VATICAN CITY — After decades of disagreement between the green movement and the Church over the correct approach for protecting the environment, a shift in attitudes may be taking place that could herald a new era of collaboration between the Vatican and environmentalists.

According to Msgr. James Reinert, an official at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, environmentalist groups appear to be moving away from the eco-centric approach of the past.

“At the last meetings I attended on the protection of creation and climate change there was definitely more seriousness, if you can call it that,” Msgr. Reinert told the Register. “There was a real shift away from the radical, which I found very encouraging and I came away from the meeting with a very good feeling.”

Although he believes environmental activists’ attitudes haven’t changed drastically, Msgr. Reinert said their new approach was certainly in contrast to meetings of the past that “were really a waste of time because of their tone and mood.”

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace does not regard environmental degradation as the most important issue the council deals with. Consequently, the council’s officials are not concentrating on it now more than five years ago, though it remains one of their key priorities.

However, the council is expected to produce a new paper on climate change in the coming months.

Demonizing Man

For some years, the Vatican has hoped that environmentalists would place human dignity, rather than the earth’s well-being, at the center of the debate. In the past, the movement has tended to take a radical approach, demonizing man as the destroyer of creation and placing human beings on the same level as other living creatures, rather than viewing them as stewards of creation with the ability to protect nature and utilize it intelligently for the benefit of humanity.

“The environmentalist movement, in its origins as a political movement, is anti-human and has criticized Christianity for its belief in man’s dominion and stewardship over the earth,” said Kishore Jayabalan, Rome director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. “I’m sure some environmentalists aren’t as radical, but they are probably just confused about what they actually want.”

Jayabalan said the solution to environmental problems isn’t to diminish humanity’s impact on the Earth by abandoning consumerism and economic growth, as many green activists demand. He said the real challenge is to use human creativity and technology to develop more environmentally friendly ways of living.

“Cutting back on using fossil fuels and other energy sources disproportionately hurts poor people,” said Jayabalan. “Scratch the surface of the environmentalist movement and what you’ve seen is not only an anti-Christian approach, but also one that’s against human activity, particularly when it comes to making profits.”

Greenpeace, probably the world’s highest-profile environmental group, rejects the perspectives described by Jayabalan.

“People are central to the work that we do,” said Emily Armistead, spokeswoman for Greenpeace U.K. “Making changes doesn’t necessarily mean pulling back on the lives that we already lead or preventing the poor from having the standard of living we have, and it’s absolutely right to say that we need to look at technology and solutions that are already available.”

Rather than focusing on reducing fossil fuel production, the Greenpeace representative said it is currently lobbying the U.K. government to decentralize Britain’s energy system to produce less waste and cut carbon emissions — a project that Armistead argued would actually “increase people’s standard of living.”

The Greenpeace spokeswoman also denied that environmentalists have an absolutist view of nature that places it above the dignity of the human person.

“If I may say, that’s a very outdated view, a very old-school style of environmentalism that doesn’t exist anymore,” Armistead said. “All organizations campaigning for the environment put people at the center.”

Benedict XVI

The urgency to tackle global warming and other environmental problems has not escaped the notice of Pope Benedict XVI.

The Pope has spoken three times recently about the need to safeguard creation, starting in June when he addressed the Second World Congress of Ecclesial Movements. Christians must seek “true freedom” that comes from the Holy Spirit, the Holy Father said, not “fictitious forms of freedom that destroy the environment and the human being.”

More recently, on two occasions during the run-up to the Church in Italy’s first “Day for the Safeguarding of Creation” on Sept. 1, Benedict called for better care of the environment and warned that lifestyle choices are causing its deterioration and making the “lives of poor people on earth especially unbearable.”

Speaking to pilgrims Aug. 27, he said Christians must commit themselves “to taking care of creation, without squandering its resources and sharing them in a convivial manner.” Later, he drew attention to creation as a “gift from God” that is “increasingly exposed to serious risks of environmental degradation, and which should be defended and protected.”

The Pope’s comments were welcomed by environmentalists. And many green activists agree with the Holy Father’s statement that residents of poor countries bear the brunt of environmental neglect.

Armistead said that organizations like Greenpeace pay careful attention to what the Church and other religions say about the environment.

Said Armistead, “There’s always room to work together, to put these very important issues higher up on the agenda.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.