Solar panels are seen on the roof of the Paul VI audience hall at the Vatican in this December 2010 photo. The 2,400 solar panels on the roof were installed in 2008 thanks to the work of Bonn, Germany-based Solar World. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
It’s a pity that the
mainstream media offered so much attention to Tuesday’s White House announcement
of the National
Climate Assessment and largely ignored a more robust conference on human
sustainability at the Vatican. Only the New York Times, which had writer Andy
Revkin observing the academic and magisterial discussions about life on earth,
seemed to understand the significance of what the Church was doing.
“Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature:
Our Responsibility,” which was held May 2-6, was
the cooperative work of the Pontifical
Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical
Academy of Social Sciences. The event brought
together some 60 scholars in fields as diverse as biology, oceanography, economics,
and law. Joining them were more than two dozen observers from various backgrounds.
The aim of it all was to foster dialogue and gather insights offered to questions
presented in the conference’s
program, such as: Are humanity’s dealings with nature sustainable?
What is the status of the human person in a world where science predominates? Should
one expect the global economic growth that has been experienced over the past six
decades to continue for the foreseeable future? Should we be confident that
knowledge and skills will increase in such ways as to lessen humanity’s
reliance on nature despite our increasing economic activity and growing
numbers? Is the growing gap between the world’s rich and world’s poor in their
reliance on natural resources a consequence of those growths?
Asking such questions can
be messyespecially when your guests may not share your beliefs. But tough
questions offer ways to dialogue with the world. And dialogue is a foundational
characteristic of the Church founded by Jesus Christwho emptied himself (Phil
2:7), and made his dwelling among humanity (John 1:14).
The Pontifical Academy of
Science, founded in its present form by Pius XI in 1936, has roots going back
to 1603. In many ways the academy has a role in continuing the incarnational work
of engaging human activity. Its conference co-organizer, the Pontifical Academy
of Social Sciences, has a more recent beginning. St. John Paul II created the
body in 1994 “with the aim of promoting the study and progress of the social,
economic, political and juridical sciences, and of thus offering the Church the
elements which she can use in the study and development of her social doctrine,”
as noted in its website.
All this is to say that an
important benefit of the Vatican’s sustainability conference was in bringing the
Church (and her teachings) into a conversation that was and will be taking
place whether or not we opt to join in. Moreover, because of this well-organized
conference, the Church did not simply become a partner in an existing environmental
dialogue. She helped elevate it in game-changing ways.
Given the interrelated ecological
and economic nature of so many difficulties today, cooperation between the pontifical
academies helped offer appropriately interrelated solutions. What was
continually pointed out, however, was that the level of dialogue that took
place in Rome between the natural and social sciences typically occurs less
frequently than many wish.
This lack of dialogue among
the disciplines can create incomplete or mistaken understandings of the impact
of our choices on people and the planet. Many observed in their talks that conventional
economic models often don’t factor in various human costsespecially those paid
by the poor. For instance, people who must walk many miles to secure clean
water for their children cannot also use that time to go to work. As Harvard’s
Naomi Oreskes put it, “Not everything that counts can be counted.”
The truth of that
observation became clear during the four days of deliberations as participants
offered a host of real-world examples. And yet the resulting conversations soon
had most everyone recognizing that something new and of value was taking
During a general discussion
on Monday, participants were applauding the conference’s productive inter-disciplinary
dialogue. Conference organizer and atmospheric scientist Dr. Veerabhadran
Ramanathan spoke for the group when he said that thanks to “the convening power
of the Church,” the participants had learned a great deal from each other and were
now “all charged up about solutions, [and] taking that knowledge into action.” But
he wondered “is tomorrow the end of this? Or is it the beginning of something,
a new sort of communication across the disciplines?”
Panel moderator Timothy E.
Wirth, a former US senator from Colorado and Vice Chairman of the United
Nations Foundation (who is not a member of either pontifical academy), agreed
that what was happening was indeed a watershed moment for the scientific
community and for the Church. He said that he hoped Pope Franciswho he called “the
single most important person in the world”could lead the world through the
current “global vacuum” of leadership, especially given what the sciences are
showing us about a host of environmental, economic, and social issues, issues
that disproportionately impact the poorest of the poor.
Only time will tell if Pope
Francis responds to such a call, but he did show up on the last day of the
conference to meet the participants and wish everyone well.
Provided with an
opportunity to offer a concluding reflection, the Times’ Andy Revkin said that those gathered demonstrated that “it’s
a combination of knowledgeof datafaith, will, and love that will determine
the quality of the human journey in this century.”
“Yes, love,” he added to
stress the point.
To Revkin’s observation, the
Vatican’s rarified but congenial atmosphere on Tuesday contrasted appreciably
to the rollout of the United States’ National Climate Assessment. Whereas the
scientists at White House appeared a bit dour and even preachy as they shared
their genuine concerns, those in Rome sounded surprisingly peaceful as they spoke
of opportunity, camaraderie, and, yes, love.
In saying this, I do not
mean to criticize my fellow civil servants in the nation’s capital. But unlike
the Church, the state is not quite capable of infusing into its efforts the
virtues of faith, hope, and love.
any event, it is clear that many in the scientific community are looking to the
Church for guidance and moral leadership. We are thus indebted to the
Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciencesand
to Pope Francis for his supportfor such an important gathering about life on
earth. One hopes that when the pontifical academies’ respective presidents and Chancellor Bishop Marcello Sanchez Sorondo
have rested up, we may soon hear news about similar gatherings taking place on a
regular and sustained basis.