Common Ground Hard to Find for Church and Environmental Activists

VATICAN CITY — It seems that all the latest news about the environment has been negative.

Take the month of March, for example: A cover story in Time magazine told readers to be “very worried” about catastrophic future climate changes; findings published in the U.S. journal Science warned that global warming could melt much of the ice in Greenland and raise sea levels by 10 feet by 2100; a European study found current levels of greenhouse gases are higher now that at any time in the past 650,000 years; and a British government report cautioned that carbon emissions are likely to bring more natural catastrophes to the world’s poorest in Africa and Asia.

“We’re at the stage where drastic action is required,” said Jim Footner, spokesman for Greenpeace. “There is certainly a moral obligation to take action, and I would imagine that for the Roman Catholic Church it’s time to step it up a gear because we’re running out of time — in five to 10 years it will be too late.”

While some scientists still dispute that a link has been proven between human industrial activity and destructive global warming, the widening public consensus on the issue has left the Church vulnerable to charges that it is insufficiently concerned about environmental issues — particularly when compared to pro-life and pro-family issues such as abortion, bioethics and the definition of marriage.

The subject of man’s respect for nature and his correct relation to it is covered comprehensively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, particularly in No. 2415: “The Seventh Commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. … Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.”

An entire chapter is also devoted to the environment and the “ecological crisis” in the new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Cardinal Martino

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and former Vatican representative to the United Nations, said this demonstrates that the environment is “very, very important” to the Holy See and that it takes the issue seriously.

Cardinal Martino also pointed out that, as a permanent observer to the United Nations, the Holy See has participated in every major environmental conference, most notably playing an instrumental role in placing the human person at the center of development during the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro.

Through its participation in such conferences, the Holy See can draw attention to this issue, the cardinal said, and has been able to promote and “many times succeed” in reaching a consensus on environmental protection.

Cardinal Martino added that local bishops and national bishops’ conferences are satisfied with the Holy See’s approach.

“Perhaps there is this perception that the Church is not so intense about the environment, but there is action, and I cannot but encourage action,” he said. “We have participated in all the Kyoto meetings.”

He was referring to the conference in Japan that resulted in countries agreeing to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases. As of February 2006, 162 countries have ratified what is known as the Kyoto Protocol.

However, the Holy See is the only state not to have signed up to an environmental treaty, even though it is a signatory of other international accords including disarmament and child protection. Cardinal Martino said the reason is not because the Holy See disagrees with the treaties or because of a lack of interest in environmental issues, but because the Holy See is a “particular kind of state without territorial extension on which there can be verification.”

The problems for the Holy See are twofold with respect to signing on to environmental treaties, according to Kishore Jayabalan, Rome director of the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. First, there are problems related to “environmentalism and Christian anthropology;” and second, there are “very burdensome” reporting requirements for environmental accords.

Whereas disarmament treaties require simple clarification, environmental accords demand “intrusive reporting” on a wide variety of items, said Jayabalan, who is also a former official at the Council for Justice and Peace. The Vatican, he said, has a small number of staff and property that is spread out so it would be “onerous to comply.”

“Which monsignor is going to go around every Vatican office, checking aerosols, air conditioning systems and refrigerators?” he said.

Radical Element

Concerns about radical environmentalism are the other major factor in the Holy See’s wariness regarding international environmental treaties. Many environmentalists have a sharply differing worldview from the Church, which teaches that God gave man dominion over creation in a good sense, with stewardship to care for the environment and make good use of it.

“The Church teaches that man is at the center of creation and is its highest form,” Jayabalan said. “But environmentalists — particularly radicals — tend to look at man as the destroyer of creation.”

Such a worldview has frequently led to environmentalists advocating population-control measures, favoring abortion, placing rights of nature above man, and idolizing the environment. Cardinal Martino said the Holy See looks “with concern on these exaggerations.”

And, the cardinal said, the continuing influence of environmental extremism would probably prevent the Holy See from signing environmental treaties, although he did not rule out the possibility.

Greenpeace’s Footner countered that his group is not advocating anti-life policies but simply calling for responsibility towards the planet, more sharing of resources and a more efficient use of energy resources. To do this, he said, a more “vociferous” Church can only help.

“If we have a moral responsibility to mitigate the threats to being good and responsible stewards, then I would implore Catholics to take action, and part of that action would be to sign up to a treaty,” said Footner.

But whether the Holy See does so or not, Footner acknowledged that the Church is key to placing environmental concerns in the proper perspective. “The Church has a massive following and a role to play in this,” said Footner. “We need a unified voice and to take action now, so let’s get on and do it.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.

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