Benedict XVI, the Green Pope

It may be known for sending out iconic smoke signals when a new pope is elected, but the Vatican is actually the world's only sovereign state that can lay claim to being carbon-neutral. That means that all greenhouse gas emissions from the Holy See are offset through renewable energies and carbon credits. Last summer the city-state's ancient buildings were outfitted with solar panels intended to be a key source of electricity, and an eco-restoration firm donated enough trees in a Hungarian national park to nullify all carbon emitted from Vatican City, which takes up one-fifth of a square mile.

Both moves were embraced by Pope Benedict XVI, who not only oversees the global church, he serves as the chief administrator of the operation of the Vatican. And in both religious and secular circles Benedict has earned the title of "green pope." In addition to boosting efforts to make Vatican City more environmentally efficient, he also uses Roman Catholic doctrine to emphasize humanity's responsibility to care for the planet.

Benedict is not the first pope to address the issue of environmental degradation. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, once described environmental concerns as a "moral issue" and noted as far back as 1990 that people have "a grave responsibility to preserve [the earth's] order for the well-being of future generations." However, the new pontiff has made being green a central part of his teachings and policy-making. Just months after being elected pope, Benedict stated in his first homily as pontiff that "the earth's treasures have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction" and called on Catholics to be better stewards of God's creation. Last spring at a Vatican conference devoted to climate change, Benedict announced that global citizens have to "focus on the needs of sustainable development." That message was taken a step further when the church last month announced seven new sins that now require repentance. Number four on the list was "polluting the environment." Among the others were "causing social injustice" and "becoming obscenely wealthy," which are also both linked to taking care of the earth, says a Vatican spokesman.

Benedict may not be a typical environmentalist in the modern secular sense. The Vatican won't say whether he tries to save gas on the Vatican grounds or uses devices like energy-saving light bulbs. For him the green issue seems to be more about being a steward to God's creation. Speaking to the faithful, he stresses that taking care of the earth speaks directly to protecting what the Bible says was created in Genesis. He has also made a connection between how a greener lifestyle falls within the human responsibility to protect the world's poorest communities, which are often the first to feel a changing climate's ecological effects, such as floods or droughts, which can cause conflicts over resources. "When you have an issue getting so much attention, there are a lot of voices talking about it. Benedict knows that and he wanted a seat at the table," says Lucia Silecchia, a social law professor at Catholic University who published a paper last year titled "Discerning the Environmental Perspective of Pope Benedict XVI." "He saw this as a way to push the values of the church in a new context."

Raymond Arroyo, news director of global Catholic network EWTN (and an occasional NEWSWEEK contributor), believes that the pope sees environmental consciousness as a link to Catholic doctrine and social teachings, most of all the value of life. "He's keeping his message about the earth consistent with other messages. He hears that people are saying, 'This is a big problem.' And he's saying, 'You're right, it is, but children suffering in that part of the world is a big problem too.' It's all the same argument. I don't think he loves the earth as an issue in itself, but he sees it as one thing of many that the creator designed. He's just emphasizing it."

Not surprisingly, then, the solutions Benedict proposes also value human life above anything else. In a 2005 address he gave to an audience in St. Peter's Square, he claimed that humans are "the only one of all creatures on this earth that can establish a free and conscious relationship with his creator." In other words, says Silecchia, the Vatican is unlikely to back environmental solutions that focus on reducing the human population or limiting the use of the earth's resources to support human livelihood.

So far the pope has not emphasized eco issues during his U.S. visit. However, that could change when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Friday. How he'll do that is anyone's guess, but odds are he won't scold government leaders for lack of action or misguided priorities. Instead he's expected to use the pulpit to underscore climate change's effect on global resources and, in effect, what an unstable ecosystem could mean for the future of world balance and peace. It's a far-reaching argument the green pope seems uniquely qualified to make.

Join the Discussion