By Frank Wessling
There is no argument at the center of the Catholic Church about global warming or whether the environment in general is in danger. Pope Benedict XVI and the people around him understand the evidence that our habits of consumption and production can’t be sustained.
They want to be part of “new thinking” that will “prevent mankind from destroying itself,” as Archbishop Celestino Migliore told the United Nations conference on climate change Dec. 17.
The archbishop, who is the Vatican’s nuncio to the UN, asked for a global “sense of responsibility in children and adults toward environmentally sound patterns of development and stewardship of creation.”
That message had little immediate effect. Delegates to the conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, went home without doing much to change the way the world does business, even though there was general agreement that change is needed. Competition for business and for comparative advantage among the world’s nations prevents action.
The Vatican stands apart from these political and commercial worries. It can relativize those concerns, view the entire planet and its people as one family, and raise up other priorities to “safeguard creation…as a gift entrusted to everyone.”
Pope Benedict’s theme for the Jan. 1 World Peace Day this year was “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.” In his message for the day he linked peace with respect for the environment and respect for all persons. This fundamental sense of respect and care for all that makes up the human world must be what governs our activities, including personal habits and the way we think about the economy.
The UN climate change conference was supposed to help turn the world from reliance on energy from “dirty” fuels like oil and coal to focus on developing cleaner ones like the sun, wind and biomass products. But such change is uncertain in development and takes time. Without an immediate sense of crisis the political and business incentive is to go slowly — especially for those with current advantages. The poor and weak have nothing to lose by change; the comfortable rich are always threatened.
The church tries to speak for the global family, with particular awareness of the neediest brothers and sisters out on the fringe of commercial and political interest. As a result, we can say some hard things.
Almost 50 years ago, Pope John XXIII suggested in his encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) that the systems of trade and development in the world favored the rich too much at the expense of the poor and needed change. He was criticized for going beyond his competence. Popes since then have repeated the same message over and over despite the critics. The Vatican says the same thing today about protecting the environment and respecting the needs of all peoples.
Archbishop Migliore told the UN conference that “current dominant models of consumption and production are often unsustainable from the point of view of social, environmental, economic and even moral analysis.” Is this true? If we think in terms of the entire planet and its people, it certainly is.
The archbishop also said the church sees “an inseparable link between the protection of creation, education, and an ethical approach to the economy and development.” Such a link begins with that global sense of respect for all persons and the environment. It continues to be forged as we look at our personal habits and lifestyles for evidence that we live with spiritual rather than material priorities. And it is completed as we make political and commercial choices with a sense of stewardship and global fellowship.
The result, as Pope Benedict points out, is a world with a more realistic opportunity for true peace as well as healthy air, water and soil for everyone.