These questions were submitted by audience members during the September 9, 2015 “Natural and Human Ecology” event. The answers to these questions were compiled by MCC staff as a resource for those looking to learn and think more about the issues raised in Laudato Si’. They are not policy statements of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota.
Catholic Social Doctrine
Is this encyclical simply the personal opinion of Pope Francis?
No. It is part of the ordinary Magisterium of the pope and is a teaching document meant to guide Catholics and all people of goodwill concerning the new and ongoing challenges in caring for God’s creation.
The Catholic Church has consistently taught the inherent goodness of creation and humanity’s responsibility in caring for it throughout its more than 2000 years of existence. Laudato Si’ is an effort to bring together the many sources of the Church’s teaching on care for creation and to apply them to the social and environmental challenges of our contemporary world.
In fact, the title of the encyclical itself is drawn from tradition, as “Laudato Si’”—or, “Praised be to you”—is the opening line of St. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful “Canticle of the Sun.” Pope Francis also goes to great lengths to show this encyclical’s continuity with his papal predecessors, the fathers and doctors of the Church, and Holy Scripture. This document is thoroughly Catholic, and demonstrates that care for creation is a core responsibility of Catholic morality.
Catholic social teaching places an emphasis on subsidiarity. How can we respect this tradition of subsidiarity when dealing with issues that are global in scale, like protecting the environment?
Subsidiarity—the principle that social matters should be handled at the level of society most affected by a particular challenge and, therefore, best able to respond—is an essential component of Catholic social teaching. However, as you point out, sometimes the nature of a challenge is so complex that it requires another social actor to adequately address it (see pg. 188 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church). Some environmental challenges fit into this category, because they cross political boundaries and have consequences for everyone, especially the poor and the vulnerable. Empowering international bodies to appropriately address problems with an international character is consistent with subsidiarity and the Catholic call for solidarity.
And if international organizations are taking care of the portion of the problem that they are uniquely and distinctively capable of handling, it actually frees up individuals and communities to better carry out responsibilities at the local level. For instance, Catholic Relief Services’ Farmer-to-Farmer program allows American farmers to share methods and insights with their counterparts in East Africa, thereby empowering farmers in this region and allowing them to take greater responsibility for local agriculture. In this way, subsidiarity and solidarity are not mutually exclusive, but actually reinforce each other.
In paragraph 175 of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes that there is an “urgent need for a true world political authority.” What do you think the pope is getting at with this statement?
In this passage, Pope Francis is citing Caritas in Veritate (paragraph 50), the 2009 encyclical from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In the full context of the quote, Pope Benedict lays out a number of issues that go beyond national borders, such as the global economy, nuclear disarmament, food security, immigration, and protection of the environment.
Pope Benedict says that with regard to these issues, which are international in nature and cannot sufficiently be resolved solely with national policy, it is necessary to establish and support international institutions capable of working towards solutions that advance the common good. (See the previous question on the relationship between subsidiarity and solidarity).
Catholic Social Teaching is not ideological—that is, it does not begin with an abstract political theory and then attempt to mold real-life society accordingly. Rather, the Church begins with an understanding of the human person as a social being that requires certain conditions to flourish—an anthropology rooted in human experience, Revelation, and the natural law written on every human heart. The Church supports political institutions and policies that help bring about these conditions for flourishing, what we call the common good. So, in some cases, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching may be applied in ways that mean an increase in national, and even international, governance. That is not because the Church is “for” Big Government. Rather, it’s simply because the Church makes a prudential judgment that these mechanisms and institutions, in a particular situation and only to a certain extent, are the best way to achieve a desired result—a result that advances the common good and best protects the dignity of all.
I met a man who warned that those talking about climate change were actually the devil in disguise, trying to distract us from the real work of saving souls by causing people to focus too much on worldly goods. How prevalent is this idea?
This idea seems to be based on the misconception that our moral actions here on earth have no connection to the ultimate status of our souls. Though politics may not be one of the four last things, our contribution to the community and the common good may affect our experience of death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Catholics believe that moral behavior is related to salvation. In fact, in Matthew 25:31-46, Christ teaches us that we will be judged based on how well we care for those around us. Additionally, the Parable of the Talents, also from Matthew 25, underscores the importance of using well the gifts God gives us.
So, salvation and moral action are clearly linked, and morality and care for creation are linked. Creation is a gift from God, and mistreating it not only damages our relationship with the Lord, but also represents a failure to care for those around us, as environmental degradation has consequences for the poor and vulnerable especially.
Disconnected from the Gospel and the truths of the faith, some environmentalist agendas cause harm by ignoring the fact that environmental protection and the dignity of the human person are connected. Still, we should not allow the existence of misguided and impoverished environmental movements to scare us into thinking that care for creation is somehow inconsistent with being a good Christian. In reality, the opposite is true.
While some young people may be lacking a connection to nature, many “millennials” are finding God through nature and staying away from organized religion. What are some practical ways to include young people who are spiritual and environmentally connected in our efforts?
The Catholic faith has an incredibly compelling message about God’s providential care for creation and our great vocation of stewardship of that gift. It’s a message that affirms the goodness of our environment and our natural resources, and the necessity of being good stewards of them. What’s more, it isn’t a message grounded in vague secular platitudes or utilitarian formulas. Instead, it’s rooted in our understanding of an infinitely loving God who created each of us and desires our happiness.
It is this vision that guided Pope Francis when he spoke of an “integral ecology” in Laudato Si’, an understanding of ecology that emphasizes the interconnectedness and natural ordering of humanity, creation, and God. This is an extremely compelling message to all people, millennials included. As Catholics, it is our great call to share this Good News through our words and actions.
There is no way our planet can sustainably support 9 billion people. How can we be good stewards of the Earth while being prohibited from using contraception?
When we talk about stewardship, it is important to underscore that we care for creation not only because it is a good in itself, but also because its integrity is closely linked to human well-being.
The human person is God’s most cherished creation, and we need to remember that everything we do, whether related to environmental policy or sexual ethics, needs to be oriented toward human flourishing. In other words, an approach to stewardship that violates human dignity is not stewardship at all. Pope Francis made this point clearly in Laudato Si’ when he said that one could not authentically support eco-justice while also supporting abortion.
Furthermore, the facts don’t even support the argument that abortion and contraception are necessary for a sustainable future. In fact, a recent report from the United Nations population division showed that growth in abortion rates and use of contraception will have little impact on carbon emissions. The head of the division, John Wilmoth, even chided population control-advocates, saying that there is “relatively little uncertainty” about population projections over the coming century. Instead, the report recommended changes in production and consumption.
The solution to environmental challenges isn’t to double-down on our abuse of creation and the natural order by pushing contraception; instead, we must discard the mentality that sees created things—such as our bodies and natural resources—as just “stuff” that we can use and manipulate however we want.
What about the tension between environmental groups and the openness to life? It seems many groups focus on population control as an environmental goal.
You’re right, this is a very real and sad tension. Care for creation and openness to life are not only perfectly consistent with each other, they are actually derived from the same commitment to respect God’s design and to ensure the human dignity of all. Environmental groups that support things like abortion, sterilization, and artificial contraception as a way to protect the planet are wrong, and we must oppose their efforts to incorporate anti-life measures into environmental policy.
Still, the fact of their error in judgment does not mean that we should not to talk to these activists, or that we should not work with them when our goals converge. As Catholics, we must have the conviction that what we believe is true and is worth sharing with others. This is our evangelical call, and is part of the “theology of encounter” that Pope Francis emphasizes. Instead of worrying that entering into dialogue with the secular ecological movement will change the Church, we should have confidence that by entering into these discussions as Catholics, we will change the conversation for the better.
Climate and Ecology
What if man-made climate change isn’t as dramatic as portrayed? Does any of this matter?
Yes. Laudato Si’ is about far more than just climate change. Fundamentally, it’s about restoring a right relationship with God’s creation. The encyclical powerfully reminds us where creation comes from and why we have an obligation to respect and care for it, instead of exploiting and abusing it. This is a timeless theological truth that is greater than any one contemporary issue.
At the same time, Catholic Social Teaching is inert if it is not applied to the challenges of the day. The vast majority of qualified scientists maintain that a changing climate is an especially serious concern facing us today. So, without taking a position on the actual scientific judgment, the encyclical appropriately applies the precautionary principle and puts Church teaching at the service of addressing this contemporary challenge—as well as to many other ones, such as deforestation, air pollution, and unsustainable agricultural practices.
Some link CO2 from coal power plants to conditions like asthma, but there is no actual connection. How is reducing CO2 supposed to help people with respiratory problems?
Carbon dioxide might not directly cause asthma, but it has been linked to causing conditions that cause asthma, such as an increase in allergens and pollutants in the air. The soot associated with coal-burning also weakens the capacity of the lungs to deal with allergens, increasing the likelihood of a reaction for someone who already struggles with asthma. So no, coal power plants don’t necessarily cause asthma, but they also are not good for human health.
Can you tell us more about the damage we are doing to the Earth through such things as excessive drilling and fracking?
Fracking is a highly contentious practice that, on the one hand, has obvious economic advantages, but, on the other hand, has been linked to negative impacts on the natural environment.
An equally grave concern is the impact of fracking on local people. In addition to potentially contaminating water resources, the expansion of fracking has typically come with rapid and unsustainable developments in rural areas that negatively impact communities, as land ownership becomes concentrated in the hands of a few and local infrastructure is typically ill-suited to handle the influx of industry.
The Church doesn’t teach that fracking is always wrong, but we do need to prudently apply sound moral principles to our energy policy, ensuring that we are not prioritizing private interests over the well-being of entire communities.
If we want to imitate the action of the Holy See in moving to a net-zero carbon operation, are there networks or resources that can offer practical, “how to” solutions?
Absolutely. Our faith is meant to be lived, so having access to helpful resources that allow us to put Catholic teaching on care for creation into action is essential. The Minnesota Catholic Conference has a number of resources on our dedicated Laudato Si’ webpage that give you tips on everything from being sustainable around the house to incorporating care for creation into homilies. Additionally, we recommend becoming a part of the Catholic Climate Covenant, a USCCB-supported organization that has a whole bevy of ways to incorporate Laudato Si’ into your life, including sustainability toolkits and prayers for creation.
Industrial wind divides rural communities and rural families, destroys human health and nearby homes, and slaughters millions of birds and bats. Will the Church speak out for rural industrial wind victims?
You raise some very legitimate concerns. Although the Church supports exploring alternatives to fossil fuels, this support itself originates on the basis that these energy forms ultimately better serve the common good. If in a particular case the implementation of these technologies undermines human dignity or harms the common good, it is self-contradicting and cannot be supported.
It is also important to note that the Church is not a think tank and does not draft policies. Rather, the Church engages social issues primarily by proposing principles that safeguard human dignity and promote the conditions necessary for human flourishing. These principles, in turn, empower us, the lay faithful, to enter conversations and shape policy in a way that is consistent with our faith and is ultimately best for everyone’s well-being. We encourage you to continue your efforts of engaging local policy makers on this issue as faithful Catholic citizens.
Politics and Public Policy
What are some of the factors that make Americans less receptive to Laudato Si’ and how might these factors be addressed?
A false understanding of individual rights is part of the problem. While the Catholic faith clearly affirms the existence and importance of human rights, libertarian strains on both the left and the right of the American political spectrum make it easy for us to ignore our obligations to our fellow citizens and the common good by citing individual “autonomy,” whether in the marketplace or in the family. The Catholic faith’s support of individual rights is not because of “autonomy,” or the idea that we have no fundamental connection or responsibilities to anyone else. Instead, Catholics support individual rights because they help create the space where human beings can use their God-given gifts and abilities to carry out their God-given responsibilities, including caring for others.
We can see how this false idolization of “autonomy” might make some Americans less receptive to Laudato Si’, a document that asserts we have obligations to the poor and marginalized, and that we might need to make individual sacrifices for the sake of others. Other factors include partisan brinkmanship that rears its head not only in government, but also in our media.
As a Catholic who votes, how can I resolve the dilemma that some of our best supporters of the environment are also the strongest supporters of abortion, while some of our best pro-life supporters are skeptical of the idea of economic justice?
You put your finger on a definite problem: if you’re going to apply the Church’s consistent ethic of life to policy issues, you’re going to find yourself politically homeless.
There do not seem to be many Catholic politicians who actually embrace the Catholic faith’s consistent ethic of life. Certainly, they might hold some views that line up with Catholic principles, and use Catholic Social Teaching to justify their position when this happens. But it’s rare to see people who are just as willing to apply the Church’s social teaching to their views on environmental policies as they are to their positions on abortion and marriage (and, of course, vice versa).
It is certainly the case that some moral issues are more central to our faith than others, of course, and this has been consistently taught by the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger reiterated this understanding in a 2004 document entitled “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion,” where he noted that “not all moral issues have the same moral weight.” Issues like abortion and euthanasia are practices that are “contrary to God’s law,” and as such, “Christians have a ‘grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil.’” Issues such as environmental concerns and economic policies, on the other hand, may permit of “a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics” about how to apply the Church’s teaching and how best to respond to these issues in particular situations.
This same understanding is found in encyclicals such as Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), and indeed, the USCCB’s “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” highlights the need to understand the weight and complexity of various issues, recognizing that not all issues are the same.
So what should a Catholic voter do? First of all, know the Church’s social teachings (our website is a good place to start). Secondly, understand that we, as Catholic citizens, not only have the ability but the obligation to engage in public life and support policies that respect life and advance the common good. A politically active and informed Catholic citizenry will go far in reshaping our public dialogue and conversation in a way that is consistent with the dignity of the human person.
What policies does the Church support to address and reduce climate change?
Beginning from the understanding that the aim of politics is to secure the conditions necessary for human flourishing, the Church’s social teaching aims to provide us with principles for evaluating public policy. On the issue of climate change, the key principles to guide our policy are care for creation, promotion of the common good, respect for the human person, and a priority for those who are poor and vulnerable.
From these principles, the U.S. bishops have supported a number of policies in recent years to reduce climate change, such as regulatory measures limiting carbon pollution. The bishops have emphasized that states should have flexibility in meeting these goals, and that attention and assistance should be given to those affected by employment transitions and increased utility costs. Consistent with Pope Francis’ call for global solidarity (see paragraph 172 of Laudato Si’), the bishops also support the international Green Climate Fund that will help developing nations shift towards low-emission and climate-resilient development.
Why is ecology/care for the environment a partisan idea (or so it seems)? If Christians cannot be indifferent to our environment, then how can this be partisan?
Caring for creation—and in turn protecting the poor and the vulnerable (the unborn included)—is a non-partisan issue. It only becomes partisan in the context of our sharply divided political system, which often pits “life” issues against “social justice” concerns. Such a dichotomy is inconsistent with the social teachings of the faith and our commitment to a consistent ethic of life. As Catholics and Christians, it is essential to put the well-being of the human person and the common good ahead of other competing values, such as the misplaced idolization of “autonomy.”
What is the best way for the U.S. bishops and Catholics to move the Republican Party to support policies curbing climate change instead of the interests of energy companies?
Private interests and wealthy corporations undoubtedly play an oversized role in the American political system. This reality is something Pope Francis acknowledged during his recent address to the U.S. Congress. He said that politics “cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.” Instead, it must be an expression “of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interest, its social life.”
In his address, the pope also lifted up elected officials, reminding them that the practice of politics is a noble vocation. In other remarks, he has noted that politics is one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. The power of special interests is real, and it can be tempting for our elected officials to serve the few instead of the many. Politicians need to be reminded that they have a higher calling. We can help them do this by getting involved at the local level and bringing the principles of Catholic social teaching into the discussion.
Governor Dayton has proposed increased use of grass and forestry strips to protect waterways. I perceive that farmers are resisting this proposal. Is that true, and if so, why?
The so-called “buffer strips” legislation was passed in 2015 as a way to protect our state’s water resources. It was opposed by some farmers and farming associations and supported by others. MCC supported this legislation. Refer to MCC legislative principles and the corresponding Catholic teachings under the Care for Creation section of the 2015-16 Legislative Principles for details.
What is your response to the critique that strict Environmental Protection Agency regulations will increase energy costs, which will be hardest to bear by the poor? And can the Church help those of means absorb these costs so the burden does not fall on those living in poverty?
Transitioning from an economy completely dependent upon fossil fuels will not be easy. And in paragraph 170 of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis warned about shifting costs to the poor in the name of “environmental protection.” While such a transition is best for the common good now and in the future, by both protecting creation and creating significant economic gains because of increased energy efficiency, we need to implement it in a prudent manner, with special concern for the poor and marginalized.
Some places have done this quite well. For instance, California law requires that a set portion of the revenue generated from carbon taxes is reinvested into programs for low-income people in order to offset increased energy costs. And Pope Francis did not shy away from suggesting that more developed countries should help bear some of the costs of a global shift to more sustainable sources of energy. Solutions like these would need to be implemented by lawmakers to ensure that the transition towards a sustainable future does not bring about hardships for the poor and vulnerable of today.
How about putting a price on carbon pollution and returning the collected fees to American households?
Although carbon credit policies are appealing in many ways, Pope Francis raised some concerns about them in paragraph 171 of Laudato Si’. He noted that these policies could lead to “a new form of speculation” that wouldn’t actually do much to reduce overall carbon emissions. In other words, in his judgment, this approach doesn’t go far enough in changing the way we think of our relationship with creation, and instead could be used as “a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”
The movement against climate change has resulted in unfair government advantage for alternative energy companies, who receive subsidies and other special treatment from politicians. What is your opinion of this?
The Catholic Church has long supported private enterprise and the economic freedom necessary for generating wealth and promoting innovation, but only insofar as they promote human flourishing and advance the common good. (CDSC: 283). The Church also recognizes the government’s “right to intervene when particular monopolies create delays or obstacles to development” (CDSC: 351).
We should not be rigid ideologues who oppose any sort of government intervention into the economy. Instead, when evaluating economic policies, we always need to ask ourselves, how does this affect the common good? Does it help bring about conditions where human beings can flourish?
Through the application of Catholic Social Teaching to contemporary environmental issues, we believe that supporting and promoting alternative forms of energy is a prudent course of action. We can achieve this in many ways. If subsidies prove to be an effective method, we should not oppose them solely based on ideology, but should consider them from the vantage point of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.
The U.S. is trying to force coal plants to shut down and be replaced by wind and solar. But wind and solar are unreliable. What policy is the Catholic Church supporting that could work? Wind and solar cannot.
The Catholic Church has not advocated for “shutting down” non-renewable energy sources, like oil and coal. Nor is that the goal of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Power Plan,” which is supported by the U.S. bishops.
Instead, our faith teaches that non-renewable energy must be “put at the service of all humanity” (CSDC: 470), as should all of our economic actions. Because of concerns surrounding non-renewable energy’s impact on the environment, as well as concerns about its long-term sustainability, we ought to explore and encourage the development and implementation of alternative energy sources. This conclusion isn’t the product of some green agenda, but is instead advocated for out of a respect and love for all of God’s creation, and in solidarity with the poor and marginalized and with future generations.
No one is saying that wind and solar energy will necessarily meet all of our energy needs, and that the use of oil and gas should be outlawed. But it is clear that the status quo cannot go on without serious consequences to our environment. In addition to developing clean-energy resources, our bishops also urge us to change our energy consumption habits so that our need for energy is not as great in the future.
Africa cooks primarily with dung and wood, which have far greater negative health effects than well-regulated, well-filtered coal plants. Doesn’t this point to the need for reliable, affordable power?
It certainly points to the need “to eliminate extreme poverty and promote social development” in poorer countries, a reality that Pope Francis recognizes in paragraph 172 of Laudato Si’. It also may require, as the pope suggests, the “help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet” to support developing nations, so they don’t develop a dependency on fossil fuel consumption like we did during our own period of development. Pope Benedict XVI supported this approach in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, when he called upon more developed nations to support poorer ones as an act of solidarity.
The economy can change when we understand externalities, not just market prices. Is the Church taking a leadership role in informing people about total costs, including externalities?
Yes. The Church teaches that economic issues are fundamentally moral issues, because they are intimately linked to the well-being of the human person, the focal point of Catholic morality. The Church’s social encyclicals, especially since Rerum Novarum, have been important contributions to the way we think about economics and its relationship to the human person and the wider society.
These teachings are especially relevant today, when measures such as “growth” and profit margins drive much of our economic conversations. The Church teaches that our economic policy should not be guided by the impulse to accumulate more wealth and increase the GDP, but instead should be animated by a desire to advance the common good and protect the dignity of all people. If this involves increasing the GDP through morally licit means, then good. But we should never put economic statistics at the expense of integral human development.
The biggest challenge doesn’t seem to be bad policy, but an economic system that incentivizes greed and over-consumption. Can we really achieve a sustainable future without completely reordering our economic priorities?
You’re tapping into the “culture of waste” and consumerism that Pope Francis has decried, and rightfully so. Meaningful and necessary changes seem like they will be difficult to achieve if we do not fundamentally change our perspectives and values. Obviously, laws and policies can only do so much.
But they can do something. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that the effect of law is to make men good. That is to say, public policy has the legitimate role of promoting virtuous living. Aquinas quotes Aristotle, who said that “lawmakers make men good by habituating them to good works.” Reinforcing good behavior can eventually lead to an understanding of why that behavior is good. Therefore, while we definitely need to promote a reordering of economic priorities through cultural and social means, we can also help encourage this reprioritization by working to pass laws and policies that measure economic success by how they help the poor and promote the genuine well-being of all persons and communities.
How can the lack of sufficient and willing laborers in agriculture and industry be improved with immigration reform in the U.S.?
Immigrants have played an important role America’s economy throughout our nation’s history, especially in agriculture. But we need to keep in mind that immigrants are human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, and should not be thought of as puzzle pieces for solving an economic problem. In other words, immigrants, as persons, are not means to an end, but ends in themselves. Utilitarian thinking has created conditions in which immigrant farm workers are chronically underpaid and often endure long days in extreme temperatures, as well as frequent exposure to harmful chemicals.
Laudato Si’ emphasizes that integral ecology calls for the integrity of not only our natural environment, but also the integrity of the human person. No matter how secure our economy is or how well-run our farms are, we will be missing the mark if we are not protecting and valuing the dignity of those who farm our land.
Food and Farming
Most farmers will insist that their type of farming is sustainable. What is the definition of sustainable as referred to in Laudato Si’?
“Sustainable” simply means doing things in a way that can be continued in successive generations. So when we talk about sustainable farming, we’re talking about an approach to agriculture that works with natural resources, like top-soil, fresh water, and even honey bees, instead of an approach that exploits them, compromising their long-term integrity for the sake of short-term gains.
Why does sustainability matter? As Catholics, we value the social principle of solidarity, recognizing our responsibilities to all people by virtue of our shared and God-given human dignity. This doesn’t just apply to people who live in different countries than we do—it also applies to people who will live in different times than we do. This is called intergenerational solidarity, and it calls upon us to use the earth’s resources in a way that doesn’t put future generations in a difficult bind.
How can those of us without scientific/agricultural backgrounds evaluate conflicting claims about the feasibility of organic farming feeding the world’s growing population?
There are many different perspectives out there on this issue and other issues related to agriculture and the environment. It’s fair to wonder if a desire to advance the common good is genuinely motivating each of these different “solutions.”
While it’s certainly difficult for non-experts to determine who’s “right” on a question that’s so specialized, what we can do is know our Church’s teachings. For instance, on the issue of organic farming and feeding the world’s population, we know that authentic stewardship can never come at the expense of authentic solidarity, as both are concerned with faithfully using God’s gifts and fulfilling our responsibilities.
With a solid foundation of Catholic Social Teaching, we can continue to emphasize our desire for agricultural practices that are capable of feeding the world now, but also work with our natural resources in a way that is sustainable for future generations. Even in the past few decades, we’ve seen encouraging shifts in agriculture because normal citizens began to call for new approaches to food—and backed it up with their purchases.
So while we might not be able to participate in the debate at the same level that an expert could, we can still shape the conversation by emphasizing our values.
Are community sustained agriculture (CSA) farms becoming part of the solution of agriculture vs. agribusiness?
CSAs are certainly part of the American public’s push for more local and sustainably produced food, and they’re certainly a big deal here in Minnesota. CSAs are great not only because they deliver healthier alternatives, but also because they establish relationships between farmers and food-eaters. Knowing where our food comes from—and that peoples’ livelihoods are tied up in it—is important in building public support for farm policies and practices that advance the common good. When thinking about these types of policies, we have a special consideration for the well-being of small-scale family farmers, a proven model of agriculture consistent with the Church’s teachings on stewardship, the nobility of work, and the right to a livable wage.
Another alternative to agribusiness that MCC has supported is the expansion of “cottage farming,” or small agricultural operations that are typically run right out of an individual’s home and garden. Minnesota previously had some of the most restrictive cottage food laws in the country, but it passed a bill in 2015 that relaxed these regulations. Our commitment to family and sustainable farming is rooted in Church teaching (see 339 and 486 in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church) and is consistent with the good of society and the dignity of individual farms and their families.
How can we help farmers get away from the use of strong chemicals and toward a more sustainable way of treating the soil? How can we return to small farm practices that include biodiversity?
We need to rediscover a vocational understanding of agriculture, one that recognizes that farming isn’t just a way to make a living, but is instead a noble way of life. By emphasizing the farmer’s invaluable contribution to the common good and his role in the broader community, we can help emphasize concerns beyond short-term economic gain, such as care for creation and the dignity of farm workers.
Public policy also plays a role. Right now, there are enormous incentives and subsidies for practicing a mono-cultural, industrialized agriculture, also known as Big Ag. This political support not only makes it enticing to farm this way, it also creates a market which is too often stacked against agriculturalists who want to stay small or use more natural methods of farming. To counter this dynamic, we should reform Ag subsidies and do more to incentivize those who want to grow in their understanding and practice of agriculture as a vocation. This is consistent with the Compendium’s call “to break with the logic of mere consumption and promote forms of agricultural and industrial production that respect the order of creation and satisfy the basic human needs of all.” (486)
In Laudato Si’, paragraphs 133-134 refer to genetic modification that may occur over time in nature. Today, GMO refers to injecting genes from a totally unrelated species into another species. Does this occur in nature?
In nature, plants or animals of different species certainly breed across species lines to produce new types of organisms, and humans for centuries have even selectively bred certain hybrid species that were unlikely to originate naturally. But some GMOs (though not all) involve forcing select genes of one species into a completely unrelated species—like injecting goats with spider genes to produce milk with stronger proteins for industrial use. There have also been many unintended consequences related to GMO usage.
These sorts of GMOs represent new and uncharted ventures not only into biology, but also into the areas of business and the economy. It also enables unhealthy habits of overconsumption. So we should certainly monitor their development and usage carefully. But the Church has been careful not to choose sides in this unfolding debate. Instead, we emphasize the need to make scientific research and development subservient to human life and the common good, not the other way around.
Our use of GMO foods poses significant health issues, because of the low-nutrient content. Is it possible to decrease our use of GMOs? If so, how long will that take?
GMOs certainly generate a lot of concern, but as Pope Francis indicated in Laudato Si’ paragraph 134, the jury is still “out” regarding whether or not they’re necessarily bad for health. His greater concern was that GMOs and other advanced Ag technologies skew the market too much towards big, well-endowed entities at the expense of smaller farm operations.
GMO usage is typically supported because it allows us to produce food crops at higher yields, as we can modify plants to withstand certain diseases, produce larger fruits, and more. We don’t know one way or the other if we could continue to feed the world’s growing population without GMOs, but it is important to point out that in the U.S., 30-40% of the food supply is wasted. Addressing this deficiency in our food system could go a long way toward decreasing our reliance on GMO technology.