In his weekly column, the National Catholic Reporter‘s John Allen notes Pope Benedict XVI’s references to the environment during the recent World Youth Day events in Australia.
Although the point didn’t get much traction amid the pageantry of World Youth Day, it’s a striking fact that the most frequent social or cultural concern cited by Pope Benedict XVI in Australia was the environment. The pope talked about ecological themes seven times.
If there was a distinctive twist to what the pope said in Australia, it was the need for reconfiguration of lifestyles, beyond and beneath policy questions. Repeatedly, Benedict warned against what he called the “folly of the consumerist mindset.”
One sign that somebody was paying attention: the Acton Institute, a Grand Rapids-based think tank with a pro-free market message, put out a press release rejecting impressions that the pope has “gone green” in the secular sense. Benedict wasn’t warning against a climate crisis, the Acton release stated, but a moral crisis.
Allen, the most reliable English-speaking journalist covering the Vatican during my time there, appears to have gotten this one wrong by misunderstanding the point of the Acton press release, which did in fact mention the Pope’s criticism of consumerism, but as a moral problem rather than an environmental one.
More seriously, Allen seems to misunderstand the Pope’s use of environmental issues. The Pope is not interested in the particular issues in themselves; rather he is more concerned with what our use or abuse of the rest of creation says about our relationship with God.
Whatever Benedict’s concerns for the environment may be, it is absolutely clear that he follows traditional Catholic doctrine by placing man at the center of all creation. Here is the key passage that follows the quotation cited by Allen from the World Youth Day welcoming address:
And there is more. What of man, the apex of God’s creation? Every day we encounter the genius of human achievement. From advances in medical sciences and the wise application of technology, to the creativity reflected in the arts, the quality and enjoyment of people’s lives in many ways are steadily rising. Among yourselves there is a readiness to take up the plentiful opportunities offered to you. Some of you excel in studies, sport, music, or dance and drama, others of you have a keen sense of social justice and ethics, and many of you take up service and voluntary work. All of us, young and old, have those moments when the innate goodness of the human person – perhaps glimpsed in the gesture of a little child or an adult’s readiness to forgive – fills us with profound joy and gratitude.