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The Pope is right about nature

Disagreements on different means of protecting the environment should not obscure the aim

Artillery Row

The Catholic Church under Pope Francis is serious about climate change. The Holy Father may not have made it to the latest gathering of the environmentally-conscious international community, but even in absentia he managed to have an enormous impact on the conference that may have signalled “the beginning of the end” for fossil fuels.

Since 1995 the signatory nations to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have met every year at an international environmental jamboree known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP. The Church has been engaged with the UNFCCC since its 1992 inception in Rio and has attended every COP since.

Catholics have form in this area, but there is no doubt that Pope Francis has taken the Church onto a war footing in the battle against climate change: he has written not one but two encyclicals on the environment, Laudato Si and Laudato Deum; in 2022 the Vatican moved from observer status to formal membership of UNFCCC; and this year Francis intended to become the first Pope to speak at a COP.

The call for “ecological conversion” has been a cornerstone of the current pontificate, but not one that has met with universal acclaim from the faithful. His opponents argue the Pope is prioritising the environment over the salvation of souls, or hint that environmentalism is something inherently pagan, one step removed from Gaia-worship.

In so many ways the Catholic Church is a bastion of all that is “based”. It is an anchor in a turbulent ocean of change, driven deep into 2,000 year old granite and connected to the present by iron links of magisterial tradition. Those overwhelmed by the shifting social tides of the past few years find the Catholic Church a source of strength, stability, even safety.

None of this undermines the Church’s faith claims. In fact it amplifies them, as truth is unchanging. Our understanding of truth can however change over time. It can improve and it can falter, and this process of change can be a source of great discomfort to the instinctive conservative.

The pontificate of Pope Francis has been just such a time of discomfort, and as a result conservatives have spent much of the last decade or so feeling rather upset with the Holy Father. What interests me is the dynamic between this general conservative discontent and the specific opposition to the Pope’s interest in the environment. Are conservatives resisting Francis because of his environmentalism, or are they resisting Catholic environmentalism because of its association with Pope Francis?

Some blending of message and messenger is puting off conservative Catholics

Either way, something odd has happened. Some blending of message and messenger is serving to put off conservative Catholics. It was first noticed back in 2016 when researchers at Texas Tech University found that “right-leaning Catholics” were less concerned about the environment once they had heard Pope Francis talking about protecting it. Seven years later and a continent away, “highly religious” Italians were found to be less favourable to environmental measures if they were proposed by the Pope — despite generally being better-disposed to green policies than their less religious peers.

The Pope seems to be directly and personally linked to a rejection of environmentalism amongst traditionalists. Is Francis’ message so very different to his predecessors’, though? Pope Benedict XVI, beloved of many conservative Catholics including me, sent video messages to various COPs during his pontificate. He told COP15, “The Church considers that matters concerning the environment and its protection are intimately linked with integral human development.”

Perhaps Benedict’s Catholic environmentalism was easier for sceptics to bear because it was a little light on detail. The theological argument for environmental action does not necessarily address the “how”, allowing everyone to agree something must be done without anyone feeling their ideological priors are under threat. By taking the Vatican into the UNFCCC however, Pope Francis has committed the Church to specific action and has plunged the Church into the world of positivist data counting that by necessity dominates modern climate negotiations.

The sight of besuited officials, lobbyists, experts and activists, jetting around the world to discuss tonnes of carbon and trillion dollar finance frameworks is, to many conservatives, the antithesis of any conservation they are willing to accept. The Shire, countryside, smallholdings — that is the small farm future traditionalists can get on board with. Technocratic globalism is anathema, and Pope Francis appears to be putting himself right in the middle of it.

The Papal envoys who attended Rio in 1992 were sent to ensure a focus on climate change did not mean a focus on population control. Perhaps Francis’ opponents might argue they would get on board with his environmentalism if he too used his platform to lead the charge against the spectre of Malthusianism that continues to haunt the climate discussion. Of course, that is precisely what Pope Francis is doing.

At COP28, he told the assembled ranks of global leaders, “Births are not a problem, but a resource.” This is genius. By taking seriously an issue that so vexes the world, he has shown the world that the solution lies in the culture of life. Where else could such an intensely Catholic theme achieve such a rarified secular audience?

Yes, the tone of UNFCCC is dreadfully rationalist, and yes, as a result the Church is indeed cutting carbon and working to ditch investments in fossil fuels. Each Sunday, eyes roll in pews around the world as parishes try to do their bit in the pursuit of Net Zero. Is this such a bad thing, though? The Laudato Si Movement claims over 1,000 Catholic groups are active in 150 countries working to combat climate change, inspired by this pontificate. That’s not technocratic globalism; in many places those groups are very “small-farm”.

Whilst the UNFCCC might be the domain of the technocrat, and the Vatican might be playing that tune, let’s not assume it is the Pope’s preferred musical metre. The terrible thing about counting carbon is that it is just so unromantic — so divorced from the beauty and grandeur of nature. Yet by signing up to get those emissions quantified and eliminated, the Pope has earned a place of trust at the heart of the environmental movement from which to preach the unique insight of the Catholic Church. He can re-enchant the need to preserve “the great book of creation” that points to the why and how of the Christian life.

The Pope was too ill to attend COP28 over the past couple of weeks and yet his words, read out by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, reverberated around the world. I was stunned by how many environmentalists were sharing his message with their secular audiences: “the destruction of the environment is an offence against God, a sin … let us choose life!” There’s nothing positivist, rationalist or Malthusian about that. I wonder if the Holy Father’s critics might recognise the great service his environmentalism does not only for our planet, but for the mission of the Church.

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