It would be too much to say that I am enjoying my fourteenth August in Washington, DC. It would be better to say that I, born and raised in Vermont, am barely withstanding the heat and the humidity which the afternoon thunderstorms seem only to increase. The August Congressional Recess is a common sense practice for dealing with the DC summer: just go someplace cooler. Instead, here I am in the city, trying to stay cool in the dog days of summer.
The dog days were a traditional name given to the hot days of summer when the star Sirius, part of the dog of the great hunter Orion, first started to climb above the horizon at dawn. I also think of them as the time when my dog back in Vermont would search out the coolest place in the house, often under a bed, to sleep all day. However, escaping the heat may become harder. We had one of the hottest Julys on record globally this year with temperatures in Iraq and Kuwait hitting 129°F (actual temperature) and the fourth hottest July in DC history. Besides record temperatures, this summer also witnessed massive flooding in Louisiana, and the Alaskan village of Shishmaref voted to move itself to higher ground in order to avoid being washed into the ocean.
Concern for the environment has been an explicit part of the Church’s social doctrine for nearly fifty years. In the early 1970s, Pope Paul VI articulated three fundamental principles for a Catholic understanding and treatment of ecology and the environment. First, study of the environment is framed in light of creation as understood scripturally, encompassing both the natural environment and humans. Secondly, humans have a unique role in creation. Third, there is a moral aspect of ecology. Because human actions impact the environment, there is an obligation to address ecological problems. The popes following Paul VI have built on this foundation, providing a rich theological understanding of the environment and ecological issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ is the culmination, to date, of the development of this important aspect of Catholic social doctrine.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Catholic teaching on the environment is the reminder that we are all in this together. Pope Paul VI recognized this unity when he said that humans can only address environmental problems by working together. To encourage such global action, Pope Francis describes the human relationship to the environment using the term care in place of the terms dominion or stewardship, which were preferred by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Stewardship can imply a formal relationship and obligation, whereas care implies love. Care is something that everyone can give and already does give. Mothers and fathers care for their children, society cares for the sick and the elderly, and families even care for their pets and livestock. Care broadens our understanding of stewardship.
Pope Francis reminds us that while everything is connected—the environment, economics, political economy, social justice, etc.—the environment is not the center. God is the center and the unity. Therefore, the Catholic response reminds us that only by respecting the environment as creation can we properly diagnose the problems and evaluate answers, determining which will really work and how best to proceed in charity. Environmental changes and challenges impact everyone, and those individuals already on the margins are most vulnerable to the severe storms, climate change, and temperature extremes. While hiding under the bed, or wherever the coolest place in the house is, provides short-term personal relief, true care for the environment must be care for our neighbors.