The World's Greenest State

vatican-solar-systemIn recent decades, the papacy has introduced some progressive changes to traditional Catholic theology, particularly in the area of environmentalism. Many scholars believe this shift was stirred by a need for the Vatican to be more relevant in today's world, but the Vatican frames it instead as a return to essential Catholic doctrine.

Whatever the cause, the church's focus on the environment began in 1971 with the publication of a document called Justice in the World, issued by the Synod of Bishops, which linked justice (the preferential option for the poor) to ecology (the preferential option for the earth).  These changes did not take root until Pope John Paul II came into power, but they continued to gain momentum during the papal reign of Benedict XVI. Pope Francis is expected to deepen this environmental focus.

In a 1979 encyclical, John Paul II discussed the threats of pollution on the natural environment; in 1987, he discussed the limits of available resources in today's society.  His message for the 1990 World Day of Peace concluded with a call for a drastic reduction in lifestyle-induced environmental impact.  But his most intriguing observation came in his 1991 encyclical, where he made a stark distinction (albeit against the typical view of social science) between human ecology and natural ecology.

Pope Benedict XVI would continue to develop John Paul II's distinction.  In 2009 he urged Catholics to treat the environment with respect, acknowledging it as a gift from God to humanity.  He eventually put his writing into action when, in one of his boldest accomplishments, he approved the installation of 2,700 solar panels atop the Vatican's Paul VI hall. These panels generate enough energy to supply the heating, cooling, and lighting for that particular building. With this one project the Vatican became the greenest state in the world in terms of energy power production per capita (200 watts), surpassing Germany (80 watts).  Pope Benedict XVI went on to purchase carbon credits, making the Vatican fully carbon-neutral and creating the first partially electric popemobile.  These efforts earned him the moniker "the green Pope."

In choosing to name himself after Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his unwavering love for the poor and creation, Pope Francis has raised the hopes of all who care for the environment. In the homily delivered at his installation Mass, Pope Francis reminded Catholics of the need to live in solidarity with the poor, emphasizing that it is they who are most affected by environmental issues.

Although it is too early to tell exactly how Pope Francis will engage with environmental issues, he has told the media that he is working on an encyclical draft that will cover the issue extensively. Let us pray that the newest pope will bring even greater environmental unity and concern to Catholic theology and praxis.

– Landon Eckhardt

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