Lynne White, Pope Benedict XVI and the Ecological Crisis

Respect for creation is of immense consequence, not least because “creation is the beginning and the foundation of all God’s works”, and its preservation has now become essential for the pacific coexistence of mankind. Man’s inhumanity to man has given rise to numerous threats to peace and to authentic and integral human development – wars, international and regional conflicts, acts of terrorism, and violations of human rights. Yet no less troubling are the threats arising from the neglect – if not downright misuse – of the earth and the natural goods that God has given us. For this reason, it is imperative that mankind renew and strengthen “that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying”.
-Pope Benedict XVI, If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation, 1 January 2010

Good to see that the Pope is taking leadership in this issue, because Christianity is responsible for a desacralization of nature in Western society that paved the way for the climate crisis we face today. Lynne White, a professor of history at UCLA, made a pretty solid case for this in the 1960s in an article entitled 'The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis'. This article should be required reading for all environmental activists because it reveals the evolution of a set of assumptions over the centuries that have led to the anthropic destruction of the earth's resources.

That isn't Benedict's fault but as the leader of the Church he does have a spiritual responsibility to provide realleadership just like politicians have a civic responsibility to do the same. Both Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury have recently demonstrated how the Bible - specifically the book of Genesis - does set an example of environmental stewardship through the characters of Adam and Noah.

But is it too late? We need to see a mobilization of the masses in order to stop climate change, and to accomplish this the Pope will have to do more than write a special New Year's Day address about the issue. PETA has invited the Pope to become a vegan (ironically, vegetarianism and veganism are central to the legacy of Christian asceticism).

It's an attractive idea and I wouldn't discourage the Holy See from taking it on, but the pope's dietary habits will not have much of an effect. The people in the world who are more likely to follow the Pope's example are those from the more impoverished areas of the world and many of them are already suffering from hunger. Catholics in richer countries don't pay much attention to what the Vatican says anymore and they are the ones who are causing the most damage to the planet.

So, what should the Pope do? I think he should do what popes do best. A massive worldwide tour to mobilize the faithful to take action to change the system that is responsible for the climate crisis.

Pope Urban II gave a speech in France in 1095 that was responsible for inspiring the Crusades. I won't do the Bush thing and say we need a 'Climate Crusade' - we don't want climate activism to be associated with the most disturbing war crimes of the medieval period. But Urban's example does demonstrate the power of the Holy See to mobilize millions of people. The developed world won't listen to Benedict but I'll wager that if he travels across the countryside in Africa, South America and Asia (and starts creating trouble in China by inspiring Chinese Catholic communities to take action), he will be demonstrating the type of leadership that the Church needs to offer.

Jesus set the example for nonviolent civil disobedience, anti-consumerism and the redistribution of wealth to the poor. It's time for the Pope to stop with the silly hats and exaggerated rituals and do something meaningful.


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