Acton Commentary

Is the Pope Green?


If the past is any predictor, we should be braced for some outrageous headlines about Pope Benedict XVI in the coming days. His arrival in the US this week has already prompted wide-ranging speculation about what he might say and what impact his presence might have on US elections.

The best corrective to this is to listen to what the Pope says and—especially with such an accomplished theologian at the helm—to read the texts of his speeches, all of which are freely available on the Vatican website.

We can be quite sure about a few things. The Pope will not endorse any presidential candidate or any political party. He will do what he always does: call people to a deep and joyful encounter with the person of Jesus Christ; encourage respect for reason and truth without which authentic freedom is impossible; and address key moral and social issues of our time. His message will have political ramifications but it will not be intentionally partisan.

No doubt the media and the political classes will try to spin his words for their own purposes. But Pope Benedict and Catholic teaching do not fit neatly into journalistic categories. Although his language is wonderfully jargon-free, his nuanced points require concentration and reflection, traits not widely practiced in this age of ever-briefer news cycles.

For this reason, it is tempting to portray the Church leaning “left” on some socio-economic issues and “right” on matters concerning marriage and the family. In fact, many religious commentators and even Church bureaucrats do this all the time and we will surely hear it again this week.

One of the areas where Catholic social teaching is considered to lean left is the environment. With Earth Day approaching, some in the media may well revert to their established pattern of calling Benedict the “Green Pope.”

This pattern was evident when the Reuters News Agency described Benedict wearing green vestments to signify his support for the environment. Yes, he did wear green, but so did every other priest in the world that day—as it happens to be the vestment color for the ordinary liturgical season. Throw in the event organizers’ handing out some recyclable water bottles, and the papal mass at the Marian shrine of Loreto was soon reduced by the press to an “eco-rally”.

Last month journalists incorrectly reported on so-called "new deadly sins", including pollution. (The Daily Telegraph’s "Recycle or Go to Hell, Warns Vatican" was the most egregious headline of all.) The Vatican never declared any new sins; instead the interviewed bishop merely pointed out that sins have social consequences that become more widespread in a globalized society. But international news was made.

Sometimes the slightest “eco-friendly” moves affecting Vatican City are attributed to papal enthusiasm for the environment. The proposal to place solar energy panels on the rooftop of a single Vatican building and the acceptance by the Vatican of a gift of a “carbon offset” caused by some trees in Hungary are two of these.

While the Vatican does indeed care for the environment, few seem to have noticed that the Holy See is the only state in the world that has not signed a single environmental treaty, presumably due to serious concerns over environmentalist ideology not to mention the heavy reporting requirements such treaties inevitably load on small states. Considering the time and energy devoted to the Kyoto Protocol, this would seem to be a conspicuous stain on the Vatican’s environmental bona fides.

To anyone familiar with Catholic teaching on the environment, Benedict XVI’s position is familiar: human persons, created in the image and likeness of God, are called to exercise dominion and stewardship over the rest of creation. Plants, animals, and the rest of the environment are gifts from God, which means we must not exploit but use them to glorify the Creator, primarily by serving the needs of our fellow humans.

Unfortunately, discussions of the environment tend towards “either/or” scenarios as if the choice is between economic development on one hand or environmental protection on the other. Human progress is pitted against the rest of creation. The Church doesn’t merely combine the two positions—it proposes a more rational “both/and” solution. In so doing, it exposes several common fallacies that lie at the heart of both materialism and environmentalism.

Catholic social teaching rejects a crude utilitarian vision of the earth as something to be stripped and destroyed at our liking, but it also repudiates the increasingly common misanthropic and pantheist visions that often conflate God, humans, and nature, carrying serious moral consequences. This is part and parcel of what the former Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dictatorship of relativism”.

Radical environmentalism believes the fault lies in God’s giving us “dominion” over the earth as well as His commandment to “be fruitful and multiply”, which cause humans to deplete natural resources in order to feed, clothe and shelter an ever-growing population. As a result, environmentalists tend to be secularist and often quite anti-religious and anti-natalist.

This ideology was very much in evidence at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing. At these and other international meetings, the Holy See has been the most vocal supporter of human dignity against radical environmentalism and defended Catholic social teaching against powerful delegations such as the United States and the European Union. The main beneficiaries of the Church’s teachings are the poor and the weak who are unable to defend themselves against the rich and the strong. In so doing the Church also stands up for the right of economic development and dismantles the fallacy that sees people only as consumers and not also as creators of wealth.

Strangely enough, there are religious-minded environmentalists, such as former Dominican friar Mark Dowd, who seem to miss the larger human picture. For example, in his film God is Green Dowd chastises courageous Vatican officials such as Cardinal Renato Martino for not doing enough. (Watch Dowd’s God is Green documentary by scrolling down this page: Operation Noah - God is Green (Channel 4 documentary presented by Mark Dowd). The Martino clip starts at 32:00.) Whatever he may or may not say about issues such as climate change at the UN, we can be certain Pope Benedict will continue to promote Christian humanism in an affirmative and orthodox way. Let’s hope the journalists covering the papal trip this week get the story right.

Kishore Jayabalan is director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office and a former Vatican official who analyzed environmental issues and worked for the Holy See at the United Nations in New York. Michael Miller is director of programs at the Acton Institute.