Ecological Turn at the Vatican


National Catholic Register, 24 June 2019

COMMENTARY: The working document for the Pan-Amazonian synod, and two other recently released documents, suggest that environmental policies will be treated as magisterial matters.

Three recent documents indicate that the publication of Laudato Si in 2015, the environmental encyclical of Pope Francis, marks a new shift in Vatican pronouncements on the environment.

This departure from previous practice has become most pronounced on environmental matters, with the Holy See employing its teaching and diplomacy to advocate for specific policy outcomes that are usually left to the prudential judgment of the lay faithful engaged in politics. 

Laudato Si dealt broadly with how man should care for his “common home,” the natural world of creation in light of the Gospel. But it also took positions on disputed scientific theories and entered the U.N.-driven climate-change policy process. Most famously, the Holy Father himself said that he wanted the encyclical published in 2015 so that it could influence the December 2015 climate-change conference in Paris.

Four years on, that shift toward particular policy options is working its way through the Holy See’s pronouncements on environmental matters.

In a May 24 message to the “scientific community” for the fourth anniversary of Laudato Si, Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, wrote very specifically about climate change — very specifically, indeed, citing the goal of keeping average global temperatures below an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“The 1.5°C threshold is a critical physical threshold,” wrote Cardinal Turkson, saying that it would “still enable the avoidance of many destructive impacts of climate change caused by man.” He continues that climate change has already reached “unprecedented proportions,” causing “extreme meteorological conditions, such as drought, flooding, rising sea level, devastating storms and ferocious fires.”

Cardinal Turkson went further, moving from a scientific claim and policy imperative to a moral and religious claim.

“The 1.5°C threshold is also a moral threshold,” he wrote. “It is the last chance to save all those countries and many millions of vulnerable people who live in coastal regions.”

“It is useful to assume that 1.5°C is also a religious threshold,” Cardinal Turkson continued, suggesting that the 1.5-degree threshold has a theological significance. “The world we are destroying is the gift of God to humanity, precisely that house sanctified by the divine Spirit (Ruah) at the beginning of creation, the place where he pitched his tent among us (John 1:14).”

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