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Globe & Mail features Catholic eco-action and Benedictine Handbook

November 19, 2007:

"Pope Benedict XVI has picked up his predecessor's green theme and is pushing it hard. This time it appears to be sticking. Where endless scientific warnings have failed, can religion now succeed?"

The Pope and his billion-plus followers have seen the ecological light, Eric Reguly of the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper reports. Now the world will find out whether faith can move mountains.


Saturday, October 27, 2007 - Page F1 Globe and Mail

ROME -- To some Catholics, confirmation of paradise lost came on New Year's Day, 1990, when a hunched old man talked about a planet "suffering" from environmental degradation. His language was direct and forceful. He mentioned "the threat of ecological breakdown" and "uncontrolled deforestation" and how the culture of "instant gratification and consumerism" was tearing the world apart. He called the "greenhouse effect" a crisis, the result of "vastly increased energy needs."

"Elegantly written and impeccably researched, it discusses the sources of pollution and offers suggestions on how to cure or reduce them..." Review of Listening to the Earth by Toronto's Globe and Mail.
The man was Pope John Paul II and he issued his climate-change warning a full seven years before the Kyoto Protocol came to life. But his public message - "Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation" - delivered on the World Day of Peace celebration, was soon forgotten. A war in the Persian Gulf was about to start.

Seventeen years and one pope later, stories about environmental degradation in general and climate change in particular are gripping the media, world leaders and scientists. The weight of evidence says climate change is real, caused by human activity, accelerating and potentially catastrophic to life on Earth. Australian scientists this week said the growth rate in the emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, has averaged 3.3 per cent a year since 2000, compared with 1.1 per cent in the 1990s.

The world's billion-plus Catholics (among 2.1 billion Christians) pretty much ignored the dire environmental warnings, which John Paul repeated often during the rest of his Vatican stay. But now the conservative German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, has picked up his predecessor's green theme and is pushing it hard. This time it appears to be sticking. Where endless scientific warnings have failed, can religion now succeed?

Cardinals and bishops and priests are using the pulpit to convince the faithful that the Earth is god's creation and should be protected. Men in robes are making presentations at climate-change conferences and in classrooms, writing articles and going on TV to spread the message. The Catholic Church does not believe climate change is purely the province of scientists, environmental groups and politicians.

"We just can't leave this problem to them," says Christopher Toohey, 55, bishop of a desert diocese in New South Wales, a Vatican adviser on climate change and the chairman of Catholic Earthcare, the Australian bishops' ecological agency. "The Vatican has to be there too. Good religion makes good human beings, and good human beings relate to the world around them."

France's Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which oversees the Vatican's cultural, educational and scientific activities, cites the church's religious and moral obligations to take action.

"The Book of Genesis," he has said, "tells us of a beginning in which God placed man as guardian over the Earth to make it fruitful. When man forgets that he is a faithful servant of this Earth, it becomes a desert that threatens the survival of all creation."


The Vatican knows it must practise what it preaches if its green messages are to be taken seriously. Early last month, Pope Benedict led the first eco-friendly Catholic youth rally, in Loreto, a shrine city on Italy's Adriatic coast. As many as 500,000 people attended. They were given backpacks made from recyclable material and crank-powered flashlights. The prayer books were printed on recycled paper and meals were served on recycled plates. The Pope said: "Courageous choices that can recreate a strong alliance between man and Earth must be made before it is too late."

Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, called Loreto a test run. "What is more powerful than words is example, like Loreto," he said. "The Loreto pattern will probably be repeated at World Youth Day," a reference to the far bigger Catholic rally to be held next July in Sydney.

Several weeks before the rally, Cardinal Poupard announced that the Vatican - population 700, with about 100 registered cars, one gas station and no industry - would become the world's first carbon-neutral state. It is doing so by planting hundreds of trees in Hungary's BЭkk National Park. The project, called the Vatican Climate Forest in Europe, will be large enough to offset its relatively tiny carbon-dioxide emissions. In a few months, Vatican engineers will install more than 1,000 solar panels on the roof of Paul VI Hall, which is as big a football field and holds 12,000 people.

Pope Benedict also approves of nuclear energy because it is non-polluting, and is under some pressure from the greenest Catholics to say a mass on a melting glacier or in a disappearing rain forest. The tactic would buy him global media coverage, but would risk being seen as "gimmicky" or "grandstanding," Bishop Toohey says.

Still, given the Pope's green agenda, such a mass would come as no surprise. There are also rumours that he will issue an encyclical on the environment next year. Formal statements sent to the bishops, encyclicals are rare and considered "the most important messages" from the pope, Father Sanchez says.

The rising papal awareness of the environment has mobilized so many like-minded people that it is attracting academic interest - a program in religion and ecology developed by husband-and-wife scholars Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim at Yale University.

U.S. bishops are using their year-old Catholic Coalition on Climate Change to conduct forums on faith and climate change and are running workshops to help individual churches reduce their carbon footprints.

And last year, the Benedictine Sisters in Erie, Pa., published a 200-page document called Listening to the Earth: An Environmental Audit for Benedictine Communities. Financed by the World Bank, elegantly written and impeccably researched, it discusses the sources of pollution and offers suggestions on how to cure or reduce them, right down to what to make of white smoke from a diesel engine ("faulty fuel-injection system").

In a sense, the Catholic Church is going full circle, says Rev. Paul Haffner, a Briton who teaches a course based on a book he has written, entitled Toward a Theology of the Environment, at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University.

According to Father Haffner, there was a time when Catholics respected the environment; it was part of their religious "community." Then came the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Religion became a "private matter," and the environment suffered. Now, the church is trying to return environmental conservation to the religious fold.

Which is why Bishop Toohey says it is no accident that the Vatican's ecological push is being championed by "conservatives" like himself and popes John Paul and Benedict. "We may be theological conservatives," he says. "But we also see our role in coming from the classic definition of conservatism - I see my role as conserving something."


While the bishops, priests, nuns and academics raise public awareness about ecological protection and climate change, the 80-year-old pontiff is delivering a steady flow of green messages, addresses and speeches that break from the papal tradition of subtle and sometimes hesitant language.

Some of the reasons for his keen environmental awareness may be personal. Germans in general are among the greenest of Europeans. Also, "he's Bavarian, grew up close to the Alps and has a link to nature," Father Sanchez says. And Germany's experience in the Second World War no doubt made him even more aware of man's destructive tendencies.

"Today, we all see that man can destroy the foundations of his existence, his Earth," he said in July while speaking at a small church in northern Italy. "Hence, we can no longer simply do what we like or what seems useful and promising at the time with this Earth of ours, with the reality entrusted on us."

In other words, Catholics have to smarten up before they destroy what God entrusted them to protect. But, practically speaking, will the church's message, or that of any religion, save the planet? Catholics in the Western world tend to be independent thinkers who don't automatically march to the pope's orders. The anti-abortion and anti-contraception stances of the past two popes are widely ignored. Why will the environmental campaign be any different?

Catholic academics and theologians think that the two types of message cannot be compared. Deciding to have an abortion is a highly personal and agonizing matter. Recycling pop bottles is not. Scientific evidence of the dangers of climate change is abundant. Father Haffner notes that the Benedictines and the Franciscans have a long tradition of environmental awareness - in fact, St. Francis was made the patron saint of the environment by Pope John Paul II.

Environmental groups such as Conservation International (CI) of Washington D.C., an independent organization focused on preserving biodiversity, say all faiths can play a credible role in raising awareness about climate change precisely because they are not seen as lobbyists or scientific, environmental or political organizations.

Politicians have short attention spans and are easy to ignore, scientists often couch their findings in probabilities and environmental groups, with their consistently dire warnings, can scare people into inaction.

Hard-core greenies, Bishop Toohey told a pontifical climate-change conference in April, are "perceived by the general population as negative and 'finger waving.'... Telling people things are bad all the time and we are to blame is quite simply bad psychology. This makes people feel disempowered, demoralized and fatalistic."

Enter religion. "In a vacuum created by the lack of political leadership and the [climate change] wiggle room from the scientists, you have to seek the moral authority and leadership from another area," says Ben Campbell, director of a Conservation International program that helps religions develop conservation and preservation partnerships. "The churches, mosques and synagogues can provide this authority."

The 41-year-old Lutheran is especially optimistic that religion can produce ecological success stories in the developing world, such as Latin America and Africa, where religious groups are often big landowners (the Russian Orthodox Church controls the use of 18.5 million hectares of Siberian forest) and have more influence in secular life than in Europe or North America. Take the case of the church, the palm and the parrot.


In Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador, the little yellow-eared parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis) was facing extinction. The bird's habitat is the wax palm, itself an endangered species having been cut by the millions for use as fronds in Palm Sunday celebrations (to commemorate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem). By the late 1990s, the population had shrunk to a mere 81 parrots in Colombia and none in Ecuador.

In came CI. It formed a partnership with the church, the Episcopalian Conference of Colombia and a local environmental group to protect the parrot through a campaign that mixed religion, science and mass media. It worked. The churches found a frond alternative to the wax palm and the parrot population has bounced back, to 642 by last year. Now, the save-the-parrot campaign, called "Reconcile with Nature," is trying to reintroduce the bird to Ecuador.

Christianity is not the only faith mobilizing the green forces. The October issue of Geographical Magazine, published by Britain's Royal Geographical Society, tells the story of a reef off the Tanzanian island of Misali that was one of the Indian Ocean's major turtle-nesting sites. But in the 1990s, local fishermen swapped their nets for dynamite, which was great for catching fish - they just needed to be scooped up afterward - but shattered the reef and its biodiversity.

A government campaign to educate the fishermen didn't work. Neither did a ban on dynamite; the fishermen ignored it. Things turned in the reef's favour, the magazine reports, only with the arrival of Fazlun Khalid, director of the British-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Scientists. He convinced the fisherman that Allah embraces everything and nature requires stewardship, which doesn't include dynamite. The blasting stopped and the reef is being protected.

But the Vatican has the potential to exert influence even greater than that of Islam. Where mosques tend to be autonomous and not subject to central authority, Catholicism is one of the few highly centralized religions. Also, it has few layers of bureaucracy, making rapid communication easy - the pope can send out a green message and expect it to filter down in a hurry. "Every bishop has his own diocese," Father Sanchez says. "If the pope acts in a certain way, the bishops react."

Bishop Toohey says the Catholic Church "can be a very powerful agent for change," and CI's Mr. Campbell agrees, although neither expects Catholics to turn into ecological knights in shining green armour overnight, given the rate at which human behaviour changes.

But there's a good chance that Benedict will go down as a "green" pope, especially if he issues an encyclical on the environment and turns the next World Youth Day into a sort of environmental or climate change Woodstock.

In a sense, this would do a disservice to John Paul because, as Gregorian University's Father Haffner points out, it was his message in 1990, which referred to the "greenhouse effect" years before the term became popular, that became "the foundation of the Catholic Church's position on ecology."

That may be true, but his successor also deserves a lot of credit - for his impeccable timing.

Eric Reguly is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Rome.

Signs the Vatican has seen the light

The billion-plus-member Roman Catholic Church:

** Sponsored a Conference on Climate Change and Development in Rome in April.

** Is offsetting its carbon-dioxide emissions by planting trees in Hungary's BЭkk National Park

** Will install 1,000 solar panels on the roof of Paul VI Hall, near St. Peter's Basilica.

** Held the first eco-friendly youth rally in Loreto, Italy, last month and plans the same theme for the larger World Youth Day rally next year in Australia.

** Is encouraging individual dioceses and churches to offset or reduce their carbon footprints

** May issue an encyclical, the ultimate papal message, on the environment next year.

Environmental quotations from Biblical teachings

"The Lord God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it." Genesis 2:15 cited by Catholics who see humanity's role as stewards of nature, not its masters)

"And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." Genesis 1:31 cited by Pope John Paul II in 1990 to show that God entrusted creation to human care

"Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and even the fish of the sea are taken away." Hosea 4:3 cited by Pope John Paul II to back his belief that Earth suffers when humanity turns its back on Creation.

2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed, without profit, for research and educational purposes only.

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