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The Pope's 'green' message: not standard environmentalism

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 14, 2010

After Pope Benedict XVI delivered his “State of the World” address to the Vatican diplomatic corps on January 11, your local newspaper probably carried a headline like the one atop the story in the New York Times: “Pope Denounces Failure to Forge New Climate Treaty.” The AP story began:

Pope Benedict XVI denounced the failure of world leaders to agree to a new climate change treaty in Copenhagen last month, saying Monday that world peace depends on safeguarding God’s creation.
BBC carried a very similar headline: “Pope Benedict XVI lambasts Copenhagen failure.” And Time magazine, also running with the AP coverage, followed suit with its headline text: “Pope Denounces Lack of New Climate Treaty.”

You might have concluded, from the press coverage, that the Holy Father’s speech was devoted mostly to the Copenhagen conference. But that conclusion would have been wrong. In his full 3,000-word address, Pope Benedict spent barely 100 words on the climate-change summit. It was a part of his message, but only a small part. However, it was the part that the secular media wanted to hear.

Benedict XVI, the mass media tell us, is a “green Pope.” That description is undeniably accurate, in the sense that this Pontiff has frequently spoken about the need to care for the environment. Twice in quick succession—in his message for the World Day of Peace on January 11, and now in his address to the diplomatic corps just 10 days later—he has made that argument forcefully to representatives of the world’s political leadership. But the “green” message preached by Pope Benedict is very different from mainstream environmentalism. Unfortunately most secular reporters, deaf to the spiritual content of the Pope’s message, miss the distinction.

Reporters always simplify stories. They are regularly called upon to sum up complicated ideas in a few paragraphs—in the case of headline writers, in a few words— and their work is much easier if they can classify an idea quickly, place an argument in a convenient pigeonhole, and pronounce the story done. Thus the Pope is an environmentalist, and environmentalists were disappointed by the results of the Copenhagen summit, therefore the Pope was disappointed by that summit. QED.

Again, that message is accurate as far as it goes. The Pope did express disappointment about the Copenhagen results. But that was only a very small part of his message to the diplomatic corps.

I know, from my own personal experience, how often the media oversimplify a speaker’s message. Ten years ago I was running for the US Senate (coincidentally, for the same seat that is now the focus of a hotly contested special election). I was running as a pro-life candidate, and so most press coverage of my campaign stressed the abortion issue. But it was frustrating to deliver speeches that address many other issues—nuclear weapons, the income tax, gun control, immigration—and then read press accounts that mentioned nothing but my opposition to legal abortion. Those accounts were accurate, insofar as I never gave a stump speech without including the pro-life argument. But I was appalled to realize that reporters were not really listening to my arguments, but only waiting for the “money quote” that would fit into the story they already planned to write.

So it was with the Pope’s “State of the World” address. When the Holy Father opened with the remark that a “self-centered and materialistic way of thinking” today “endangers creation,” most reporters were quite ready to classify his speech as a standard environmentalist argument. When he mentioned the Copenhagen summit, they had their “money quote,” and the story was all but complete.

Most of the world’s people—including most of the world’s Catholics—learned about the Pope’s talk not by reading the actual text, or even the official Vatican summary, but by hearing the reports that filtered through the secular news media. Secular reporters tend to read all events in secular terms—in political terms—and so they gravitated toward a politicized reading of the Pope’s words.

To complicate matters, the Vatican’s public-relations efforts are notoriously inept, unable to focus reporters’ attention on the most important themes of papal teaching. Furthermore, the Vatican officials most likely to speak with reporters are the ones most inclined to put their own political “spin” on the Pope’s words. The net result is coverage that glosses over the most critical aspects of the Pope’s message.

What was the essential thrust of that message? Pope Benedict made his argument for environmental stewardship in the context of an argument about the dignity of human life and human nature. “It is in man’s respect for himself that his sense of responsibility for creation is shown,” he told the diplomatic corps. “As Saint Thomas Aquinas has taught, man represents all that is most represents all that is most noble in the universe.” Now that message is the polar opposite of the extreme environmentalist line, which views mankind as a threat to the earth. Drawing on a Judeo-Christian tradition that traces back to Genesis, the Pope said that God set man up as steward over creation, to fill the earth and subdue it. The Christian is naturally an environmentalist, because he wants to fulfill God’s plan.

Pope Benedict went further. Following God’s plan means respecting natural law, he said; it means honoring the lessons that are inscribed in human nature. So he explained that a reverence for life, and a determination to support marriage and the family, are also signs of respect for God’s creation. A few reporters caught that message, but then, predictably enough, expressed the Pope’s argument in crudely political terms. A Wall Street Journal account, written with ill-concealed sarcasm, began: “Pope Benedict linked the Catholic Church's opposition to gay marriage to concern about the environment, suggesting that laws undermining ‘the differences between the sexes’ were threats to creation.”

"Creatures differ from one another and can be protected, or endangered in different ways, as we know from daily experience. One such attack comes from laws or proposals, which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes," he said. "I am thinking, for example, of certain countries in Europe or North and South America." The headline on a Reuters story simplified still further: “Pope says gay marriage threat to creation.”

Again, those accounts are not inaccurate; the Pope did make those arguments. But by presenting the Pope’s point in its barest simplified form—virtually as a slogan—the reports gave readers the grossly misleading impression that the Holy Father was delivering a political speech. He was not. Pope Benedict was addressing a political audience—the ambassadors representing the world’s governments to the Holy See—but he was delivering a spiritual message. I wrote above that the Pope began with an expression of concern for welfare of creation. That is not entirely accurate. The first words of the papal address were about “celebration of the birth of the Incarnate Word;” the Pontiff invited all the world to join in that celebration.

In the annual “State of the World” address, a Pope traditionally tours the world’s trouble spots, offering observations about all the challenges that face political leaders. Pope Benedict’s address this year was no exception. He did not confine himself to the topics of environment and gay marriage. He also spoke about Darfur and the Congo; about peace in the Middle East and the drug traffic in Latin America; about nuclear weaponry and global hunger; about secularism in Europe and natural disasters in Asia His thoughts on all those topics, regrettably, did not fit into the story line that most reporters chose.

There were a few exceptions. In Italy, Sandro Magister of L’Espresso saw the Pope’s address as an endorsement of three causes: an ecology of nature, but above all of man; a positive secularity; and religious freedom. Magister’s summary was not perfect, but it did accurately reflect the breadth and depth of the Pope’s address, in a way that no American secular reporter matched.

Because the Pope’s address came through to the general public in such grossly oversimplified forms, many readers have expressed discontent about what the Pontiff said—or, perhaps, what they think he said. One recalls the words of Bishop Fulton Sheen: “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church."

Yes, Pope Benedict did express dismay about the paltry results of the Copenhagen summit. But the Pope’s speech cannot be reduced to that one passage. (In fact, the Pope’s views on climate change should be a matter of only passing interest, even to loyal Catholics. His teaching authority extends to matters of faith and morals, not to questions of scientific fact.) The Pontiff is not committing the teaching authority of the Catholic Church to a political cause.

Near the conclusion of his address to the diplomatic corps, Pope Benedict offered his own summary of the essential message: “There is so much suffering in our world, and human selfishness continues in many ways to harm creation,” he said. “For this reason, the yearning for salvation which affects all creation is that much more intense and present in the hearts of all men and women, believers and non-believers alike.” He also offered a solution—one that goes far above and beyond any political platform. The key, the Pope said, is to respect the nature of man: to recognize and embrace God’s plan for the human race. He concluded:

May the light and strength of Jesus help us to respect human ecology, in the knowledge that natural ecology will likewise benefit, since the book of nature is one and indivisible.

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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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