Interview with the pope's new 'eco-bishop'

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.

tOne of Pope Benedict XVI’s more intriguing recent episcopal appointments is that of Karl Golser, 65, as the new bishop of the Bolzano-Bressanone diocese in northern Italy. Not only is the diocese a particular favorite of the pope, who has taken his summer vacations there since the late 1960s, but Golser is also a longtime associate of Benedict XVI. He worked under then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the early 1980s, and stayed in touch with him afterwards. When Italian journalist Vittorio Messori interviewed Ratzinger in Bressanone for the book that became The Ratzinger Report, for example, the cardinal asked his old aide to sit in.

What also makes the Golser nomination striking is that he’s widely considered among the leading eco-theologians on the European Catholic scene, which means that Benedict XVI has chosen to introduce a strong new environmental voice into the episcopacy. On Dec. 9, Golser spoke with NCR by phone from his home in Bressanone about his appointment and the pope’s distinctive approach to environmental questions. Golser will be formally ordained a bishop in early March; between now and then, he said, he’ll finish out the academic term in his capacity as a professor at the local theology faculty.

The interview was conducted in Italian; the following is an NCR translation.

You worked with then-Cardinal Ratzinger back in the early 1980s. What memories do you have of him then?

Yes, I was in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith along with [William] Levada from 1977 to 1982. We both left together. [Note: Now a cardinal, Levada today is the prefect of the congregation.] He went on to become an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, while I wanted to go back to the diocese for which I was ordained, where I worked as a pastor and a confessor. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger was nominated in 1981, and we worked under him until August of 1982. I’ll admit that when I heard a German had been appointed, we all had some impressions of what that might mean … it was certainly suggestive! But he turned out to be very lovable, very kind. During our regular meetings, when we would talk about internal business, I was always struck by his eagerness to listen to the opinions of others, to respect them, without imposing his greater competence.
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tBy that time, the cardinal was already in the habit of spending his summer vacations in Bressanone, so I saw him there many times. When he had his interview with Messori, for example, he asked me to be present. At that stage, he still wasn’t completely confident of his Italian, although he’s obviously now extremely good. When he first came from Munich, however, he had a few difficulties, even though he has a great capacity for languages.

Did you stay in touch with Ratzinger after you left the congregation?

Mostly I saw him during his vacations. Every now and then, I’d have some bit of business that would put me in contact with the congregation – for example, if I had to prepare a nihil obstat on something. Otherwise, I didn’t have a lot of time for collaboration, because I was very busy here. I worked a good deal with CEI [the Italian bishops’ conference] and with other European conferences. In 1994 I became the director of our Institute for Justice, Peace and the Preservation of Creation, and I also took part in a number of working groups, including ecumenical projects, on the European level.

It must have been quite an experience to see your old boss elected pope.

Of course, it was a great joy. On the other hand, I flashed back to a conversation we had during the summer of 2004, when Ratzinger was getting ready to leave Bressanone. He told me that all he wanted was to retire, to be free to spend more time with his brother and to work on his own writing. He also said he was happy he wouldn’t have to take any more trans-Atlantic trips after 2004! Obviously, things didn’t work out that way. At first I was a little sad, knowing what he had been expecting, but I’m also very happy to see how well he’s entered into this new ministry.

You’re a leading expert on environmental theology. What would you say is the core of Benedict XVI’s teaching on environmental issues?

Even back when he was the cardinal of Munich, he gave homilies in which he lamented that the theology of creation has been overlooked in the period since the Second Vatican Council [1962-65]. Post-conciliar theology wanted to emphasize the history of salvation, but for him it was equally important to see that everything, the entire cosmos, has been created in view of Jesus Christ.

In other words, creation and redemption go together. From that point of departure, he often goes back to St. Francis of Assisi, even to Marian devotion, with the idea that all of creation in a way enters into this Marian function of preparing for the arrival of the Redeemer. Everything has been born in order to glorify God.

This is the specific point about our Christian faith, and what sets apart the way the Holy Father approaches this question from the secular environmental movement. Some currents can be pantheistic, or sometimes they downplay the special place of humanity in favor of the concept of this great “Gaia,” and so on. People sometimes criticize the Christian vision of the environment for being anthropocentric, but in fact it’s theo-centric. We can only understand creation by seeing it in terms of mystery of the Trinity. Of course, there’s also an eschatological dimension, which is that all of creation must be reborn and presented anew to the Father through Christ.

As you know, we celebrate the “Day of Creation” on Sept. 1. Last year, we had a meeting of bishops in the Alps, which talked about climate change. They prayed over it, and also issued an appeal. Part of that appeal was that it’s necessary for our ways of life to change, especially that we don’t use so much energy. Our quality of life must be based primarily on good relations with nature, not just with how much we consume.

It seems that this is also a core idea of Benedict XVI. His environmental teaching isn’t just about legislation or international treaties, but also individual lifestyle choices.

Very much so. It’s not an accident that many of the Holy Father’s comments on the environment have come on Sundays … that’s very important. Sunday is the day we live the joy of redemption, and it also expresses a new relationship with space and time. It’s about the return to Christ, the parousia. In the Eucharist, it’s also about offering the earth itself back to God, in the consecration of bread and wine.

I think the Holy Father draws a great deal on Eastern theology, and the fathers of the church, who have a great sensibility for the cosmic dimension of the faith. Starting from the Eucharist, the liturgy, they propose a whole style of life that’s in harmony with all of creation. There’s a strong current in Eastern thought, for example, on man as the “priest of creation.”

Is there anything in Benedict’s teaching that would represent an original contribution to environmental theology?

That’s a little difficult, because as you know, he always wants to be in continuity with what’s been expressed before. I think his contribution is really recuperating the thought of the fathers of the church. John Paul II was a great mystic, and a philosopher. Others approach the environment through the lens of natural law or the social doctrine of the church. The approach of Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is clearly rooted in the fathers, in scripture, in liturgy. If you read his homilies, there’s a profound spirituality of the environment there. That also comes through in messages for the World Day of Peace, his messages for New Year’s – there’s always an ecological dimension.

Obviously, I’m also waiting very keenly for his new encyclical on social themes, which I’m sure will contain a very good section on the responsibility for creation. His sees ecology within a broader vision of globalization, connecting the problems of development and poverty to commitment for the environment.

Is there something special about Bressanone that has led you over the years to a particular concern for the environment?

We speak three languages here, so issues of peaceful co-existence among cultures is a big concern, but the theme of the environment is also very important. We suffer very much from problems related to traffic and air pollution. Sometimes we’ve had to virtually shut down cities due to thermal inversion, especially because we’re in the Alps. We also face energy shortages here, so we’ve been in the forefront of the development of solar energy with respect to the rest of Italy. We tend to look to Germany and Austria, who are ahead of us … unfortunately the Italian government is lagging behind.

I have to say, however, that the Italian bishops’ conference [CEI] has been committed to this issue for a long time. We began a working group on the environment in 1990, and every year since then we’ve organized a national seminar. We put out a nice volume in 2002 on responsibility for creation. We’ve also developed materials on the environment for use in religious education. Of course, we’ve been very involved with the problems created by the garbage strikes in Naples, which reflects a continuing divide between northern and southern Italy that also has consequences for environmental questions.

Becoming a bishop is always a heavy responsibility, but perhaps especially so in your case, knowing that you’re taking over the pope’s “home away from home.” What are you praying for as you prepare?

What’s uppermost in my prayer right now is the idea of Christ as our peace. Especially because we’re in the Christmas season, that’s very present to me. My prayer is that through Christ we can return to a strong sense of our Christian identity, and then connect that identity to the pressing social and even political problems we face – immigration, dialogue with other religions, co-existence among different cultures, and also, of course, the environment.


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