A closer look at the pope's environmental message


After months of focusing on the potential cost overruns and possible crowd shortfalls of World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, journalists covering the event last week suddenly started praising Pope Benedict XVI's charms and rapport with the young.

The change in attitude stemmed partly from Benedict's undeniable popularity: His closing Mass on Sunday attracted 400,000 people, the largest crowd ever assembled in Australia. Perhaps more importantly, the shift followed Benedict's repeated mentions last week of environmental awareness, a cause close to the hearts of Western media elites.

Given that no lobby is more fashionable or feted today than the environmental movement, it's unsurprising that so many pundits consider Benedict's eco-consciousness his best quality. Many of the same critics who once panned him as the "Panzer Cardinal" for his theological orthodoxy now hail Benedict as "the green pope."

They applaud his decision to install solar panels in Vatican buildings and plant trees in a Hungarian national park to offset the Vatican's carbon emissions. They note with approval that Vatican City is the world's first "carbon-neutral" state. And they report with breathless enthusiasm whenever Benedict or one of his deputies affirms the environmental cause, as Bishop Gianfranco Girotti appeared to do in March when he included environmental pollution among new forms of social sin.

Of course, the other social sins Girotti highlighted — among them, genetic manipulation of human embryos and recreational drug use — received much less media attention. Not surprisingly, Benedict's environmental pronouncements in Australia have fallen prey to similarly selective reporting.

Most news accounts said that Benedict made environmental protection a key theme of his World Youth Day remarks. But anyone who read Benedict's address knew that his environmental references came in the context of criticism of societies where protecting children from pornography or defending the sanctity of human life takes a back seat to hugging trees and saving spotted owls.

In speaking to the young, Benedict acknowledged their concerns about the degradation of the natural environment but reminded them that "the social environment — the habitat we fashion for ourselves" also has scars.

In speaking to the young, Benedict acknowledged their concerns about the degradation of the natural environment but reminded them that "the social environment — the habitat we fashion for ourselves" also has scars. Among them are "the exaltation of violence and sexual degradation" in media and entertainment and the materialistic mentality that tempts us to spend our lives acquiring things rather than virtues.

Benedict especially lamented the failure to "recognize that the innate dignity of every individual rests on his or her deepest identity — as image of the Creator — and therefore that human rights are universal, based on the natural law."

Just as you work to protect the natural world from exploitation, Benedict told the young, you also must defend the dignity of the unborn, elderly and poor from those who fail to recognize the human person as the pinnacle of the created world.

The pope urged his listeners to apply the same discipline and sacrificial spirit that drives them to recycle cans and conserve fuel to their spending practices, sexual choices and prayer habits. They should worry not only about disappearing rainforests but also about the spread of "a spiritual desert" of "interior emptiness" and "despair" in wealthy nations. And they should follow their respect for the limits of nature to its logical conclusion by recognizing objective moral limits on their own behavior as well.

Far from parroting predictable environmentalist mantras, Benedict's remarks pointed his listeners to a more satisfying, person-centered model of environmental stewardship. That model emphasizes precisely the unique human capacity for moral reflection and openness to the transcendent that many eco-warriors dismiss in their eagerness to prove that plants and animals matter as much as we do. Although reporters covering World Youth Day may have missed the profundity of Benedict's point, the enthusiastic response of his audiences suggests that the young heard him loud and clear.



Colleen Carroll Campbell. "A closer look at the pope's environmental message." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (July 24, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.


Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and former presidential speechwriter.  Her new book, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, will be published by the Image imprint of Random House on October 30. Colleen is also the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. She writes a weekly op-ed column for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch, blogs on religion and politics for The New York Times and The Washington Post, speaks to audiences across America, and hosts her own television and radio show, "Faith & Culture," on EWTN, the world's largest religious media network.  Her website is here.

Copyright © 2008 Colleen Carroll Campbell

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