3.4.2 Pope John Paul II

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Unit 3 Contents




John Paul was Pope from 1978 and he began to address the subject of ecological responsibility in his very first Encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. The next reading is two sections from this, entitled ‘What modern man is afraid of’ and ‘Progress or threat’.

As is very typical of John Paul’s encyclicals, these sections are not easy reading.  This is largely because they raise and begin to explore questions that are profound and not easy to think about.  For example, in #15 he asks: “Why is it that the power given to man from the beginning by which he was to subdue the earth (Cf. Gen. 1:28) turns against himself, producing an understandable state of disquiet, of conscious or unconscious fear and of menace…?”


Reading (4pp)

Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (1979), ##15-16 (the link takes you to #15; to go to #16, click on ‘Next’)


The link is to the text of Redemptor Hominis at Intratext Digital Library (not at www.vatican.va).  Tips to ease reading:

1. Click on: ‘Click here to hide the links to concordance‘.

2. Magnify the text to, say, 200% – it will adjust to fit the screen.

If you wish to look at the context in which these two sections come before you read them, scan the contents page.


In these sections of Redemptor Hominis, John Paul repeatedly contrasts a way of seeing and using technology which makes it rule over human beings, which he strongly rejects, with a proper employment of technology to serve the end of true human living.  This contrast, which is addressed at many other points both in his writing and in that of other Popes, is pointing to the difference we have already brought out between the modern mechanistic worldview, in which humans are seen as part of the mechanism, and CST’s vision of human persons as made in the image of God and having a dignity or worth that is greater than technical processes or material products can ever have.

After these sections in Redemptor Hominis, most of Pope John Paul’s statements to do with ecological responsibility did not come in his Encyclicals but in other addresses and messages.  However there are short but important exceptions to this in Solicitudo Rei Socialis of 1987 and Centesimus Annus, which marked the centenary of Rerum Novarum in 1991.

Solicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS) is primarily about international development and one of its very striking features is the way that it sees ecological responsibility as fundamentally important for ‘authentic human development’.  This phrase is the heading of a central chapter in the encyclical that argues for that view.  The topic of international development can be studied in Module B (Unit 6), and you will be asked to look at this part of SRS there.  For this reason, we don’t spend time on it here.  But just before the end of this unit you will be asked to read a very good article by Celia Deane-Drummond which includes an illuminating discussion of it.

In Centesimus Annus, the direct reference to “the ecological question” is limited to one short section (#37), but this comes in the context of a longer passage which, as a whole, presents a very powerful argument about a range of related topics.  These include the use of material goods, business, consumerism, and “human ecology”.  This term, human ecology, is one that John Paul used to address the kind of social environment which people need to live well.  Given the central importance of Centesimus Annus in CST, an optional reading from it is set here, although Unit 8 will involve study of the whole of this encyclical (8.2).


Optional reading (5pp)

Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, ##36-39 

The link takes you to #30, the start of chapter IV, so scroll to #36.


Centesimus Annus was published the year after what is widely regarded as John Paul II’s most important statement directly on ecological issues.  This was his Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace. A quotation from this was given in section 1 of this unit and you have encountered others in other readings. You will recall that it was in the decade up to 1990 that awareness of global ecological problems grew very greatly (3.2.5).  So in 1990 the Pope was, in part, responding to a widely felt concern.

This document is probably the single most significant Vatican statement on ecological issues to date.

The next reading, which will take about 30 mins, is the whole statement.  You will recognize many themes which have come up already during this unit, for example the discussion of Genesis near the start.  Before you read, look at the Exercise immediately after it.


Reading (9pp)

Pope John Paul II, Message for the World Day of Peace, 1990:

Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation


This document is also known by a different title: ‘The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility’.




Doing this exercise is a way for you to look closely at, and thereby take in and digest, some of the main points in that document.  It focuses on ##6-14.

Near the end of the section headed, ‘The ecological crisis: a moral problem’ (##6-7), the text says:

Respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress. (#7, italics in original)

Just after this, Pope John Paul says that there are “certain underlying principles” that must guide us towards “adequate and lasting solutions” to the ecological crisis.

  • We can see the first of these principles as exactly the ‘respect for human dignity’ he has just referred to.  What two other main principles does he refer to in #8?
  • What are the major practical implications of these principles that he distinguishes in ##9-14?  I think there are seven.

To get the most out of this exercise, spend at least 10-15 mins making notes in order to answer these two questions.

Then look at the Response.






There is now an optional reading that is one among several later statements by John Paul II, in this case made jointly with the leader of the worldwide Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew, in 2002.Under the leadership of Patriarch Bartholomew since 1991, the Greek Orthodox Church has given great emphasis to addressing ecological issues.  He has been dubbed the ‘green Patriarch’.  You might like to spend a few minutes looking around www.patriarchate.org – see especially the tab headed ‘Orthodoxy and the Environment’.


Optional reading (3pp)

Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople:

Declaration on the Environment


The link takes you to the document at www.patriarchate.org. It is accessible also at conservation.catholic.org/declaration.htm.




End of 3.4.2

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