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Pope Preaches Green at UN

Ker Than in New York City
for National Geographic News
April 18, 2008
 
Pope Benedict XVI heightened his recent environmental campaign in his address at UN headquarters in New York City today—a push that includes everything from stern theological warnings to solar panels on St. Peter's Basilica.

"International action to preserve the environment and to protect various forms of life on Earth must not only guarantee a rational use of technology and science, but must also rediscover the authentic image of creation," Pope Benedict told the UN General Assembly.

The comments are the latest in a series of increasingly strong statements made by the pontiff in recent months.

The pope has argued that environmental protection is a moral obligation and has called global warming a "grave concern."

(See also: "Pope's Views on Science Invoke Spirited Debate" [April 18, 2008].)

Practicing What He Preaches?

Under Benedict, the Roman Catholic Church has taken steps to set examples of how to be green for its followers—about a fifth of the world's population—and the rest of the world.

In July 2007 the church accepted an offer by a Hungarian start-up company to plant trees in Hungary to offset the carbon footprint of Vatican City—the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by the tiny state. (See how the greenhouse effect works.)

The move is intended to make Vatican the world's first carbon-neutral country—though it has increasing competition for the honor.

Vatican engineers are also installing solar panels on the roof of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

(See Vatican photos.)

In addition, green themes appeared in the church's March update of the "seven deadly sins." One of the new offenses is "environmental pollution."

"Breaking New Ground"

The Reverend Monsignor Raymond Kupke of Seton Hall University in New Jersey said the pope is "breaking new ground" for the Catholic Church by taking an environmental stance.

"I think he's said more about our common responsibility for the planet than all the rest of the popes put together," Kupke told National Geographic News.

"It's a relatively new area of concern … He's putting a biblical turn on it by reminding people that the opening lines of Genesis say that Earth is God's creation and his gift to us."

Gary Gardner is director of research at the Worldwatch Institute and the author of the book Inspiring Progress: Religions' Contributions to Sustainable Development.

He's also a practicing Catholic.

Gardner thinks the pope's emphasis on environmental conservation is a natural extension of Catholic theology.

"There's a long-standing theme in Catholic thinking: that there is an obligation for all of us to work for the common good," Gardner said.

"And I think he sees the common good as being threatened by environmental degradation and specifically climate change."

Details to Come?

While the pope has helped to highlight environmental concerns, he has not endorsed any specific actions.

"His is a general appeal to action," Gardner said. "I think he's a little bit hesitant to endorse any specific approach."

This makes sense, Seaton Hall's Kupke said.

"It would be difficult to just order all Catholics to stop using gasoline products. That would not be realistic. The pope's role is primarily motivational and inspirational."

Tom Baugh is a biologist with a degree in ecological theology and a member of the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group for the Society for Conservation Biology.

Baugh's group promotes the idea that all religions should play an important role in spreading environmental awareness.

Messages like the pope's are a much needed step in the right direction, Baugh said.

"I would encourage all of the denominations to take a look at the environmental crisis that we face, and—if they are not already involved—to become involved and develop environmental initiatives within their faith positions."
 

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