The period of John Paul II’s papacy – from 1978 to 2005 – witnessed an unprecedented level of concern for the environment. Longstanding problems, such as pollution, endangered species, overfishing, and deforestation, continued to worsen.

Moreover, the new challenge of global climate change became apparent, leading to the formation of the International Panel on Climate Change in 1988 and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.

The environmental crisis and care for God’s creation

Within the Catholic Church, this was a time of increased reflection on environmental issues. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council had stated that the Church’s concern extends to “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of all people (Gaudium et Spes 1).

Further, in 1971, Pope Paul VI noted that, “due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation” (Octogesima Adveniens 21). Some thinkers had come to blame the otherworldly focus of Christianity for destructive environmental practices, while a new generation of priests, sisters, scholars, and activists in the Church sought to uplift the marginalized and protect nature through intentional concern for the environment.

Coming at the juncture of these forces, John Paul II’s teachings on care for creation played a critical role in shaping Catholic thought and practice.

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Connections to nature

As a young priest in his native Poland, John Paul II (at the time known as Karol Wojtyła) made regular trips into nature, both for personal refreshment and as a site of ministry to a group of young Catholics that he convened for the sake of fellowship and mutual support.

These trips included skiing, hiking, kayaking, and camping across the Polish countryside, as well as quiet moments for prayer and conversation. “If you speak with most popes,” John Paul II later reflected, “they’ll say that they received their formation from seminary. I, however, received my formation by bringing young people into the wilderness.”

John Paul II’s early career as a philosopher and theologian also shaped his views on environmental issues. He defended the philosophy of personalism, which stresses the special worth and dignity of human beings as persons.

In this way, he affirmed the traditional Christian distinction between humans and the rest of nature. At the same time, the future pope followed St. Thomas Aquinas in emphasizing that humans are composed of both matter and spirit.

Not just the mind has value, but also the body, including its health, emotions, and sexuality. This holistic concern for humans as embodied beings implies a related concern for the natural environment in which people live, grow, and make their home.

First encyclical

Shortly after his election as pope, John Paul II developed these and other themes in his 1979 encyclical Redemptor Hominis. An encyclical is a public letter from the pope, and this text was composed as a preview and initiation of John Paul Il’s pontificate.

The encyclical affirms the role of Jesus as redeemer of humanity and the mission of the Church as spreading this transformative message of salvation. It also defends the priceless value of human dignity, especially in the face of attacks on human rights and welfare in oppressive regimes of the Cold War era.

In discussing the environment, John Paul II turns to Scripture, recalling how God called the creation of the natural world “good” (Genesis 1), yet how St. Paul speaks of nature after the original sin of Adam and Eve as “groaning in travail” (Romans 8:22) while it “waits with eager longing for the revelation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19) (Redemptor Hominis 8).

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Accordingly, when facing problems such as pollution and environmental degradation, it is appropriate to call on Jesus as redeemer and seek his grace in transforming hearts and restoring fruitfulness.

As the Pope further explains:

Exploitation of the earth… and the uncontrolled development of technology… often bring with them a threat to man’s natural environment, alienate him in his relations with nature and remove him from nature. Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the Creator’s will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble “master” and “guardian”, and not as a heedless “exploiter” and “destroyer” (Redemptor Hominis 15).

Here, John Paul II corrects the mistaken view that people have an unbridled license to exploit nature, instead portraying humans as caring guardians. He also lays out the stakes of the environmental crisis: it is not just that people are inflicting grave damage on the environment and its support for future generations, but also that society faces a dehumanizing alienation from nature – no longer thriving in a reciprocal and immersive world of other species but cut off from nature and frustrated in efforts to aggressively control and consume it. A restoration of proper attitudes toward nature is thus a goal of the new pope.

Pope John Paul II and care for God’s creation: symbols and statements

The year 1979 also marked a milestone in Catholic sensibility toward nature with John Paul II’s designation of St. Francis of Assisi as patron saint of those who promote ecology. The declaration linked a well-known and beloved saint to care for the environment while recognizing the work of ecologists and environmentalists as a calling to be affirmed in the Church.

The pope commended St. Francis as exemplary “among the holy and admirable men who have revered nature as a wonderful gift of God” and noted the saint’s “Canticle of the Creatures,” which praises God by reflecting on the goodness of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and the rest of nature.

St. Francis of Assisi would go on to serve as the namesake of Pope Francis, with the Italian opening words of St. Francis’ canticle (“Praise be to you, Lord”) serving as the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’.

John Paul II was known for his global travel as pope, and these journeys helped him bring attention to the many nations and ecosystems where the Church is present.

From the Amazon rainforest (1980) to the Canadian subarctic (1987) to the vibrant cities of all inhabited continents, the pope highlighted the diversity of environments in which people live and seek a sustainable future.

John Paul II also met animals on his travels, leading to an iconic 1986 photo of the pontiff holding a koala during a visit to Australia.

The World Day of Peace is marked by the Catholic Church each January 1, and in 1990, John Paul II chose as its theme “peace with God the Creator, peace with all of creation.”

In a message for the occasion, the pope decried “the increasing devastation of the world of nature” as an assault on human life and a willful disregard for the integrity of natural systems.

As a response, he called for “a more internationally coordinated approach to the management of the Earth’s goods,” including increased solidarity and cooperation among countries and a special duty of the privileged to live simply, reduce poverty, and assist those most vulnerable to environmental harm.

A New Era

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1992 was a landmark moment in John Paul II’s papacy. The pope had been active in efforts to promote religious freedom and democratic organizing in Poland and other countries – initiatives that proved successful and led the way to a new historical era.

Correspondingly, the growing role of world trade and global capitalism came to the fore of the world’s attention. On the cusp of these transitions, John Paul II issued a major encyclical on social justice and economics in 1991.

Entitled Centesimus Annus (“the Hundredth Year”), the encyclical marked the 100th anniversary of the tradition of modern Catholic Social Teaching inaugurated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. In the encyclical, John Paul II outlined ethical values and safeguards needed for economic systems to serve the common good, as well as further teaching on environmental issues.

In the encyclical, Pope John Paul II reflects on the growth of consumerism and the peril of market goods that favor instinctual desires over the spiritual and relational aspects of human nature.

“In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the Earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way” (Centesimus Annus 37). This trend violates human nature and the stability of natural systems. 

“Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the Earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose… Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature” (Centesimus Annus 37).

John Paul II goes on to speak about natural ecology, human ecology, and social ecology, stressing that both natural and human systems have certain patterns of proper functioning that should be nurtured and respected (Centesimus Annus 38).

Here, we see an early version of the concept of integral ecology, which would be further developed by Pope Benedict XVI and serve as a unifying theme of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’

Rather than portraying nature as a neutral background for human enterprise, John Paul II affirms an inherent order in nature which people can come to know and uphold. Human beings have a special role to play and are set off from the rest of nature by their rational and spiritual powers.

Yet humans are also constrained by the environment, not just by the finite set of resources it contains (as a purely economic outlook would maintain). Rather, humans are constrained by a divine order present in nature which indicates certain forms of life, community, and economy as fulfilling for human beings and suitable to the long-term sustainability of the environment.

Corresponding to this paradigm, John Paul II affirms a set of duties binding on political and economic leaders. “It is the task of the State,” he argues, “to provide for the defense and preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces” (Centesimus Annus 40).

The principle of subsidiarity favors local solutions when feasible (Centesimus Annus 48), yet many challenges concerning the environment and global development are worldwide in scope, indicating the need for international collaboration (Centesimus Annus 52).

Engaging the world

In keeping with the call for international engagement, the Vatican participated in the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, which played a key role in launching UN efforts to address climate change.

Likewise, high-ranking Vatican representatives took part in subsequent United Nations conferences on climate change, environmental protection, and sustainable development.

The release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992 helped spread the word about Church teaching on the environment. Widely used in Catholic faith formation and often cited as an authoritative summary of Catholic belief, the volume taught about the Church’s response to emerging environmental challenges.

Echoing earlier writings of John Paul II, the Catechism states that “man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute” (CCC 2415) and that people must “respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment” (CCC 339).

The 1990s and early 2000s also witnessed a growth of popular environmental awareness within the Church. Parishes, schools, bishops’ conferences, lay associations, and religious orders each took steps to educate Catholics about environmental problems and propose solutions rooted in local conditions and the framework of Catholic Social Teaching.

Many Catholic organizations and parishes, following Pope Francis’ lead in Laudato Si’, care for God’s creation by helping all people undergo their ecological conversion, in which people experience a transformation of hearts and minds toward greater love of God, each other, and creation. 

Few, however, likely realize that Pope Francis was not the first Church leader to mention the need for an “ecological conversion.” That was Pope John Paul II, on January 17, 2001.

“We must therefore encourage and support the ‘ecological conversion’ which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading,” he said.

In summary, John Paul II’s vision of caring for God’s creation represents a distinctive contribution to the thought of his era.

He shows that a person of religious faith can engage actively in reflection on environmental issues, and that upholding the distinctive value of human persons does not mean neglect for nature, but instead protection of it, according to the value and integrity of its own processes.

The challenge is putting these ideals into practice amid the many countervailing forces of contemporary society – a challenge that continues today.

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