Comment Comment and Features

Why Christian leaders are really going green

Pope Francis has embraced the ‘environmental evangelical strategy’ [AP]

Laudato Si’ took its title from the Canticle of the Creatures of St Francis of Assisi. It has inspired a cataract of conferences in a feverish burst of Vatican activity to stop global warming. From April to September, it is the Holy See’s summer of Brother (Jeffrey) Sachs and Sister (Ban Ki-) Moon, as all manner of people who vigorously promote what St Francis’s Canticle calls “mortal sin” have been welcomed to make common cause on climate change.

There was the warm-up conference at the Vatican on April 28, “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity”, headlined by both Brother Sachs and Sister Moon, respectively the UN’s sustainable development guru and its secretary-general. Then radical feminist and anti-capitalist Naomi Klein was the celebrity booked for early July’s “People and Planet First”, two days devoted to an international action plan arising from Laudato Si’.

Klein reported excitedly that “if one of the oldest and most tradition-bound institutions in the world can change its teachings and practices as radically, and as rapidly, as Francis is attempting, then surely all kinds of newer and more elastic institutions can change as well.”

This week the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences is hosting not one, but two conferences. The first with the improbable title of “Modern Slavery and Climate Change: the Commitment of the Cities”, the second the more prosaic “Prosperity, People and Planet”. Mayors from around the world will be on hand, almost exclusively of a Leftist bent, including only Democratic Party mayors from the United States.

Finally, in September, the Holy Father will return Ban Ki-moon’s visit, with an address to the UN in which he will deliver the Church’s endorsement for a binding global climate change treaty to be completed at the Paris summit in December.

Even the most ambitious NGO would be impressed with the Catholic Church as a climate activist. It would be a mistake though to see all this activity – from which the pontifical academies had heretofore kept their distance – as essentially political, for Pope Francis has been unrelenting in saying that for the Church to act as an NGO is “demonic”. Neither is it selling out the Gospel to a worldly agenda. Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the pontifical academies, insisted that the UN could be a useful partner on climate activism because it is “not the Devil”.

It is, admittedly, a low standard. The key to understanding the environmental push is the Holy Father’s priority on the Church in mission. If the Church goes green, it is to improve the cultural climate for evangelisation. In this, Pope Francis’s pastoral strategy is to join an effort that has been underway for decades in both Orthodoxy and Anglicanism.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, as it became clear in both Constantinople and Canterbury that their respective communions were becoming increasingly marginal players in their own cultures, a conscious decision was taken to move environmental issues to the forefront of their public witness.

Indeed, the website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate describes Bartholomew as the “green patriarch”. The environmental evangelical strategy supposes that cultural elites who welcome the Church’s endorsement of their environmental policies will be more open to the heart of the Christian Gospel.

The day after Laudato Si’ was released, Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, jointly authored a column in The New York Times, promoting a recent climate change report in The Lancet, a medical journal, with the fervour Christian preachers once reserved from the Gospel itself.

Clearly pleased to have Francis as an ally in the strategy of environmental evangelisation, the two leaders outlined the approach: “Because of our faith in God as creator, redeemer and sustainer, we have a mission to protect nature as well as human beings. The obligation of all human beings is to work together for a better world, one in which all human beings can flourish; our Christian vocation is to proclaim the Gospel inclusively and comprehensively.”

The “creator, redeemer, sanctifier” language, skirting as it does ancient Trinitarian heresies, does raise the question of which direction the evangelisation is going. Yet the intention is clear: work together as global citizens to save the planet, and then a grateful and sympathetic world will listen anew to the Christian message of universal salvation.

The politics of the Vatican’s summer are Brother Sachs and Sister Moon. Yet it is just as much about Constantinople and Canterbury, who write of their desire that the Paris summit “will chart the course of decarbonisation in the coming years”.

Can embracing decarbonisation help reverse what is rampant in Canterbury and Constantinople and all points in-between, namely dechristianisation? The answer in Rome this summer appears to be yes.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/7/15).

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