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Does the environment have a right to be protected? Pope Francis thinks so
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In his recent address to the United Nations, Pope Francis described the environment's right to be treated responsibly. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
In his speech to world leaders at the U.N. last week, Pope Francis made his boldest claim yet about the environment, detailing the earth's God-given right to be dealt with responsibly.

"It must be stated that a true 'right of the environment' does exist," he said, as reported in a transcript of the address published by Time.

"We human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect," the pope continued. "Every creature, particularly a living creature, has intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures."

The pope's passion for environmental protection has been widely discussed since the release of his encyclical on the subject, Laudato Si, in June. But his U.N. speech brought a different perspective to his call for better creation care, one that some Catholics might resist.

According to the latest Pew Research Center survey on Catholics, which was released in September, just 29 percent of American Catholics say working to address climate change is "essential to what being Catholic means to them." And only 23 percent of the group say it's a sin to use energy without considering the environment, Pew reported.

"Climate change continues to be seen as a justice issue, and not a life issue, like abortion and marriage," The Guardian reported.

The pope's goal in talking about the environment's rights was likely not to clarify the church's teachings about creation, but, instead, to bring about an end to ambivalence about climate change, and further his call to action, wrote Wesley Smith in a column for the National Review.

"Pope Francis focused on the purported harm to human beings he sees being caused by poor environmental practices," he said.

However, the idea that the environment has rights is not unprecedented, and it's been discussed before by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

During his April 2013 Earth Day address, the leader "noted the growing momentum among world leaders to support sustainable development, citing in particular the efforts of Bolivia, which adopted a legal framework that specifically protects Mother Earth, with the rights of nature included in the national constitution," the U.N. reported.

The pope likely targeted his speech at leaders like Ban Ki-moon, who are sympathetic to the call for action around climate change, but he also addressed people of faith.

"We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it," he said.
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