of writer and conservationist George Monbiot, who says that our love of nature reaches beyond the needs of our own species. Humans are merely the temporary custodians of an Earth which is more valuable than we are. It is natural for us to feel a deep responsibility to the natural world; it is a far greater creation than anything human beings are capable of.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with the Pope?
  2. Should we be more concerned about the impact of our environmental policies on humans or on the world around us?


  1. Create a list of things which you could do in your day-to-day life to minimise your impact on the environment.
  2. Write a speech on behalf of a world leader (for example, David Cameron) responding to the Pope’s encyclical. You can be sympathetic to his suggestions or reject them, but you must explain why you have chosen the option you have.

Some People Say...

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together.”

Pope Francis

What do you think?

Q & A

How will I be affected by climate change?
It depends on what part of the world you live in; it could have the opposite impact in one area to that which it has in another. For example, in some places it is likely to lead to droughts, but in others it will probably lead to frequent floods. Parts of the world which lie near sea level, such as the Maldives or Bangladesh, may be wiped out by rising sea levels when ice melts.
What other impact are we having on the environment?
We are not fully aware of the extent of the damage we are doing to the world around us, but scientists have estimated that around 150-200 species of plants and animals become extinct every single day. They also say that the decline of many of these is, at least in part, the result of human action such as over-development.

Word Watch

1.2 billion Catholics
Recent surveys suggest that 40% of the world’s Catholics currently live in Latin America. In 2011 Brazil alone had 134 million Catholics. But Africa has seen the fastest-growing Catholic congregations in recent years.
Climate summit in Paris
Governments from 190 nations will take part in the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, which will start on 30 November and continue until 11 December. The gathered leaders will hope to reach a long-term deal to limit the impact of climate change. Currently, agreements which have been reached expire in 2020.
More naturally conservative
Some followers of the Catholic church have traditionally been associated with conservative social policies. These include advocacy of restrictions on abortion and contraception, both of which were mentioned by Francis in yesterday’s encyclical.
St Francis of Assisi
Pope Francis chose his name in honour of St Francis, a 13th-century saint who lived among the poor in order to help them and collected funds to rebuild churches.

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