Something Fishy? Why is THIS Missing from Pope Francis’ Environmental Encyclical?

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Image Shutterstock

I was not one of the many Catholics dreading the publication of Laudato Si.  I teach a college course on Catholic Social Teaching and stewardship of the environment is one of the major themes of this great and influential body of work.  As Catholics, we believe that when the Word of God became flesh, all of creation was raised to a new dignity in Christ.  Human beings do not own the world, we are merely stewards of it.  It is an established point of Catholic social doctrine that all of us have a grave moral duty to do what we can to leave this planet in better shape than we found it. As Pope Francis inspiringly notes, honoring God’s creation is  an important way that God’s people give praise to him.

Wanted:  Strong Catholic Voice

In light of this, I was genuinely looking forward to reading what Pope Francis had to say on this important issue.  In all the debate about environmental policy, strong Catholic moral leadership has been conspicuous by its absence.  In this regard, Pope Francis does not disappoint.  He does a wonderful job recognizing the common errors that many secular environmentalists make–from worshiping the earth as a deity to misguided efforts to “save” the planet through abortion and population control and many others–and makes many excellent, practical points about how people can promote an approach to environmental stewardship that improves the life of the planet while simultaneously improving the lot of the poor.

Something Fishy:  A Curious Absence

That said, as a frequent writer on issues related to sexuality, there was one thing I was seriously disappointed to not find in the document; namely, any reference to the serious problem of water pollution caused by the build-up of contraceptive hormones in the water supply resulting in health problems for both wildlife and, potentially, people.  This is not a small issue, nor is it a fringe “Catholic” issue.

For instance, in March of 2015, The Washington Post published an article titled, Fish Don’t Want Birth Control, but Scientists Say They Get it from Your Pill.  Here’s a snippet.

Your birth control pill is affecting more than just your body. Flushed down toilets, poured down sinks and excreted in urine, a chemical component in the pill wafts into sewage systems and ends up in various waterways where it collects in fairly heavy doses. That’s where fish soak it up.  recent survey by the U.S. Geological Survey found that fish exposed to a synthetic hormone called 17a-ethinylestradiol, or EE2, produced offspring that struggled to fertilize eggs. The grandchildren of the originally exposed fish suffered a 30 percent decrease in their fertilization rate. The authors mulled the impact of what they discovered and decided it wasn’t good.

The WaPo article echoes many points raised in a 2012  article by the science portal LiveScience titled, Water Pollution Caused by Birth Control Poses Dilemma.  More frightening still, an article appearing around the same time in The Daily Mail cited similar problems in European waterways, and further suggested that artificial hormones in the water supply could be having a negative impact on human male sperm count–which has lowered, on average, by 25% in the last 20 years.

No Easy Answers

 The problem, of course, is that current approaches to water treatment cannot remove these chemicals from our drinking water leading many environmental experts to express potential concerns about human health risks to long term exposure.  Scientific American published a Q&A article that cautiously validated many of these concerns and discussed the challenges of removing artificial reproductive hormones from drinking water.

Additionally, there are no simple–or even affordable–solutions for how water treatment plants could rise to this challenge.  In fact, purifying the water supply of these chemicals could prove to be so expensive that Forbes Magazine ran an article in 2012 arguing that Women on Contraceptive Pill Should Pay $1500 a Year More Tax 

Missed Opportunity

When a pope releases a document, inevitably people in every corner pick it apart for how it did or did not treat their pet issue, and readers might well accuse me of doing exactly this, but I would argue that it is a serious missed opportunity for the Church that a Catholic document on the environment would fail to mention a serious environmental issue that the Church is uniquely–and almost singly–positioned to address.  Catholic social teaching is not a collection of random concepts.  It is a whole, a “seamless garment” if you will.  To have not included this insight–even in passing–about the negative impact artificial contraception is having on the environment is to have missed an important chance to emphasize the coherence of the Church’s moral theology as it applies to both personal and environmental morality.

None of this is, of course, to suggest that Pope Francis is soft on the Church’s stand on contraception.  In fact, he is on record as being a strong defender of the Church’s teachings on this issue and has even praised Pope Paul VI’s promulgation of Humanae Vitae as “courageous.”   Nevertheless, despite the fact that Laudato Si is an excellent and inspiring document overall, it it hard to not to argue that Pope Francis, the Church’s first fisher of men, missed the boat at least on this particular point.

The Truth Will Out

Although this issue did not get a mention in Laudato Si, I would encourage my fellow Catholics to take this opportunity  afforded by the incredible press being generated by this document to highlight yet another reason of why the Church has stood fast in its opposition to the Pill.  The more time passes, the more creation bears witness to the prophetic voice of Humane Vitae.  The Pill is bad medicine.  It is bad for women’s health.  It is bad for relationships.  And it is bad for the environment.   To learn more about how the Catholic vision of love can help you live a more passionate marriage AND empower you to save the planet, check out Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.