John Paul gets bitten by 'green' bug
The Pope is turning increasingly to environmental issues as a meeting of mission workers in Rome last week demonstrated. John Thavis reports
IN THE 100-acre Vatican City, a quiet enclave on a Roman hill, environmental issues might sometimes appear remote. There are no smokestacks on the skyline, clean water still arrives from papally restored aquaducts and the lush Vatican garden can seem like paradise regained.
But today's ecological crisis has knocked at the Vatican's door, too. Last summer a female traffic officer keeled over in the square beneath Pope John Paul II's window, a victim of carbon monoxide and other tour bus fumes. She had to be hospitalised.
The giant statues above St Peter's, like many in Rome, are being corroded by chemicalladen rain water. Even the Vatican's medieval walls needed "first aid" last year to repair damage caused in part by chemical pollution.
For the Vatican, however, environmental concern goes well beyond its borders. The point
being raised these days — by church scholars, missionaries and the Pope — is that care of the earth may be one of the most serious moral issues of our age.
Dr Carlos Chagas, recently retired president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, told the Pope bluntly in an address at the end of October: "The destruction of the environment is the result of a progressive and obstinate action, nearly invisible in the beginning, driven by greed, economic power and ignorance."
"You alone, with your voice, can stop ecological disaster, and the academy is at your service," Chagas said.
The academy's report last year on disappearing species — some 35,000 are facing extinction by the year 2000 — raked an alarm in the scientific community. Five years ago, the academy issued early warnings about the depletion of the ozone layer and the global build-up of carbon dioxide, as well as the
environmental disaster that would follow nuclear war.
The Pope has taken up the issue with notable vigour. His latest encyclical, Sollicitudo Rel Socialis was immediately hailed as an ecological breakthrough for its tough language on the environment. In it, the Pope insisted that the dominion granted humankind over the natural world has biological and moral limits that cannot be violated in the name of development.
In other declarations, the Pope's language has been even sharper. Earlier this year, he told farmworkers that economic exploitation of resources was threatening to turn the earth into an "abandoned desert." He told a
group of scientists last autumn that he was concerned about the "uncontrolled discharges" of waste products into the earth's atmosphere, land and seas. Part of this "irreversible damage," he added, was caused by economic practices "aimed only at profit."
Those who know the Pope say that as a hiker and outdoors enthusiast, he has a keen awareness about damage to the environment. It is a growing issue among Churchmen in his native Poland, where widespread industrial pollution has threatened whole regions and is eroding, among other things, the facade of the Pope's former cathedral in Krakow.
Although he has spoken about general causes, the Pope has been cautious about assigning blame for specific damage — whether for disasters like Chernobyl or for long-term problems like deforestation. Among Vatican agencies, too, there is hesitation about making sweeping pronouncements on ecology because it often involves the complicated interaction of First and Third World economies, population migration and international regulation.
Several ecology-minded churchmen in Rome have high hopes for a papal document on green issues in the near future.
"Actually, if he'd put all his previous statements under one cover, it would make a beautiful document," said Capuchin Fr Bernard Przewozny.
Fr Przewozny is the mover behind the Francisan Centre for Environmental Studies in Rome, a new institute expected to open this autumn. He hopes within two years to obtain Vatican approval for the programme and have it raised to the level of a pontifical academic institute.
"Deforestation, chemical pollution, uncontrolled urbanisation — these are going to be major issues in the coming decades, and the Church needs people qualified to speak on them," he said.
An ecological movement is also developing among missionaries. Last week, about 100 mission workers gathered in Rome to discuss approaches to the environmental problems they encounter daily — ranging from multinational corporations that eschew safety norms to the lack of firewood in Third World countries. Partly because of urbanisation, the missionaries have seen many local cultures lose their connection to the land in a single generation. Several of them wanted environmental studies to be included as part of a missionary's training program.
Kenyan Fr John Mutiso Mbinda, an official of the Vatican's Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, spoke at the meeting and called missionaries "firsthand witnesses" to environmental abuse. As one example, he cited the extensive sale in Africa of fertilisers that are banned in Western countries.
Governments often view the church and its missionaries as environmentally guilty, as the original bearers of a Western development mentality, he noted. "Now is the time to convince them we are prepared to look at the issues again", he said.