Religion and the Environment: Natural bedfellows

Published June 1, 2000

I think the sentiment guiding [left-wing environmentalists] is that “nature knows best.” It is as though the only unnatural thing on the planet is man–or man’s mind. We just see this very differently. We think that man is the pinnacle of God’s creation and he is intended to be the steward of the Earth, the steward of creation.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.

During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today’s social problems. To address those concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.

As president of Acton, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published regularly in some of the country’s leading newspapers and magazines. He is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern.

Fr. Sirico is a member of the prestigious Mont Pèlerin Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Philadelphia Society, and serves on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute in Prague.

Fr. Sirico also serves on the Advisory Committee of the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES), a group dedicated to demonstrating widespread support for traditional principles of environmental stewardship. Fr. Sirico recently shared with Managing Editor Tom Randall his thoughts on the relationship between religion, government, and the environment.

Randall: There seems to be a growing controversy about the role of religion in government, particularly in the area of environmental policy. Can you comment on that?

Fr. Sirico: I prefer to pose the question slightly differently. I think it is not so much a question of religion in government, because there is a long history of tragedy with regard to when the church amalgamates with the state or attempts to use the state to accomplish its goals.

The thing that I am talking about is the importance of religion in society, which is different than religion in government. The frustrating thing, very often, is that the only time religious sentiments or ideas have been expressed in our society is through left-wing groups. We see this in the entire environmental movement. Many left-wing groups who are in the public square are motivated by religious sentiments–poorly formed religious sentiments, I think. They are certainly economically uninformed sentiments. But, nonetheless, they have a voice. We try to provide an alternative to that.

Randall: On environment issues, the left-wing voice seems to make every creature on Earth–except man–a top priority.

Fr. Sirico: I think the sentiment guiding them is that “nature knows best.” It is as though the only unnatural thing on the planet is man–or man’s mind. We just see this very differently. We think that man is the pinnacle of God’s creation and he is intended to be the steward of the Earth, the steward of creation.

This imposes on the human community great responsibility to know, to understand, and not to abuse His environment because that would be destructive.

Randall: But the left-wing environmentalists seem to consider the mere use of the environment to be abuse, no matter how carefully it is done.

Fr. Sirico: The problem with so many environmentalists is that they are operating under the socialist world-view. They think that resources are limited, rather than understanding that resources only become resources because human beings place value on things that exist in nature–then human beings use these things they find in nature in the service of humankind. Wealth doesn’t exist in nature. If it did, a country like Brazil would be very wealthy, whereas a country like Japan would be very poor. But the reverse of that is true because of the institutionalized protection of private property in Japan and, until recently, the abuse of private property which existed in Brazil.

Randall: I’m intrigued by how your comments parallel those of Dr. Walter Williams of George Mason University, though he approaches the matter from an economic point of view and you from a religious point of view.

Fr. Sirico: Truth doesn’t know any partisanship. If you come at the question in an attempt to be honest, then you are going to come to similar conclusions, even though there may be different priorities.

Randall: Can we discuss, for a moment, pantheism? It really isn’t a very new notion, is it?

Fr. Sirico: It’s a very old one. Pantheism, or various kinds of Earth worship, go back throughout history. However, I think that Western Civilization has made the most obvious contributions to human well-being in the history of the world. And, I think the reason for that is because of the Biblical basis that formed our anthropological understanding of the world.

This isn’t to say that other cultures are necessarily bad, but when it comes to conditions under which humans thrive and flourish, Western Civilization has done very well by the human race.

Randall: Basically through a foundation of virtue?

Fr. Sirico: Yes . . . and an understanding of creation, understanding of private property, the obligation of morality, expressed both in individual lives and in the social sphere and the primacy of the human family.

Randall: The environmentalists and those who support them seem to have lost sight of that primacy.

Fr. Sirico: Well, if you begin with a socialist premise, then the more people added to the pie means a smaller portion for each individual. From an economic view this would be called a zero-sum game. This is why human beings, and the human family which is the sanctuary of human beings, have always been a threat to socialists.

If, however, you see the world dynamically, and don’t view the economy as static but as creative, then you see human beings not merely as mouths to be fed but as minds that can produce and be creative.

Randall: In other words, the addition of people increases the pie.

Fr. Sirico: Exactly. It also increases the likelihood of discovery of other resources.

Randall: At the same time we see a rise in pantheism, we also seem to see a large number of, I suppose you would say, mainstream religious organizations joining in the environmentalists’ movement. They seem to have bought into the message that man is the problem.

Fr. Sirico: Many of the churches, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish–some of which are members of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE)–have been, I think, hoodwinked into buying into this more static notion of the economy. And, I think this belies their own rich heritage.

At the Acton Institute, we stand as an alternative to that way of thinking. We disagree, for instance, with the National Council of Churches: We don’t think that the Kyoto Protocol [on global warming] is a litmus test for Christianity today, as has been claimed by that organization’s president, David Campbell. We think that’s absurd. That’s a repudiation of historic Christianity.

And, of course, the National Council of Churches, as well as the World Council of Churches, has a long history of making these kinds of mistakes–of reducing theology to a social and political agenda.

Randall: You mentioned the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which includes many churches of many denominations. What can you tell us about their beliefs and agenda?

Fr. Sirico: The NRPE last year announced a 10-year, $16 million initiative that they say is designed to ensure that the next generation of religious leaders in America advance care for the environment as a central priority of organized religion.

Randall: This, of course, is quote contrary to the Acton Institute’s principles. What was your response?

Fr. Sirico: Last October in West Cornwall, Connecticut, the Acton Institute brought together 25 prominent clergy, theologians, economists, and environmental scientists, along with some policy experts, to lay the groundwork for future reflection on the proper relationship between Judeo-Christian obligation to the assertion of creation and free-market environmentalism.

Out of that meeting came the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship.

We are now playing a central role in articulating a religiously sound environmental ethic. We have a quarterly newsletter called Environmental Stewardship Review, which reports on the activities of various religious and secular environmental groups. It offers helpful and accurate resources on various policy issues, trends in environmental science, and the theology of creation. What we are trying to do is promote a genuine environmental stewardship through a commitment to sound science and free-market environmental principles.

One of the most exciting things we are involved with is editing a forthcoming series of monographs on environmental stewardship, which will be authored by prominent Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant leaders. The first of these will be published in time for Easter and Earth Day.

For more information

on the Acton Institute and its work, visit its Web site at Or call, write, or visit at 161 Ottawa NW #301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503; phone 616/454-3080, fax 616/454-9454, email [email protected].