Vatican mulling interfaith climate summit

The Vatican is considering calling a meeting of religious leaders to bring awareness to the current state of the climate and social inequalities resulting from a warming, technologizing planet, ahead of two key United Nations meetings on climate and sustainability set for 2015. 

The news came toward the end of a speech by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who in London Nov. 10 gave the annual Pope Paul VI lecture for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) -- the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales.

Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said in the CAFOD talk that “2015 could be a decisive year in history,” with the U.N. having a “unique opportunity” at two separate events to establish a sustainable course for the global economy: in September the Sustainable Development Goals summit, and in December the Paris climate negotiations.

“The problem of climate change has become a major social and moral problem, and mentalities can only be changed on moral and religious grounds,” he said.

From that position, the bishop said the academy gave its support to Pope Francis “to publish an encyclical or another such important document on climate and social inclusion to influence next year’s crucial decisions.

“In fact, the idea is to convene a meeting with the religious leaders of the main religions to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion starting from the biblical message that man is the steward of nature and of its environmental and human development according to its potential and not against it, as Paul IV intended,” Sorondo said.

[Watch Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo’s Pope Paul VI lecture]

In January, the Vatican confirmed that Francis was working on an encyclical focused on ecology and the “ecology of man.” On his flight back to Rome from South Korea in August, the pope told journalists that shortly before his trip he had received a first draft of the encyclical from Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Reports out of Rome anticipate the encyclical will come at some point in the first part of the new year.

The 2015 U.N. climate talks in Paris, officially known as the 21st Conference of the Parties, have been targeted for the adoption of a new international climate agreement, to go into force in 2020. When the Kyoto Protocol expired at the end of 2012, so did the only binding international agreement for carbon emissions regulations; the Doha climate talks that year extended Kyoto commitments through 2020, though several nations bowed out of the agreement. In a week, climate talks are set to open in Lima, Peru.

Related: “UN report: As climate warms, poverty will grow

Should the religious conference occur, it won’t be the only one on the calendar in 2015. In his patriarchal encyclical opening the new ecclesiastical year in September, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew announced plans for an environmental summit next June, to focus on the theme of “Theology, Ecology, and the Word: a conversation on environment, literature and the arts.”

In the CAFOD lecture, Sorondo discussed the connections among a warming climate, a global economy built upon fossil fuels, and the societal divisions the two can cause.

“Today solid scientific evidence exists that global climate is changing and that human activity based on the use of fossil materials contributes decisively to this trend. Coupled with an economy based on profit and on the games finance plays in order to profit from money itself, without a clear orientation to the production of goods, this leads to social exclusion and the new forms of slavery such as forced labor, prostitution, organ trafficking, and the use of drugs as a method of corruption,” he said.

The bishop said that developments of technological skills in the past 200 years “have led man to a crossroads. … These advances have reshaped the world economy into one that is increasingly urban and globally connected, but also more and more unequal.”

Quoting Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, he described the “boomerang effect” human action inconsiderate of nature has on humans, in that it creates a “globalization of indifference” and an “economics of exclusion.”

“Market forces alone, with no ethics and collective action, cannot solve the interrelated crises of poverty, exclusion and the environment,” he said, pointing out that measuring economic activity by gross domestic product alone “does not take into account the degradation of the Earth that goes with it, nor of the unjust inequalities between countries and within each country.”

On climate change, Sorondo affirmed the scientific consensus, most recently the latest U.N. report, that the warming planet is due to human activity, that it is occurring and disproportionately impacting the poor and the young. 

“The challenge of climate change has become not only economic, political or social. It is also an issue of morals, religion, values such as justice and social inclusion, the obligation of solidarity with future generations and the moral obligation to care for the earth, namely creation, which is our habitat,” he said.

Sorondo called for the adoption of U.N. Sustainable Development Goals -- expected to build on the progress of the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000 -- to continue addressing extreme poverty and social inequalities. While the technological and operating means to do so exist, he said, the biggest challenge “may lie in the sphere of human values,” where economic advances have led to a broadening income gap and a reduction in equal opportunities.

“Healthy human ecology, in terms of ethical virtues, contributes to the achievement of a sustainable and balanced environment. Today, we need to establish a mutually beneficial relationship: the economy needs to be imbued with true values, and respect for God's creation should promote human dignity and well being,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]