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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2016

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Environmental Policy Choices: The Importance of the Preferential Option for the Poor in Laudato si'

The November/December 2015 issue of Environment contained an editorial and eight invited reflections on the encyclical Laudato si' by a variety of scholars, which might make further commentary seem superfluous. After reading the issue with great interest, I realized that one of the most germane points in Catholic social thought for environmental scientists and policymakers was never highlighted. I refer to the preferential option for the poor, synonymously the option for the poor. It is not surprising with commentators trying to describe the importance of such an extensive and rich document that not everything was included, but I feel this point deserves special mention. As a scientist directing an environmental studies department at a Catholic university for 20 years I have found the preferential option for the poor to be one of the unique contributions (along with the dignity of the human person and the common good) that the Catholic intellectual tradition makes to environmental policy decisions.1 When a policy decision requires the adjudication of conflicting claims between recognizable groups of people (e.g., the needs of industrial water users and the health of Native Americans2), the preferential option for the poor provides a tool for guiding difficult policy decisions. In brief, in such adjudication the voice of the poorest should be given preference in a measure of restorative justice.3

Steven A. Kolmes is the Rev. John Molter, C.S.C., Chair in Science at the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon.

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