All eyes on Rome

An upcoming Vatican gathering seeks to build momentum for the upcoming papal eco-encyclical

With the demands of Holy Week concluded and the expected release of Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical about ten weeks away, Vatican officials have doubled down on efforts for preparing “to receive and share” the most anticipated papal encyclical since Paul VI’s Humane Vitae.

The latest development in this pre-encyclical time of preparation is a day-long Vatican workshop on climate change and sustainability. The April 28th event is a collaboration of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace.

Titled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity; The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development,” the gathering is in part a follow up to last May’s conference on sustainable development hosted jointly (and uniquely) by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. At the conclusion of that conference, participants said they hoped for a continuation of the dialog that had begun there.

The April 28th workshop grants that wish.

“A key role for any faith group, especially the Vatican, is that of convener,” said Dan Misleh, Executive Director of the United States-based Catholic Climate Covenant. “Where else can business leaders, the development community, scientists, diplomats and faith leaders gather to talk about the moral imperative to live more sustainably on a finite planet?”

Misleh, who attended last year's Vatican conference, also told CatholicEcology that the Vatican workshop, being held in advance of the widely anticipated encyclical, “will help provide for momentum when the document is released. This is all very good and very helpful.”

For groups like the Covenant and many others around the globe, high-profile eco-gatherings within the Holy See demonstrate the importance of what’s being done in smaller venues on the front lines of the Church in the world.

This is especially true because of the Church's desire to link faith and reason.

Stressing that point is Dan DiLeo, also of the Catholic Climate Covenant, who notes that the list of conference participants "reiterates that the Catholic response to climate change is informed by world-renowned experts in all related fields.”

Linking life, human dignity, and ecology

According to the Pontifical Academy of Science's website, the gathering seeks to “raise awareness and build a consensus that the values of sustainable development cohere with values of the leading religious traditions, with a special focus on the most vulnerable.”

Other goals are to “elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment in advance of the papal encyclical; and to help build a global movement across all religions for sustainable development and climate change throughout 2015 and beyond.”

Cardinal Turkson echoed the link between ecology and issues of human dignity—a link stressed by Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.

In a sign of the importance that the world community is placing on the Church’s involvement in climate and other environmental matters, the United Nations' Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will help open the event. He will be joined by His Eminence Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Cardinal Turkson has been an outspoken supporter of Catholic environmental efforts and teachings. Most recently he delivered a talk in Ireland that many have said was a prelude to the themes of Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical.

In that talk, Cardinal Turkson echoed the link between ecology and issues of human dignity—a link stressed by Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. This link is also being underscored at the upcoming gathering. Topics will include not just matters of climate and sustainability but also human trafficking and other forms of slavery.

For the Church, such issues are related. Benedict XVI stressed this in his third encyclical [Caritas in Veritate, section 51] by saying that “[t]he book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development.”

Also speaking at the Vatican gathering will be Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Dr. William Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace President; Margaret Archer of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and Prof. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate scientist and member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Ramanathan, who is not Catholic, is a regular supporter of the Church’s involvement in global ecological issues.

“This is an important development because all of the world's major religions have something to say about caring for creation,” said Jeff Korgen of GreenFaith, an organization working to develop environmental leadership among faith communities.

Korgen, who is Catholic, sees the interfaith efforts of Pope Francis and the Vatican as crucial at this critical stage of international ecological deliberations.

“Only Pope Francis has enough goodwill and trust among faith leaders to bring them all together,” he said. “Already we can see that the voices of the faith communities are having an impact on the U.N. climate talks. This conference will help unify those voices further. The Vatican is wise to see that we can only be effective on the issue of climate change if we work together with people of other faiths.”

Vatican officials desire that the outcome of the April 28th gathering will be a joint statement on “the moral and religious imperative of sustainable development, highlighting the intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people—especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children, and future generations.”

The local question

Some are asking how to translate this conference in Rome of high-ranking indiviudals—and the Holy Father’s upcoming encyclical—into action in the Church’s pulpits, parish administrations, and pews. Such concerns have prompted other planning sessions and collaborations, such as an upcoming meeting in early May, also in Rome, of Catholic environmental groups and relief agencies. The goal of that meeting will be to connect (in a coordinated way) the words of the pope and the efforts of Catholics around the world.

For priests like Fr. Bernard Survil, of the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, such planning is critical for the life of the Church—and the planet. He and others are eager to see the translation of energy and teachings from Rome to local Catholic communities.

“While the Vatican is working to develop a consensus on sustainable development worldwide,” said Fr. Survil, “priests have the pastoral challenge of helping our brother priests and people just keep up with the marvelous leadership coming from Pope Francis.”

"Any work that promotes sustainable development and addresses climate change is a work of Reconciliation." Fr. Luke Rodrigues S.J.

Fr. Survil, who serves in the leadership of the Association of United States Catholic Priests, has helped develop a website that seeks to “persuade our fellow priests to use their position as pastors, homilists and counselors to help U.S. Catholics integrate Care of Creation into their daily lives and the life of their parish.”

Others across the globe are independently seeking to attain the same goals within the Church—a sign that the Holy Spirit is quite active at the moment.

Most recently the Global Catholic Climate Movement—which will participate in the gathering of Catholic environmental and relief organizations in May—is encouraging Catholics to pray for creation by providing resources to do so. The GCCM initiated its “Care4Creation” prayer campaign in April to support Pope Francis’s universal prayer intention this month “[t]hat people may learn to respect creation and care for it as a gift of God.”

The necessity to help local Catholic communities benefit from events like the Vatican conference—as well as to pray for, respond to, and share the Pope’s upcoming encyclical—was underscored in an email to me today by Fr. Luke Rodrigues S.J. of Bombay, India, who serves in the Jesuit Curia in Rome.

Fr. Rodrigues said that "we are being called today to work for a three-fold Reconciliation. Reconciliation with God, Reconciliation with others, [and] Reconciliation with creation. Any work that promotes sustainable development and addresses climate change is a work of Reconciliation. It offers us an interaction with the Divine, upholds the rights of the marginalized, and embraces creation."

The April gathering will include Vatican officials joined by twenty science, business, diplomatic, and development experts, twenty religious leaders, and twenty academicians and scholars.

The event will take place at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences headquarters, Casina Pio IV, in Vatican City. Its program can be downloaded here.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.