A greener shade of Pope

By  Simon Appolloni, Catholic Register Special
  • June 29, 2009
{mosimage}Ten Commandments for the Environment: Pope Benedict XVI Speaks out for Creation and Justice by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker (Ave Maria Press, softcover, 160 pages, $15.95).

Anything that helps Catholics live their lives and construct their churches today in an ecologically friendly manner ought to be a good thing. The problem with Ten Commandments for the Environment: Pope Benedict XVI Speaks out for Creation and Justice is that it won’t do these things. In fact, I fear it just might make things worse.

The purpose of this short volume is not all that clear. Woodeene Koenig-Bricker develops it in part as a homage to the Pope, in part a catechism on the environment and in part a reprimand of those who care for creation in ways that might diverge from orthodoxy as she understands it. Whose orthodoxy is being put forth here? The Pope’s, the universal church’s or hers?

{sa 1594712115}The book begins with the author trying to imagine “the moral force and power of persuasion a green Pope might have” on a world mired in a human-created ecological crisis. After crowning Benedict the greenest Pope, she puts forth, chapter by chapter, each of the “Ten Commandments for the Environment” (you can Google them) created in 2008 by Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Koenig-Bricker endeavours to demonstrate congruency between these commandments and Benedict’s own pronouncements. And there’s the rub. I don’t think it accurately portrays the correct shade of Pope Benedict’s green theology. To be sure, the difference between what Benedict is saying and what his predecessors have said, including the teachings from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and statements by bishops working for the Holy See, is not great, but the difference should not be underestimated either.

If nuance is everything in papal parlance — and it is — one need only see which words Benedict highlights and which he plays down. When he speaks in Koenig-Bricker’s book, there is a sense of modesty interspersed with feelings of “awe” (his wording) and wonder at God’s creation or cosmos, a cosmos we ought to “listen” to. One finds strains of the teachings of the late Passionist Father Thomas Berry, whose trademark is “listening to the cosmos.”

The book is guilty of faulty correlations. It’s a stretch to conclude that “by becoming man, by walking on the Earth basking in the sun, eating of its produce and interacting with its wildlife, Jesus affirmed the words of Genesis: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ ”  And while it is nice to hear that Benedict “spent part of his three-week vacation walking through the scenic landscapes in northern Italy,” it is hardly evidence to support his greenness.

Is the Pope the greenest we have had? Clearly.  He rightly deserves acclaim for striving to make the Vatican State carbon neutral by applying renewable energies (replacing cement roof tiles of the Paul VI auditorium with solar panels) and by offsetting the Vatican’s carbon emissions by planting trees (in Hungary). But it would be disingenuous not to look at the competition. His predecessor was pope for some 27 years and even he put out some pretty green statements.

Being green today is, or ought to be, vastly different to what was considered green 20 years ago. Today we know our actions are responsible for a colossal environmental crisis. Constructing solar panels is laudable, but really only a starting point. As a true moral force and power of persuasion today, a green pope ought to consider his responsibility for allowing millions of tons of greenhouse gasses to be emitted from airplane travel by pilgrims, visiting bishops and cardinals.

Had this book come out 20 years ago, it could have come across as being far more courageous and constructive. As it stands, Catholic readers receive the same message they have received for many centuries: that we are lords over nature, only we need be better at it now

To Koenig-Bricker’s credit, she certainly has her heart in the right place and underlines how the poor of the world suffer most from our environmentally unsound lives. But we need more than good intentions. Missing is a critical investigation into what our role as humans might be in light of the devastation we, as lords, have brought upon Earth.

(Appolloni is studying for a PhD in religion and environmental ethics.)

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