VATICAN CITY – Despite being held in a cool, climate-controlled conference room, some early discussions at a Vatican-sponsored seminar on global warming and climate change got pretty heated.
The rifts and tensions still dividing the global debate on the causes of and remedies for drastic climatic shifts were gently simmering in the small microcosm of the two-day Vatican meeting.
The seminar, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gathered some 80 experts representing the scientific, political, economic and spiritual sides of the climate-change debate at the Vatican April 26-27 to discuss “Climate Change and Development.”
“I have to commend the planners,” said Lucia Silecchia, a professor of environmental law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, because “nobody can accuse them of bringing in a group of people who will agree with each other.”
Disagreements even spilled out into the corridor during the closed-door seminar’s first morning break when a Vatican official had to use his pastoral prowess to calm one participant.
“The scientific community has been so divided and so bitter” over the climate-change debate that experts who disagree with each other don’t talk to each other, Silecchia told Catholic News Service.
But by bringing the opposing sides together under the neutral roof of the Vatican, she said, the church is helping give a fresh approach to an issue mired in conflict, confusion and, often, inaction.
The Vatican is reminding people that the environment and development cannot be helped by economics, science or politics alone, “that there are moral, ethical considerations” to take into account, said Silecchia.
She said policymakers have to avoid falling into the extremes that either see “the human almost as evil and destroying a beautiful planet” or consider development and technology as saviors of the world.
John Carr, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ secretary for social development and world peace, said Christian values seen in “the virtue of prudence, the pursuit of the common good and the protection of the poor” are important contributions to the climate-change debate and should be at the heart of policies aimed at addressing global warming.
Because real consensus among politicians and scientists is not around the corner, the church can still band divergent groups together under its universal umbrella of Christian values.
The Catholic Church is “not the Sierra Club at prayer,” Carr told CNS; it embodies centuries of tradition of calling for “sacrifice, restraint, moderation,” promoting the common good and the option for the poor.
Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the justice and peace council, said the church’s concern for the environment and creation goes all the way back to the Book of Genesis. In the two stories of creation, God gave humankind the mandate to subdue and have dominion over the earth, but he also expected humanity “to cultivate and care for it,” he said.
Humanity’s dominion over creation “does not have to be despotic” nor should it be used for purely selfish and economic needs, he said. Hurting the environment is a sin, he told reporters, as it “is an offense not only against yourself, but against all others” whose lives depend on its resources.
Nonetheless, he said, the Vatican is cautious about what sort of pronouncements it makes about global warming.
Church leaders are aware scientific findings can sometimes be skewed by special-interest groups or overblown by an audience-hungry media.
The church, therefore, “seeks to draw fully from the treasury” of all scientific knowledge and experience and looks for “a true and balanced response” based on church teaching, Cardinal Martino said.
The church does not want to curb sustainable development, especially in impoverished nations, nor does it see population control as a way to conserve dwindling resources. There is a middle ground, many church leaders say, that sees sustainable economic growth, the environment and human development as partners, not enemies.
But when 5 percent of the world’s population gobbles up 20 percent of the earth’s resources, lifestyle changes are important, said Cardinal Martino and Pope Benedict XVI.
In a papal telegram to seminar participants, the pope said he hoped the conference would foster the “research and promotion of lifestyles and models of production and consumption that respect creation and the real demands of sustainable progress of peoples.”
While Cardinal Martino said the seminar’s purpose was merely “to educate,” a number of participants said the Vatican-sponsored event could have a significant impact on how the debate is shaped.
Silecchia said in some ways the environmental movement “has become its own new religion,” and this could be offset by a wider recognition of the church’s own tradition of God asking people to be stewards of creation.
Carr said the church’s approach to the problem of climate change is “from the bottom up” – having people’s basic needs shape the nature of policy.
International discussion has been expanding to include how the world’s weakest and poorest can be protected, he said.
Australian Bishop Christopher Toohey of Wilcannia-Forbes said the church’s message of hope and love of life can offer direction and inspiration, which “is somewhat missing” in the world debate.
“The church is not just another voice telling people to conserve energy and preserve the planet. It has the potential to bring its vast tradition to shed light on a troubled human family,” he wrote.
The church can “provide motivation, inspiration, love for life itself and for the earth and all of creation, to genuinely love those things and care for them,” he told CNS.
Instead of letting disagreements in the global warming debate continue to stall decisive action, “we have a Christian duty to live simple, responsible lives whether climate change is happening or not,” he said.