That’s a comment you’ll hear in some secular, ecumenical, and (tragically) Catholic eco circles. It’s a complaint most often directed at Catholic hierarchy here in the states and at conservative Christians in general.
I’ve heard this comment, or some variant, from Catholics at a number of talks that I’ve given. My response is pretty standard: “Can we ever really talk too much about sixty million murdered children?”
The comment and its criticism of those on the front lines of saving children’s lives tell us something about the political divisions within the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church. In the spirit of seeking unity, this sentiment needs to be confronted and corrected.
The worry that ecological concerns take a back seat to defending human life is erroneous in two important ways.
First, it assumes that one cannot be concerned both about human life and the environment — that somehow the issues are at odds. The current Successor of Saint Peter and his predecessors disagree.
Benedict XVI put it best in his 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate”: “Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society.”
In his 2015 eco-encyclical “Laudato Si,’” Pope Francis made a similar statement: “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
In other words, Catholics are called to build up a culture of life by inserting the Church’s prophetic voice into issues of both human life and protecting creation.
This gets us to the second error made by those who wish for less talk about abortion and more about ecology. The link that Benedict XVI and Francis refers to is not merely a statement connecting particular moral issues. It follows logically from the fact that the natural environment is necessary to support human life. Clean air and water, healthy food, and an environment free of toxins are necessary for both the born and, often more so, the unborn.
The first hours and days of a human’s development require precise biological sequences that can easily be disrupted by environmental toxins. The same is true for young children and any adult with compromised health. Altering Earth’s atmospheric composition, which affects our climate, which intensifies how our planet distributes moisture and thermal energy, also impacts human lives. As do plastic pollutants in our waterways, the destruction of rainforests, and on the list goes.
As our pontiffs have reminded us, these issues are so intertwined that we cannot pick and choose which ones we will or will not engage.
What many Catholic eco-advocates may overlook about their brothers and sisters on the front lines against abortion is this: Environmental harms are rarely, if ever, the primary aim of a polluting activity. Abortion, however, is by its nature intended to end a human life. It should be no wonder, then, why a pro-life advocate may spend more of their energies on the matter of abortion, even if they should also rally for a safe, clean, and protected created order.
What we environmentalists must ultimately acknowledge is the point made by Pope Francis: Any society that considers it acceptable to kill the unborn can never find within it the means or the desire to adequately protect creation. If murdering humans is acceptable, then destroying every other living thing is that much easier to justify.
In the end, it does us no good to pit these issues against each other. The only victor when that happens is our ancient enemy, who seeks always to divide Christ’s disciples. Rather, we must heed the wisdom of our pontiffs and work for a culture of life in every sense of that term.
William Patenaude, M.A., KHS, serves on the diocesan pastoral council, is an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and is a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish, West Warwick.