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The environmental(ist) degradation of St. Peter's

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 09, 2015

Almost as soon as the Year of Mercy was formally opened, the concept of Divine Mercy was trivialized by a light show, with images of the environment displayed across the façade of St. Peter’s basilica.

Pope Francis took pains, in Laudato Si’, to draw a connection between the faith of the Catholic Church and the public concern for environmental degradation. But there was no effort to integrate faith into this show; it was a purely secular display.

(Sure, a few folks have tried to discover a hidden religious symbol. Was the dove a reference to the Holy Spirit? Was that the Lion of Judah? Relax. You’re straining yourself. It’s not there.)

What the picture show did accomplish was to draw public attention away from God’s mercy, toward a political cause. For all practical purposes, this was a campaign advertisement, produced by foundations that are backed by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals.

Granted, the show was an impressive technical achievement. If it had been displayed against a massive flat screen, no one should have objected. Then again, not many people would have noticed. The show drew worldwide attention precisely because it was displayed on the Vatican basilica.

The façade of St. Peter’s is not just another large building, providing a mostly flat background. It is a sacred space: a building dedicated to divine worship. It is also a universally recognized symbol of the Catholic faith. The message of the light show was to put environmentalism in the foreground, with the Catholic faith serving as a backdrop.

Could this show have been staged against the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem? I hope not; the idea is repugnant. Yet it was staged in St. Peter’s Square with the active endorsement of the Vatican. Why?

This environmentalist show could also have been displayed against a background redolent of natural beauty: the wall of the Grand Canyon, say; or the white cliffs of Dover. Such a site would have seemed far more consistent with the message of the show. But again, the producers had a specific goal in mind: to enlist religious support, without supporting religion.

The sophisticated foundation executives who suborned the Vatican to arrange this show knew exactly what they were doing. Let’s hope that their Vatican counterparts did not know what they were doing. Because the alternative explanation is more troubling.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Dec. 12, 2015 12:06 AM ET USA

    You shouldn't so quickly assume that the Vatican had one put over on them. Isn't this very similar to many of the Pope's statements that seem to throw doctrine to the wind? The Vatican may have known exactly what the apparent message was,

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Dec. 11, 2015 5:56 PM ET USA

    I was disgusted by it. Just another example of the loose cannons that dominate life on a ship that is wallowing in the sea.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 09, 2015 9:17 PM ET USA

    There are those that hold that there are no surprises. Just logical progression. Following yesterday's display, it's not much of a stretch to wonder. Might St. Peter's serve as the venue for a demonstration of graffiti art forms from impoverished cities around the globe to raise poverty awareness? Or other issues? There's new thinking, a new orientation, a new logic. For some, a new faith. These dismiss the reservation, temperance, and sanity of a different time encumbered by intransigence.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Dec. 09, 2015 8:06 PM ET USA

    Thank you for voicing what gave me so much pain (yes pain) to behold.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Dec. 09, 2015 6:01 PM ET USA

    Rats! Envy is a sin and I have just committed it. Because Ken H thought of it and I didn't.

  • Posted by: Ken_H - Dec. 09, 2015 5:39 PM ET USA

    Hmmmm - I wonder how soon we'll be "graced" with the Environmental Mysteries of the Rosary?