Elevating the Existing Environmental Dialogue

The just-concluded conference at the Vatican on human sustainability showed that many in the scientific community are looking to the Church for guidance and moral leadership.

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 messy—especially 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 Christ—who 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 costs—especially 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 place. 

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 Francis—who 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 knowledge—of data—faith, 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.

In 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 Sciences—and to Pope Francis for his support—for 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.

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About William L. Patenaude 36 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology, is a mechanical engineer, and has recently retired from a 34-year career at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. He has been writing and speaking on the Catholic perspective of ecology since 2004. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice (2018), has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."