The strange relationship between Pope Benedict XVI and the world’s Green movement . . .
When the Vatican announced in 2007 that the Paul VI audience hall was to be covered in solar panels, environmentalists around the world took notice. Eighteen months later, the building was topped with 2,400 photovoltaic panels, generating sufficient electricity to supply the building’s heating, cooling and lighting needs year-round.
Throughout his seven-year pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has promoted the idea of sustainability and resource conservation. In addition to the solar panels, Vatican City has planted a 37-acre forest in Hungary and installed a solar cooling system in one of its cafeterias, making it the worlds’ first carbon-neutral state.
But the man in charge of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics certainly doesn’t fit the profile of a radical environmentalist. You won’t find the Holy Father chaining himself to a California redwood or boarding a seal-hunting ship in the Arctic.
However, the Pope does find some common ground with environmentalists on stewardship of the earth. While most liberals label him “ultra-conservative,” Benedict’s teaching on the environment has many on both ends of the political spectrum nodding in agreement.
Ecology and the person
No other pope in history has written or spoken as much about the earth as Benedict XVI, which has led some in the media to dub him “The Green Pope.” He has spoken about the environment at World Youth Day and with dignitaries at the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. The Holy Father speaks often and forcefully about the need to protect God’s creation. Yet there is still a great divide between the Pope’s brand of environmentalism and that of secular environmentalists.
“The most obvious difference between Pope Benedict and the Green movement is that for the Pope, the human person is at the center of his worldview,” said Sam Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a Michigan-based think tank. “Human beings have dominion and stewardship over the natural world. We are intrinsically superior, but we don’t have the right to do whatever we want with nature.”
The Holy Father also speaks of “human ecology” with regard to the environment. He draws a parallel between the harm of polluting the natural world and the harm of engaging in immoral behavior, which causes real suffering to human beings.
“Ecology has a system of laws which enables nature to thrive,” said Bill Patenaude, a Rhode Island-based environmental regulator and Catholic columnist. “It’s the same with human ecology. We have natural law, reflected in the Ten Commandments, which enables humans to thrive. We cannot violate them without causing harm.”
For Pope Benedict, ecology takes in everything — nature and the human family. He articulated this notion in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “The book of nature is one and indivisible: It takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development” (#51).
Divinizing the natural world
The Holy Father and Catholic teaching also part ways with the Green movement when it comes to the role of religion and the inherent dignity of the human person.
“The Greens’ view of humanity is that we are just another aspect of the natural environment,” said Gregg. “Most are grounded in pantheistic ideology. Within the Greens’ ideology, human beings are bad and it’s better if there are fewer of us. This is why they are so adamant about mandatory contraception for developing countries and why they are so pro-abortion.”
The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God — and that they are intrinsically good and capable of innovation.
“What’s distinctive about Pope Benedict is that he asks the Greens why there is this degree of disrespect for the human person, which comes out in Green policies,” Gregg said. “They have a false conception on anthropology. Within deep Green writings on the environment, you see a certain ‘humanophobia’ at work, which is materialistic and paganistic.”
Gregg also notes that when Christianity appeared on the scene 2,000 years ago, it actually “un-divinized” the natural world.
“It introduced the idea that the natural world is not divine,” he explained. “This was a fundamental shift, and it was an enormous challenge to the prevailing notion. What we are seeing today is the re-divinization of the natural world. Some environmentalists see the natural world as more important than human beings. In the Greens’ view there is no such thing as sin, except to destroy nature.”
The Pope’s teaching on the environment is part of a larger objective to engage in dialogue about the reality of God and the human person, Patenaude said.
“Ecology is a tool for the new evangelization,” he explained. “It’s a way to talk about faith and reason. Global ecological issues are really symptoms of human sin. Our technology has grown, but it magnifies human sin. We see this in the rainforest, the ocean. Pope Benedict’s response is a pastoral one.”
In fact, whenever he has the opportunity, the Holy Father addresses the Green movement directly through speeches to government bodies. He often starts with areas of agreement and then invites dialogue to speak about God.
Last September, Pope Benedict addressed the German parliament and complimented that country’s Green Party on areas of agreement. Ironically, most of the Party’s members boycotted the speech.
“Radical environmentalism is anti-humanism,” said Wesley Smith, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. “We are the enemy species called the ‘cancer of the planet.’ There is a growing movement now to grant ‘rights’ to nature equal to human rights.”
What has many people concerned is how radical environmentalism has made its way from the edge towards the center. Few disagree with the end-goal of a cleaner planet, but the means to that goal are worrisome, Smith said.
“What concerns me is that there will be a declining standard of life if you cannot mine, extract oil or develop the earth in a responsible way,” he said. “You cause misery and stop the alleviation of poverty by halting development. Before many of the technologies we have today, people lived terribly. People longed for the kind of life-span and comfort we have today.”
For his part, Pope Benedict has never called for a radical halt to development. He instead teaches that we use our God-given intelligence to develop the earth without destroying it. His position doesn’t square comfortably with the extremes on either end of the political spectrum, but is always rooted in responsible stewardship.
“The Earth is indeed a precious gift of the Creator who, in designing its intrinsic order, has given us bearings that guide us as stewards of his creation,” the Holy Father said during his Aug. 26, 2009, general audience. “Precisely from within this framework, the Church considers matters concerning the environment and its protection intimately linked to the theme of integral human development.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.
Pope Benedict XVI and the environment
“The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In doing so, she must defend not only the earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all defend mankind from self-destruction. There is a need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefi ts” (#51).
Caritas in Veritate, 2009
“Experience shows that the disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence and vice versa. It becomes more and more evident that there is an inseparable link between peace with creation and peace among men.”
Message for the World Day of Peace, 2007
“The relationship between individuals or communities and the environment ultimately stems from their relationship with God. When ‘man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order.”
Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, 2007