Ecological Turn at the Vatican

COMMENTARY: The working document for the Pan-Amazonian synod, and two other recently released documents, suggest that environmental policies will be treated as magisterial matters.

Children go to school by canoe on the Maranon River, a main tributary of the Amazon River in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, on May 24. The upcoming Pan-Amazonian synod will address issues of importance to the Church in the Amazon region.
Children go to school by canoe on the Maranon River, a main tributary of the Amazon River in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, on May 24. The upcoming Pan-Amazonian synod will address issues of importance to the Church in the Amazon region. (photo: Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

Three recent documents indicate that the publication of Laudato Si in 2015, the environmental encyclical of Pope Francis, marks a new shift in Vatican pronouncements on the environment.

This departure from previous practice has become most pronounced on environmental matters, with the Holy See employing its teaching and diplomacy to advocate for specific policy outcomes that are usually left to the prudential judgment of the lay faithful engaged in politics. 

Laudato Si dealt broadly with how man should care for his “common home,” the natural world of creation in light of the Gospel. But it also took positions on disputed scientific theories and entered the U.N.-driven climate-change policy process. Most famously, the Holy Father himself said that he wanted the encyclical published in 2015 so that it could influence the December 2015 climate-change conference in Paris.

Four years on, that shift toward particular policy options is working its way through the Holy See’s pronouncements on environmental matters.

In a May 24 message to the “scientific community” for the fourth anniversary of Laudato Si, Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, wrote very specifically about climate change — very specifically, indeed, citing the goal of keeping average global temperatures below an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“The 1.5°C threshold is a critical physical threshold,” wrote Cardinal Turkson, saying that it would “still enable the avoidance of many destructive impacts of climate change caused by man.” He continues that climate change has already reached “unprecedented proportions,” causing “extreme meteorological conditions, such as drought, flooding, rising sea level, devastating storms and ferocious fires.”

Cardinal Turkson went further, moving from a scientific claim and policy imperative to a moral and religious claim.

“The 1.5°C threshold is also a moral threshold,” he wrote. “It is the last chance to save all those countries and many millions of vulnerable people who live in coastal regions.”

“It is useful to assume that 1.5°C is also a religious threshold,” Cardinal Turkson continued, suggesting that the 1.5-degree threshold has a theological significance. “The world we are destroying is the gift of God to humanity, precisely that house sanctified by the divine Spirit (Ruah) at the beginning of creation, the place where he pitched his tent among us (John 1:14).”

On June 14, Pope Francis met with executives from the largest oil companies in the world, a second “dialogue” that followed a similar meeting held last year.

Declaring a “climate emergency,” the Holy Father spoke this year not only about the 1.5-degree threshold, but the means to achieve it, saying that “carbon pricing” — whether by taxation or cap-and-trade schemes — was “essential if humanity is to use the resources of creation wisely.”

“Time is running out!” declared Pope Francis.

A few days later, the working document for this October’s special synod for the “Pan-Amazonian Region” was released. The theme of the synod is “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”

The ecological component, which constitutes a major part of the working document, strikes the same apocalyptic tone used recently by the Holy Father and Cardinal Turkson.

“[Amazonia is a] wounded and deformed beauty, a place of pain and violence,” the document says. “Violence, chaos and corruption are rampant. The territory has become a place of strife and of extermination of peoples, cultures and generations.”

The synod document is for discussion, so specific proposals are not endorsed, but there is a clear indication of what the synod fathers will discuss. And the 2018 changes made to the rules of the synod mean that Pope Francis may, if he wishes, determine that the final synod document will have magisterial status of its own.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, presenting the document at a news conference, indicated the scope of what will be discussed:

“The highly significant issues of the Pan-Amazon reality are taken into consideration, such as, for example: extractive destruction; threats to and protection of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation; the complex problem of migration, with its causes and consequences; the ever-present and growing phenomenon of urbanization; the social changes that affect the family and make it vulnerable; the devastating problem of corruption, a true structural moral scourge; and the question of integral health and integral education, conceived as encounter and conversion towards an integral ecology.”

The issue of logging and mining, of urban development, of migration — all of these environmental topics will provide the synod fathers with the opportunity to endorse specific policy measures to be observed by the governments of the Amazonian region. The working document draws heavily upon Laudato Si, and the synod will likely follow the path of declaring itself on specific policy options.

The Amazonian synod will take up questions of a specifically theological nature, touching upon Revelation, the liturgy and the sacraments. But it may be that matters of environmental policy will be treated as magisterial matters, too.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.