If Pope Francis is a “radical” environmentalist, what was Pope Benedict XVI?

I ask the question because I made the mistake of reading an article, “Pope Francis’s edict on climate change will anger deniers and US churches,” written by John Vidal for The Guardian (Dec. 27th), and now feel obligated to clear the air a bit from all of the pollutants released by the ill-informed, sensationalistic bit of punditry. The overarching problem is that Vidal, like so many others in the media, wishes to use the pontiff as a political tool with which to bludgeon those he deems ill fit to lead or be taken seriously in the public arena. So, for example, Vidal writes,

However, Francis’s environmental radicalism is likely to attract resistance from Vatican conservatives and in rightwing church circles, particularly in the US – where Catholic climate sceptics also include John Boehner, Republican leader of the House of Representatives and Rick Santorum, the former Republican presidential candidate.

Cardinal George Pell, a former archbishop of Sydney who has been placed in charge of the Vatican’s budget, is a climate change sceptic who has been criticised for claiming that global warming has ceased and that if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were doubled, then “plants would love it”.

But, really, how radical is Francis’s environmental radicalism? Is it this radical?

 In 1990 John Paul II had spoken of an “ecological crisis” and, in highlighting its primarily ethical character, pointed to the “urgent moral need for a new solidarity”. His appeal is all the more pressing today, in the face of signs of a growing crisis which it would be irresponsible not to take seriously. Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees”, people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the right to life, food, health and development.

Benedict XVI made those remarks just five years ago, on January 1, 2010, on the occasion of the World Day of Peace. A search of the Vatican website turns up several such remarks by the Pope Emeritus. In an August 26, 2009, general audience, to give just one more example, Benedict stated that he wished to “offer my support to leaders of governments and international agencies who soon will meet at the United Nations to discuss the urgent issue of climate change.” And:

The Earth is indeed a precious gift of the Creator who, in designing its intrinsic order, has given us guidelines that assist us as stewards of his creation. Precisely from within this framework, the Church considers that matters concerning the environment and its protection are intimately linked with integral human development. In my recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, I referred to such questions recalling the “pressing moral need for renewed solidarity” (no. 49) not only between countries but also between individuals, since the natural environment is given by God to everyone, and so our use of it entails a personal responsibility towards humanity as a whole, particularly towards the poor and towards future generations (cf. no. 48).

How important it is then, that the international community and individual governments send the right signals to their citizens and succeed in countering harmful ways of treating the environment! The economic and social costs of using up shared resources must be recognized with transparency and borne by those who incur them, and not by other peoples or future generations. The protection of the environment, and the safeguarding of resources and of the climate, oblige all leaders to act jointly, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the world (cf. no. 50). Together we can build an integral human development beneficial for all peoples, present and future, a development inspired by the values of charity in truth. For this to happen it is essential that the current model of global development be transformed through a greater, and shared, acceptance of responsibility for creation: this is demanded not only by environmental factors, but also by the scandal of hunger and human misery.

Vidal also writes, “In recent months, the pope has argued for a radical new financial and economic system to avoid human inequality and ecological devastation.” He would do well to read Caritas in Veritate, because there he will find that Benedict was just as “radical” as Francis when it comes to insisting on an authentic “human ecology”:

The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is 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”[124] is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature.

In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. (par 51)

Of course, Benedict is usually presented as being “right-wing” and “reactionary” and “traditional,” and so his statements about ecology and the environment are often ignored, especially when they indicate that Francis’ remarks and positions on those topics is not nearly as “radical” and unique as is often claimed. I suspect that Vidal has not read the expected encyclical by Francis, so his piece, on one hand, is simply a way of stirring up the waters—or, rather, polluting the waters.

Questioning the nature, extent, and exact status of “climate change” is not, it should be noted, anything at all like supporting the killing of the unborn and the aged, actions that more than a few American, “Catholic” politicians support—and with religious zeal (a zeal they fail to display for their claimed religion). Benedict’s warning that “the deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence” should be taken far more seriously; I suspect that Francis will repeat it—and I am confident it will be largely ignored.

In the meantime, I suggest folks read the newly posted CWR feature, “Catholicism and Environmentalism”, by Thomas M. Doran, which provides food for thought that is free of ideological posturing and sensationalist “reporting”.

About Carl E. Olson 1055 Articles

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.