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The Green Popes



Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 02/05/15

Pope Francis is not the first to take on stewardship of the environment

Is Pope Francis the “green pope”? The news is out that he is planning an encyclical on the environment and that he will advocate measures to counter global climate change. “Climate change” is one of the favorite causes of left wing activists, so this news has raised Pope Francis’ status with progressives. They like to portray him as the reforming, “gay-friendly” pope who is an advocate of the poor, the downtrodden and generally in favor of all radical causes. The fact that he has taken the name “Francis” (and St. Francis — preacher to the birds, tamer of wolves and lover of nature — is the patron of environmental causes) means that Pope Francis is held in high esteem by environmental campaigners.

While Pope Francis is working on an encyclical on the environment we shouldn’t imagine that this is anything new. In 1990, Pope John Paul II went on record during a speech on the World Day of Peace urging Catholics to regard the natural world as one of God’s creations worth protecting and Benedict XVI was so involved in environmental issues that he was called the “Green Pope.” Benedict spoke out at the 2010 World Day of Peace saying, "If we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us." He followed that with a report from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences recommending that world leaders cut carbon dioxide emissions, reduce existing pollution, and prepare for the inevitable impacts of a changing climate.

Benedict also did what he could at the Vatican. He approved a plan to cover the Vatican’s Paul VI hall with solar panels, enough to power the lighting, heating, and cooling of a portion of the Vatican city. He also purchased carbon credits by funding a Hungarian forest that would make the Catholic city-state the only country fully carbon neutral. Several years later, he unveiled a new hybrid Popemobile that would be partially electric.

National Geographic reports that  Walter Grazer, an adviser to the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) praised Benedict’s efforts. "I think it’s remarkable how much attention he gave to the environment; this for him was a big theme,"

If any recent pope was a pioneer in the church’s advocacy of responsible stewardship of the environment it was Benedict XVI. He realized that environmental issues are not simply a trendy ideology but that these issues are connected with serious human welfare matters. Concern for the environment is linked with concern for the poor. Glazer said about Benedict, "He has a great concern for what was going to happen to the poorest people as a result of environmental destruction”.

Once again, we see with the pope’s concerns a deeper and more unified concern, methodology and philosophy. While the secular press would like to paint Pope Francis as a friend of tree-hugging beardy weirdies, the conservatives are likely to experience a knee-jerk reaction against the pope. While the progressives rejoice one can hear the conservatives moaning about “Hippie Pope Frank.” Both sides have misunderstood the real issues at hand. Catholic concern for the best stewardship of the world’s resources is part of the whole expanse of Catholic social teaching, and Pope Benedict and Francis’ concerns must be set in the historic context of the whole of Catholic social teaching.

In a comprehensive article J.J.Ziegler outlines the depth of thinking behind the church’s stance on environmental issues. He quotes Kyle Kramer, author of A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt. “The world is God’s creation, and our role is to care for it responsibly, for the sake of all people and other creatures — especially the poor, and especially future generations…the Church challenges us to act in solidarity with creation and with the poor: by aiding those most affected by environmental problems, like climate change and drought, by simplifying our personal lifestyle and consumption, and by advocating for political and economic reform that will lead to long-term social and ecological sustainability.”

Concern for the environment is not only part of concern for the poor, it is also linked with authentic spirituality. William Patenaude, who blogs at Catholic Ecology comments, the challenge of being good stewards of the earth’s resources “is contained within the very challenge of what we should be doing anyway: living a sober, temperate, virtuous, sacramental, incarnational, God- and neighbor-centered holy life. When one first seeks one’s own sanctification — when one struggles to live a virtuous life — one is less inclined to behaviors that diminish human dignity and damage ecosystems…excessive consumption by individuals is most often a symptom of a soul not at rest — of seeking fulfillment from worldly things.”

As part of the integrated social teaching of the Catholic church, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment will most certainly place this problem in the wider context, connecting the dots to show that concern for the environment has economic, demographic and sociological implications. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors who consistently taught on social concerns, Pope Francis’ teaching will spring first and foremost from concern for the salvation of humanity and the church’s compassion not just for creation, but for the whole human family.

Fr Dwight Longenecker is a parish priest in South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at And read Fr Longenecker’s Lent book, Slubgrip Instructs. Go here to learn more.

EnvironmentPope Benedict XVIPope Francis
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