By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
To shepherd an Italian diocese that holds a special place in his heart, Pope Benedict XVI today tapped one of the leading eco-theologians on the European Catholic scene.
The Vatican has announced that Karl Golser, a well-known moral theologian who directs the “Institute for Justice, Peace and the Preservation of the Creation” in northern Italy, will succeed the late Capuchin Wilhelm Emil Egger as bishop of the Bolzano-Bressanone diocese. Egger had been set to serve as the secretary of the Synod of Bishops on the Bible in October, prior to his unexpected death last August.
Bolzano-Bressanone is located in the largely German-speaking Alpine region of northern Italy known as Alto Adige in Italian and Südtirol in German, where the pope’s family, on his mother’s side, has its roots.
Since the late 1960s, the future pope, along with his brother and sister, took their annual summer vacation at a local hotel in Bressanone. (The owner recently recalled that the Ratzinger siblings would take three rooms each year, sharing a bathroom in common.) After becoming a cardinal, Ratzinger continued to summer in Bressanone as a guest of the local seminary, a practice he has continued as pope. A shady patch of the garden on the grounds of the seminary is informally named for Ratzinger because of his predilection for reading there.
It was also during his 2004 vacation in Bressanone that Benedict penned his book Jesus of Nazareth.
With today’s appointment, Benedict entrusted this diocese, for which he has deep personal affection, to one of European Catholicism’s most outspoken advocates for strong environmental sensitivity.
Golser, 65, served briefly under Ratzinger at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the early 1980s. A specialist in moral theology, Golser taught for many years at an institute for academic study of theology in Bressanone. He’s also served as president of an Italian association of moral theologians.
Over the years, perhaps Golser’s major contribution as an ethicist has been to develop a strong theology of environmental concern. In 1995, he edited the volume The Religions and Ecology: Responsibility towards Creation in the Great Religions.
Golser has also served as an advisor to the environmental commission of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, as well as a member of the council’s ad-hoc committee on climate change. That latter body recently produced a document calling upon European leaders to anchor environmental policies in a sense of “inter-generational justice and solidarity towards countries of the [global] South.”
During a 2007 diocesan Eucharistic congress in Bologan, Golser publicly called the church and the broader society to an “ecological conversion.”
Last August, when Benedict XVI met with the clergy of Bolzano-Bressanone during his summer vacation, Golser had the opportunity to put a question to the pope on environmentalism. On that day, Golser asked:
“Today, we sometimes have the feeling that, as Church, we have retired to the sacristy. Declarations of the papal magisterium on the important social issues do not find the right response in parishes and ecclesial communities. Here in Alto Adige, the authorities and many associations forcefully call attention to environmental problems and in particular to climate change. The principal arguments are the melting of glaciers, landslides in the mountains, the problems of the cost of energy, traffic, and the pollution of the atmosphere. There are many initiatives for safeguarding the environment. However, in the average awareness of our Christians, all this has very little to do with faith. What can we do to increase the sense of responsibility for Creation in the life of our Christian communities? What can we do in order to view Creation and Redemption as more closely united? How can we live a Christian lifestyle in an exemplary way that will endure? And how can we combine this with a quality of life that is attractive for all the people of our earth?
Benedict began his reply by saying to Golser, “You would certainly be far more able than I to answer these questions!” The pope went on to argue that Christianity has a decisive contribution to make to a new environmental ethic: “True and effective measures against the waste and destruction of creation,” he said, “can only be realized and developed, understood and lived, when creation is considered from the point of view of God.”
Benedict’s nomination of Golser in Bolzano-Bressanone is thus, in part, a reflection of what has become a strong environmental emphasis in the pope’s social teaching. At a September 2007 Mass in Loretto, Italy, marking the celebration of Earth Day, Benedict issued a forceful ecological appeal: “Before it’s too late,” the pope said, “we need to make courageous choices that will recreate a strong alliance between man and the earth. We need a decisive ‘yes’ to care for creation and a strong commitment to reverse those trends that risk making the situation of decay irreversible.”
Less than a month ago, a bank of more than 1,000 solar panels atop the Paul VI Audience Hall went on-line, feeding solar energy into the Vatican’s power grid.
In part, too, Benedict’s nomination of Golser is also in keeping with his informal policy of entrusting key jobs to former aides. High-profile examples include his Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and his successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, both of whom, like Golser, served under Ratzinger in the Vatican.
Among other things, Golser’s nomination likely means he will serve as the pope’s new summer host, assuming that Benedict XVI continues his practice of taking his summer breaks in Bressanone. One reason for doing so: The pope still has a copy of the key to the seminary library, which was given to him as a cardinal by the rector so that he could come and go as he pleased.
Jesuit Fr. James Keenan of Boston College, who said he knows Golser well, called him "a wonderful man and a fine theologian, who writes on issues related to the contemporary human being finding meaning and ethics in the world as it is."