by Phil Lawler – Catholic World News
September 24, 2007 (CWNews.com) – Pope Benedict XVI (bio – news) cares about the environment. He sprinkles his public talks with calls for prudent stewardship of our natural resources.
Does that mean the Pope has embraced the environmentalist movement? Or that global warming will soon be the top issue on the Catholic agenda? Recent media reports have created that impression. But the evidence is mighty thin.
For several weeks journalists have been giving special prominence to any statement from the Pope touching on environmental concerns. One British newspaper went so far as to speak of an “environmental blitz at the Vatican.” But a careful examination of the Pope’s public statements shows that the environmental message—while unmistakably an issue in the Pope’s mind—has never been on the top of his agenda.
Take, for example, his public audience last Sunday: September 16. Pope Benedict delivered a memorable talk at his Angelus audience, about how the power of God’s mercy can overcome all evil—even the evil of terrorism. Then, as is his custom, he followed that prepared talk with a series of quick points. Among those points, he remarked on the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement called for restraints on the use of chlorofluorocarbons.
This was certainly not the main point of the Pope’s audience; he was running quickly through a “punch-list” of causes to be acknowledged. (His next paragraph was a welcoming message to a group of pilgrims from a parish in France.) Yet the International Herald Tribune made the Pope’s remarks on the Montreal Protocol—not his comments on terrorism—the lead item in their coverage of the audience.
In that story, the Tribune went on to tell readers that the Pope “has been on an eco-friendly campaign of late, presiding most recently over a pro-environment youth rally in the central Italian shrine town of Loreto.”
OK, let’s take a look at that rally in Loreto. First, it was not an environment rally; it was an event dedicated to youth evangelization. And the Pope’s address to the 500,000 Italian youngsters who gathered in Loreto was not dedicated to environmental themes; he exhorted them to cultivate the virtue of humility, and “swim against the tide” of a culture based on materialism.
Yes, the Pope did indeed mention the environment in his speech at Loreto. It was only a brief mention: one paragraph in a lengthy address. But that was the one paragraph the media chose to emphasize.
So who is it, exactly, who’s conducting an “environmental blitz?”
Last week the Baltimore Sun joined in the chorus, welcoming the Pope’s focus on ecological concerns. Taking it for granted that the Pope is a convert to the “green” cause, the Sun editorial argued:
Pope Benedict’s message is most welcome because it will likely require the zeal of a missionary to persuade individuals, businesses and governments to make the sacrifices necessary to reverse practices that may soon cause more damage to the earth than can ever be repaired.
But even while saluting the Pope for his new emphasis (real or imagined) on preserving earth’s resources, the Sun lamented, with a shake of its editorial head, that “the Pontiff has bought into the ‘carbon neutral’ gimmick.” Let’s take a look at that patronizing claim, too.
Back in July, the Pontifical Council for Culture issued a bizarre statement announcing that a for-profit firm had agreed to plant enough trees in a Hungarian forest to offset the Vatican’s CO2 emissions. Thus the Vatican would become the world’s first “carbon-neutral” state. As for the firm, which was touting the project as a donation to the Holy See, the New York Times, in a perceptive analysis of the odd partnership, remarked that the firm’s donation brought it “the Vatican’s seal of approval and free publicity for its first project.”
Notice: Pope Benedict said absolutely nothing about this forestation project. The Vatican did nothing more than accept a donation. Yet because of the inordinate attention the story received in the mass media, a corporate publicity stunt has been interpreted as a sign of official Vatican support for the “carbon-neutral” approach.
Now another British newspaper, The Independent, claims that when he visits the UN next April, Pope Benedict will “deliver a powerful warning on climate change,” and enlist Catholics in the campaign to stop global warming.
Is there any evidence to sustain this remarkable journalistic scoop? No. The Independent can cite only “senior diplomatic sources” as their authority for predicting the thrust of the Pope’s message to the UN. Since that papal address has not yet even been drafted—the Pope’s speech is still more than 6 months away—we can safely classify this “news” report as sheer speculation.
Nevertheless, in the next week or two you will probably see a dozen more news stories in other publications, citing the Independent’s report. Within a month, thousands of readers will have the impression that the Pope has already embraced the cause of global warming—all on the basis of speculation from a few anonymous “diplomatic sources.”
And if that weren’t enough, the Independent story goes on to say that the Pope’s appearance in New York “will follow an unprecedented encyclical… on the subject.” That’s interesting, because in Italy, political commentators have suggested that the encyclical will focus on tax evasion—not exactly the same topic.
In fact, serious Vatican-watchers believe that the next papal encyclical will be dedicated to Catholic social teaching. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the Pope will mention the moral obligation to pay just taxes, and since tax evasion is a hot topic in Italian political circles today, that passage (if it exists) will draw heavy media coverage. Elsewhere in the western world, the intense media interest in environmental debates is a virtual guarantee that if the Pope mentions that topic the coverage will be overwhelming.
In all probability the Pope will mention environmental concerns in his encyclical; he is clearly concerned about the preservation of natural resources. But it is highly unlikely that environmental questions will be his main concern. Far more likely, the Holy Father will discuss the environment in the context of a broader overall message: a message about stewardship and solidarity, a message about reverence for creation, a message about faith in God.
Unfortunately, the mass media rarely relay the Pope’s entire message. So the environmental concerns will play in the headlines, while the Pope’s “other” message—the message that is central to his religious mission, but irrelevant to the secular concerns of political reporters—will be downplayed or ignored.
Pope Benedict does speak frequently about ecological matters. When he does, his words convey a special challenge to the secular world. Recently, for example, he told a new Irish ambassador that he admired groups dedicated to preserving natural resources. Then he added this telling observation:
How disturbing it is that not infrequently the very social and political groups that, admirably, are most attuned to the awe of God’s creation pay scant attention to the marvel of life in the womb.
You didn’t hear that message on the television news, did you?
Unlike secular environmentalists, Pope Benedict sees the cause of preserving earth’s resources as part of a greater moral challenge: the cause of preserving God’s law.