Integral ecology addresses social environmental crisis

Catholic social teaching is not a set of policy prescriptions or an attempt to tell people how to vote. Rather, it is a mental framework through which we address challenging social problems in light of the Gospel.

Understanding and putting into practice Catholic social teaching (CST) is vital to addressing the challenges of creation stewardship without falling into environmental activism that today often mimics religious apocalypticism.

When people are putting a collection of plants in the middle of a room and confessing their ecological sins to them or declaring that they will have fewer or no children out of principle, something is going off the rails.

Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” speaks into this moment by integrating the need to care for both human persons and the environment through a re-presentation of CST he calls “integral ecology.”

Integral ecology is the framework we need to properly order the religious impulse (particularly among young people) in the environmental movement, while also respecting the dignity of the human person.

Religion in the guise of politics

The environmental debate once focused primarily on the need for oil companies and big business to curtail their waste and pollution. Now it has reached its logical conclusion: radical measures that seek to change the way people live their daily lives, and in particular their reproduction and consumption habits.

That change is based upon certain predictions about the world as we know it coming to an end in 12 years. To forestall this environmental catastrophe, we need to confess our ecological sins to mother earth, repent, and make all sorts of atonements. According to some, having babies, consuming meat and flying in planes all need to go.

We can write all of this off as crazy and ignore it, turn up the air conditioner and eat a big greasy burger. But what we really need to do instead is reframe the conversation and evangelize.

As it turns out, the environmentalists are often right; there are serious environmental crises that need to be addressed, including climate change, deforestation, the global competition for scarce natural resources, the lack of access to clean water and the pollution of the seas.

The question is, what principles and worldview are brought to bear on the problems? Will it be that which says “Save the planet — kill yourself,” and “Leave no trace,” or another that integrates the well-being of persons and care for our common home — “Leave the right trace”?

The promise of integral ecology

Entrepreneur Andreas Widmer, a professor at Catholic University of America, describes CST as a “mental model” for well-formed Catholics to bring to bear on the problems they encounter in the various societies in which they live.

Popes Francis and Benedict XVI have brought more clarity to this mental model by reframing it as “integral ecology.” The metaphor of an ecosystem highlights a) the importance of protecting life and promoting its flourishing as a foundational principle, and b) the connectedness and interdependence of persons with one another and the natural environment — our common home.

Every policy issue, from abortion to carbon emissions, is woven into the web of relationships or ecosystems in which we live. Pope Francis says in “Laudato Si’” that we “are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

We would all do well to consider the public square something of a “political ecosystem,” acknowledging that no one issue stands or falls on its own.

For example, one cannot look at abortion in isolation from questions related to family stability and economic security. Immigration must be viewed through the lens of keeping families together. Stopping assisted suicide requires that we ensure access to health care for the poor, disabled and those in rural areas. And we can’t fight water pollution without connecting it to the false dominion we seek to impose on our bodies when we use copious amounts of contraceptive hormones.

As Pope Francis says, “everything is connected.”

Integral ecology, then, is the mental construct, or decoder glasses, from which we can think through our problems — namely, what God has revealed to us about our identity and our relationships, and our discernment regarding his providential ordering of creation.

We cannot fail to see the evangelical opportunities inherent in our predicament, especially with young people who expect their faith communities to be leaders on creation stewardship. We can and must speak into this evangelical moment and inspire others to get engaged on these questions — for the sake of the Gospel.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

Deepen your understanding of integral ecology.

To learn more about how our human and natural environments are integrally connected, and how you can answer the call to care for all of creation, visit

There, you can download or place bulk orders of “Minnesota, Our Common Home,” a new educational resource produced by the Minnesota Catholic Conference. This document explores integral ecology and the key principles discussed in Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” and translates them into a local context.

Also, available soon, are small group study guides (and leader guides) for use in parishes, communities and other small group settings. This will allow you to examine, discuss and delve more deeply into the teachings of “Laudato Si’” and how to apply these principles to your life. You’ll also be able to order copies of an “Ecological Examen” to help you review your life in light of the ecological conversion to which “Laudato Si’” calls us.

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