National Catholic Reporter
Jan. 08, 2010
By John L Allen Jr
Pope Benedict XVI takes a leisurely walk in Stabie, Italy, during his July 2007 vacation in the northeastern Italian Alps. (CNS/Catholic Press Photo)
One reliable way to gauge the impact of a papal message is the amount of energy that pundits invest in analyzing, dissecting and recasting it. The rule of thumb is that the more spin a given statement breeds, the more important it probably is.
By that test, Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching on the environment, expressed most recently in a message for the church-sponsored “World Day of Peace” on Jan. 1, would seem to be pretty important indeed.
Experts regard Benedict’s strong ecological streak as among the most original features of his social teaching. It’s been expressed both in word and deed, with the latter including the installation of solar panels atop the Vatican’s audience hall (complete with a digital display inside the hall showing energy savings) and replanting a stretch of forest in central Hungary sufficient to make the Vatican Europe’s first “carbon-neutral” state.
In turn, that record has bred a cottage industry of exegesis, especially among Catholic eco-skeptics worried that the pope (perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not) may be lending aid and comfort to a movement they regard as an attack on capitalism and limited government, under the guise of hype about global warming, rising sea levels, and other nightmare scenarios.
To be sure, Benedict’s shade of green is hardly that of Earth First. He insists that care for creation must be grounded in faith in a Creator, that nature not be romanticized at the expense of humanity, and that the “natural law” that limits exploitation of the earth also applies to defense of human life -- meaning, in practical terms, that population control is not an acceptable environmental strategy.
John Carr, director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the U.S. bishops, said all this amounts to a “distinctively and authentically Catholic” approach to the environment, one that “doesn’t fit conventional political and ideological categories.”
For most Catholic skeptics, however, it’s less Benedict’s theological premises than his policy prescriptions that cause heartburn. In the World Peace Day message, the pope called for urgent action on a wide range of threats, including “climate change, desertification, the degradation and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase in extreme weather, and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical areas,” as well as “environmental refugees” and conflicts linked to natural resources.
The fact that the message appeared against the backdrop of the recent summit on climate change, held Dec. 6-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark, caused particular consternation among Catholics who were critical of both the key players at the summit and their aims.
Titled “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Care for Creation,” Benedict’s World Peace Day message also recommended:
•A new mode of calculating the cost of economic activity that would factor in environmental impact;
•Greater investment in solar energy and other forms of energy with a reduced environmental footprint;
•Strategies of rural development concentrated on small-scale farmers and their families;
•Progressive disarmament, including “a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Reaction among skeptics in the Catholic fold has tended to splinter between those who say the pope has been misunderstood, and those who believe it’s the pope himself who doesn’t quite get it.
Perhaps the most striking example of the former came in an essay in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio by Giuliano Ferrara, an atheist who’s nevertheless widely influential in Catholic circles. In the past, Ferrara has forcefully defended the church’s positions in the culture wars, especially on abortion and euthanasia.
In a Dec. 16 essay, Ferrara insisted that Benedict “does not belong to the church of Al Gore.”
The pontiff, Ferrara wrote, does not deny human abuse of nature, but rejects “environmentalism as a religion.” Benedict’s teaching, Ferrara said, is based on belief in a creator-God who entrusts nature to humanity, not on “ideologies feigned as science.”