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Greens vs. Vatican.

VATICAN CITY -- Last December, in downtown Rome's bustling Piazza Venezia, the city's giant Christmas tree was conspicuously absent, as it has been for the two holiday seasons before, because of environmental protests from the local Green Party.

But across the Tiber River in the tiny principality of Vatican City stood a well-trimmed, 25-meter-tall, Austrian white fir tree. Similar protests from the Greens to the Vatican in the past were ignored.

The Greens claim trees in the forest standing near the big fir must be felled to remove the one destined as a gift to Pope John Paul Il. Moreover, they say, a real tree -- especially considering its celebrated location in St. Peter's Square -- discourages the use of artificial firs.

The Austrian fir notwithstanding, the Catholic church, through its spiritual leader, Pope John Paul II, more than any of his 265 predecessors since Peter, has made the environment a recurring theme or subtheme of speeches and major documents.

The church, from the administrative offices situated amid the manicured gardens of its walled citadel with ramparts and bastions on the Tiber's west bank, sees its primary role toward the environment as that of teaching about conserving nature through greater respect and a redistribution of wealth.

Critics, however, say the church is slow to act in concrete, substantive ways to protect the environment. Furthermore, they say some church teachings, such as the ban on the use of artificial birth control, contribute to overpopulation and environmental pollution. Also, it is unclear whether any of the Vatican's holdings or investments are in polluting companies.

Ironically, the episode of the Austrian fir surfaced at the time the Vatican released its most significant statement to date on the environment: the pope's Jan. 1, 1990, World Day of Peace Message. It is the first papal document ever devoted exclusively to ecology.

The message is striking for its simplicity, thoroughness, sense of urgency and graphic details of environmental problems. Previous texts often stayed in the realm of philosophy and theology or were written in vague terms and thus open to broad interpretation.

But critics charge that words are not enough. Veteran church observer Peter Hebblethwaite says, "The Vatican thinks that you've dealt with something because you've mentioned it. It's typical of socially oriented organizations, as opposed to, say, an economic power such as Germany.

"It never happens that the Vatican leads and everyone follows -- usually the Vatican follows. One must not think of the Vatican as initiating."

Echoes Jodi Jacobson of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.: "The Vatican's periodic statements and encyclicals on ecology are not good enough. ... In the United States, Catholics have fallen behind Protestants and Jews in forming environmental (activist) groups."

In the peace message, the pope says that "world peace is threatened ... by a lack of due respect for nature, [and] by the plundering of natural resources.... Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past."

He admonished industrialized countries to apply restrictive environmental standards within their own borders before expecting newly industrialized states to apply them within theirs. And he cites rural poverty and unjust land distribution as causes of subsistence farming, soil depletion and uncontrolled deforestation.

Finally, the pope calls on modern society to take 'a serious look at its life-style. .. Society is given to instant gratification and consumerism.... Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life."

He urges the family, churches, religious bodies and governmental and nongovernmental organizations to educate in "ecological responsibility."

Still, in spite of the pope's forceful language, environmentalists and others are calling for even stronger pronouncements and greater involvement by the church hierarchy on the ecology question.

The cries come even from among the top ranks of the clergy. Columban Father Sean McDonagh, in his optimistically titled book, The Greening of the Church, says the church, which "glorifies in being pro-life," has never seriously considered what the prospect of the extinction of life on earth might mean.

Some historians and environmentalists blame the Bible in part for pollution. Historians Lynn White and Arnold Joseph Toynbee have contended that a twisted interpretation of the imperative in Genesis "to subdue and dominate the earth" has led to a Judeo-Christian anthropocentricism.

Placing man at the center of the universe has separated humans from the nonhuman natural world and ultimately led to an industrial economy that justifies man's absolute dominion over the earth.

Observes Vaticanist Hebblethwaite, Ecology is not at the top of the [church's] agenda. There will always be a preference for man."

The pope attempts to correct such misguided church teaching on anthropocentricism in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. He says, "At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day....

"Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint and to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray."

The pope's other major document on the environment is his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Here, too, the "subdue and dominate" mandate is reconsidered: The encyclical reinterprets the order in Genesis not to "eat of the fruit of the tree" to mean that man's dominion over the earth is not absolute, and he is not free to use and abuse or dispose of things as he pleases.

The encyclical was seen as an ecological breakthrough, placing environmental protection on equal footing with other problems of 20th-century man. Still, the section on ecology lacks the powerful language of the peace message and fills only three pages of a 102-page text.

The pope, for instance, addresses overpopulation when he admits to a "demographic problem," especially in the Southern Hemisphere, "which creates difficulties for development." But he then immediately attacks the North's "drop in the birthrate" and the 'systematic campaigns against birth" launched by "governments in many countries."

It is precisely the church's obstinate, hard-line stance against the use of any type of birth control beyond abstinence or natural birth-control (the rhythm method) that has fired up many environmentalists.

All but one group interviewed for this story agreed that overpopulation is a contributing factor to pollution. Many agreed with the pope that the North, with its greed and disproportionately high level of consumption, is much to blame for pollution, and that wealth must be redistributed.

The church's response to environmentalists trying to link overpopulation with pollution is that "some less densely populated areas have disastrous environmental problems, while some high-density areas have overcome their pollution problems," said Father Diarmuid Martin, under secretary of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, the office responsible for church-related ecological matters.

Asked about the earth's carrying capacity, Martin said in an interview in his office in Rome that "there would be sufficient food to maintain a population of eight billion," but there would be distribution problems.

Baron Leon de Rosen, a former member of the pontifical commission for which Martin is under secretary, and senior adviser to the U.N. Environment Program, sees a definite relationship between overpopulation and pollution. But he said the solution lies in development, 'so that people will realize that they should have only two children."

The Worldwatch Institute's Jacobson agrees with the Vatican's call for a redistribution of wealth but says the church must also speak to the population explosion problem:

"The church is addressing consumption only, and not demographic growth. It is wishful thinking, but the church have it both ways. It is saying, 'Redistribute the wealth and then there will be enough for all.'

"Redistribution could alleviate some problems for a while, but there is still the overpopulation problem. The church must talk both sides of the problem; now it talks only about inequality."

The birth-control issue aside, the church has exercised its teaching role toward the environment in other ways for its flock of more than 900 million baptized, plus countless non-Catholic Christians and other believers. In 1979, during the second year of his pontificate, Pope John Paul proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi patron saint of ecology.

The pope's travels have brought him to the environmentally ravaged lands of Madagascar, Brazil, Africa, Czechoslovakia, even his native Poland, where he visited his hometown of Wadowice, situated between Wroclaw and Krakow, one of the most polluted areas of Europe.

Vatican diplomats have provided ethical principles for the contents of an Earth Charter presented at last summer's U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. And in 1993 the Vatican will sponsor an exhibition titled "Man and the Environment."

The roots of John Paul II's recurring environmental message can be traced in part to Pope Paul VI (1963-1978), who referred to the environment in speeches, messages and letters. Paul VI's references, though, were often vague, without fervor and anthropocentric, even when books such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) were appearing.

It may be hard to believe, but during all of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which helped bring the church into the modern world, the ecology theme went unaddressed.

Catholic bishops worldwide are echoing, at least on paper, the pope's greater urgency to save the environment. Notable pastoral letters and other exhortations have come from bishops' conferences in the Philippines, Brazil and the United States -- even if bishops in the Amazon have been criticized for not speaking honestly on the environment, and U.S. bishops for making significant statements on peace and economic justice, but being slow to react to the environment.

Vatican official Martin explains that "the Vatican's primary role toward the environment is to teach, to bring a message of inspiration, of clarification, and individuals are to assume their own responsibility. . . . It is not the business of the church to provide technical solutions to problems. . . The Vatican, as such, doesn't promote specific activities in the area of the environment, but encourages other groups to do so."

Environmentalists have asked why the church cannot be more concretely involved in the ecology movement when it performs other substantive deeds, such as building and operating hospitals and universities.

Martin answers that hospitals and schools are "concretely close to caring for people," and so distinguishable from "specific ecological projects."

He adds that Catholic aid organizations, such as Misereor in Germany, are "highly ecologically oriented," and local priests in Third World countries are encouraging ecological agriculture.

While this may be true, NCR ran a seven-page report in December 1990 on the local Catholic clergy's delay in assuming a leadership role in the environmental problems of the Amazon. The report, datelined Conceicao de Araguaia, Brazil, is titled "Church Among Those Arriving Belatedly to Save Land from Greed."

Since the Italy was unified in 1871 and formalized in a treaty with the Italian state in 1929, the Vatican's real property has dwindled to that within the city-state, plus some extraterritorial properties. These include the basilicas of St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls, plus colleges, seminaries, residential and office buildings in Rome and elsewhere in Italy, and the pope's summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo on the Roman hillside.

In addition, the Vatican maintains dozens of diplomatic missions abroad, and with others is building a $3.5 million telescope site atop Arizona's Mt. Graham, the focus of a protracted debate between the church and environmentalists with local Indians, ostensibly over and endangered species, destruction of an ecologically unique mountaintop and desecration of land sacred to the Apache Indians.

Much of the city-state is immaculate gardens dotted by well-kept buildings. It's a stark contrast with the poorly maintained public villas and decaying historical structures in Rome and throughout Italy. The view from the cupola of St. Peter's Basilica clearly suggests an absence of environmental pollution.

But whether the Vatican's holdings and investments are polluting is a different question. Giorgia Stoppa, the Vatican's top money manager at the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, which oversees financial investments and doubles as the Vatican's treasury, refuses to say whether any of the wealth of the Holy See, the church's administrative center, is in chemicals, petro-chemicals or polluting industries.

Nor would Stoppa say whether, for investment purposes, the Vatican distinguishes between ecologically sound and ecologically unsound companies. The Holy See reportedly firmly opposes holding majority stakes.

Stoppa's immediate predecessor, Benedetto Argentieri, who retired at the end of 1990, said that during his office he received a directive from the Vatican's secretary of state to avoid investing in companies producing brith-control paraphernalia or arms, but there was no prohibition against polluting concerns.

Evidence shows that the Vatican did have holdings in a pharmaceutical company that makes hormones used in contraception. Critics thus ask if the Vatican can slip up on something as antithetical to its church teaching as artificial birth control, then how much easier is it to overlook investments in environmentally unscrupulous companies?

German journalists reported in 1990 that, in 1968, the year Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial birth control in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, the Vatican bank held shares in pharmaceutical company for drugs used also as birth-control pills. The Vatican bank later sold its shares in Istituto Farmacologicao Serono SpA to the Milan-based bank, Banca Nione -- of which the Vatican bank held 2 percent of shares -- thus profiting indirectly from birth-control sales.

The Vatican denied ever holding shares in Serono. Company spokesman Christoph Lamps in Geneva said he believed the Vatican owned the shares through several "religious associations."

Martin's explanations of Vatican investment policy toward the environment are couched in weak, passive terms: "In its investment policy, the Vatican would be anxious not to be involved in anything that is polluting. If concrete indications were brought to its attention, then it would relook at an investment package."

Some environmentalists comment that they'd rather hear Martin say the Vatican is actively weeding out polluting companies and not passively waiting for "concrete indications" to be "brought to its attention."

Regarding the worldwide Catholic church, Martin says it "has properties all over the world, and it's impossible to say that among those there may not be (polluting companies."

Some church leaders seem to recognize the more active ecological role the church must play -- with its vast authority, educational resources and spiritual discipline -- regardless of the birth-control issue.

Scientist at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences' "Man and His Environment" study week concluded that "most of the endangered rain forests are found in countries with a majority of Catholics and small groups of other Christian churches....

The Catholic church and its representatives are in a unique position to instill into a large part of the world population the moral obligation to protect nature and its dynamic processes against destruction....No other power has the spiritual force to encourage people to insist that governments introduce necessary legislation."

Adds Father Donald B. Conroy, president of the North American Conference on Religion and Ecology in Washington: "Wouldn't it be tragic if, after ending the Cold War and avoiding the possibility of nuclear holocaust, we citizens of earth found ourselves on a dead planet -- with an uninhabitable moonscape to call home?"
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Title Annotation:Catholic environmentalism
Author:Perrotta, John
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 4, 1992
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