Listening to the news over the past year, one would think the Vatican was reinventing Catholicism in an effort to go green. First there was the story that the Vatican was sponsoring a forest to offset the carbon emissions of Vatican City. Then we found out that the Vatican had come up with seven new deadly sins, among them polluting the environment. The UK’s Telegraph even ran the headline “Recycle or go to Hell, warns Vatican.” And in July, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Pope Benedict XVI, like many world leaders, has spoken passionately about the urgent need to protect the planet from climate catastrophe.”
Is the Vatican jumping on the environmental crisis bandwagon? Not quite. For those who have not been paying attention, the Catholic Church has a longstanding commitment to environmental stewardship. Recent media coverage, however, has morphed that stance into something like the fanaticism that accompanies fundamentalist pantheism. As with most misrepresentations, there are elements of truth.
The Vatican does indeed have a carbon-offset partnership. In 2007, a Hungarian start-up company offered to donate a 37-acre tract where forests will be restored, theoretically sequestering approximately the same amount of carbon that Vatican City generates annually through routine operations. The cardinals agreed to accept the donation but did not exactly proclaim the virtues of the dubious concept of carbon offsets as a global warming mitigation strategy. Rather, the Vatican focused on the direct benefits of the restored forests. In a statement to the UN General Assembly in February, Vatican representative Msgr. Celestino Migliore said of the Holy See, “With its involvement in a reforestation project in Hungary, it will provide environmental benefits to the host country, assist in the recovery of an environmentally degraded tract of land, and provide local jobs.”
What about the story that crimes against the environment are a modern deadly sin? Far from being a pronouncement on the evils of environmental degradation, the comments were actually taken from an interview in the Vatican newspaper with Bishop Gianfranco Girotti on the value of the sacrament of Confession. Bishop Girotti spoke of the relevance of Confession at a time when the world is increasingly complex and interconnected. He explained that today the concept of sin takes on unique social, in addition to personal, dimensions.
Bishop Girotti mentioned as examples the issues of bioethics, drug use, social and economic inequalities, and environmental issues. News reports proclaimed the Vatican had issued new deadly sins, but Bishop Girotti was neither acting as an official Vatican spokesman nor inventing any “new” sins. Instead, he encouraged Catholics to think broadly and deeply about the nature of sin and the need for reconciliation.
The Vatican has been vocal on environmental issues, but rarely frames the situation as urgently catastrophic. To the UN General Assembly in 2007, a Vatican official said, “[t]he best scientific assessments available have established a link between human activity and climate change. However, the results of these scientific assessments, and the remaining uncertainties, should neither be exaggerated nor minimized in the name of politics, ideologies or self-interest. Rather they now need to be studied closely in order to give a sound basis for raising awareness and making effective policy decisions.”
En route to World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, in late July, Pope Benedict was asked about the climate-change issue, after noting that particularly among youth, environmental concerns rank among their strongest interests. He responded, “It’s not my intention to enter into the technical questions which politicians and specialists have to resolve, but to offer essential impulses for seeing the responsibility, for being capable of responding to this great challenge: rediscovering in Creation the face of the Creator, rediscovering our responsibility before the Creator for the Creation which he has entrusted to us . . . ”
This viewpoint is not new for the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II said in a 1990 address that “the commitment of believers to a healthy environment for everyone stems directly from their belief in God the Creator, from their recognition of the effects of original and personal sin, and from the certainty of having been redeemed by Christ. Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God.”
As these cases show, what the Vatican actually has to say about the environment is not quite the same as what the media wants the Vatican to say. Reporters should stick to the facts and resist the temptation to impute their favorite environmental orthodoxies. When the media gets it wrong, they can take a cue from Bishop Girotti. A little confession of their lapses would certainly be helpful.