“The Green Pope.” Ever since Joseph Ratzinger’s election as pope in 2005, this has been a popular description of Benedict XVI. It’s partly fueled by events such as the Vatican City State adopting solar power paneling, and, more significantly, Benedict’s discussion of environmental questions in several papal documents. The label will proliferate following the recent announcement that the pope’s 2010 World Day of Peace message will focus on the connection between peace and respect for God’s creation.
The problem, however, is that the present hype about “the greenest pope in history”—to cite another headline—is misleading. A somewhat different picture emerges from careful analysis of Benedict’s formal pronouncements on environmental matters.
These quickly demonstrate that Benedict’s attention to environmental subjects is grounded, unsurprisingly, in a very orthodox Christian theological analysis. Indeed, it sometimes generates hard questions about many contemporary environmentalists’ priorities and philosophical assumptions.
Exhibit A is Benedict’s recent social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. The text is replete with warnings about real and potential environmental degradation. Yet it also makes points impossible to reconcile with much contemporary environmental thinking.
No one should be surprised that Benedict insists that people are intrinsically more valuable than nature – a point disputed by some Green-leaning philosophers. Nor should we be shocked to discover that Benedict describes positions that question humanity’s innate superiority to the natural world as facilitating “attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism” (CV 48).
In this connection, it’s worth underscoring Caritas in Veritate’s extensive disputation of the “population-growth-is-evil” thesis (CV 44). Population alarmism has been a staple ingredient of much environmentalist ideology ever since Paul Ehrlich’s infamous 1968 book, The Population Bomb, predicted (wrongly) that “in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” and enormous environmental damage would flow from millions futilely trying to feed themselves.
The dominant theological lens through which Caritas in Veritate views environmental concerns is that of stewardship. Stewardship concerns humans protecting and cultivating nature for their own and God’s purposes, and even using new technologies to enhance nature’s ability to serve us (CV 50). In short, nature is neither to be deified nor arbitrarily exploited. That’s a Jewish and Christian motif as old as the Book of Genesis itself.
Also telling is Benedict’s insistence upon a holistic understanding of what we mean by the word ecology. “The book of nature”, Benedict insists, “is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations” (CV 51). In other writings, Benedict highlights the incongruity of people being outraged about wanton environmental destruction, while ignoring or even promoting the deep damage done by ethical relativism to society’s moral ecology.
Incidentally, the phrases “climate change” or “global warming” appear nowhere in Caritas in Veritate. Again, this is not surprising. Benedict has been careful not to prejudge the science of this complex subject. In his 2008 World Day of Peace message, Benedict observed that in thinking through environmental problems, “It is important for assessments...to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions.”
As someone who has labored ceaselessly for the priority of truth over ideology, Benedict knows that neither international organizations nor public opinion determine the truth about climate change and its causes. That’s a question for science, and many reputable scientists dispute aspects of the prevailing tenets of climate change to which some environmentalists seem religiously wedded.
The most recent such example to surface is the internationally renowned Australian geologist Professor Ian Plimer (who, incidentally, is also a fierce critic of creationism). His Heaven and Earth (2009) argues that climate change has little if anything to do with man-made greenhouse gases. The book is making intellectual waves across the globe, selling 30,000 copies in its first month.
Plimer’s meticulous analysis of the facts has also impressed prominent Catholic clergy such as Cardinal George Pell  of Sydney. Neither Plimer nor Pell are climate change deniers. They do, however, question conventional perceptions about its causes. They also consider as positively harmful to the cause of scientific truth the thuggish tactics (such as starving climate-skeptics of funding) employed by some politicians, environmentalists and academics to try to terminate any debate.
As anyone who has studied his life and thought knows, Joseph Ratzinger has never been intimidated by political correctness. Certainly Benedict affirms our greater sensitivity to the environment’s fragility and the ongoing necessity for orthodox Christian theological reflection upon man’s relationship with the natural world. But Benedict does not make the mistake of romanticizing nature, which can, after all, be very cruel. Nor is he afraid to underline the dark, anti-human side to much Green ideology.
In this regard, Benedict’s “greenness” turns out to be rather pale.