By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Over the last year, Pope Benedict XVI has significantly sharpened his environmental message – not just in word but also in deed, approving plans, for example, to put solar cells atop the Paul VI Audience Hall and to replant trees in a stretch of Hungarian forest in order to offset the Vatican’s annual carbon output.
In his annual message for the World Day of Peace, released today in a Vatican news conference, he once again returns to the urgency of effective ecological safeguards, insisting that “the problems looming on the horizon are complex and time is short.”
In his 3,000 word message, Benedict also addresses the family, the arms race, and the moral foundations of international law. The message is titled "The Human Family, A Community of Peace."
On the environmental front, however, Benedict is also well aware that his budding eco-advocacy has drawn fire from critics who warn that it gives aid and comfort to radical secular environmentalists, including thinkers who deny any special moral status to human beings or who reject Biblical notions of human stewardship of the earth as excessively "anthropocentric."
Thus in today’s message, Benedict was careful to signal that he’s not ready to sign up for an “Earth First!” membership card. His, in other words, is a distinctively Catholic shade of green.
“Human beings, obviously, are of supreme worth vis-à-vis creation as a whole,” the pope writes. “Respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man.”
“It is important for [environmental] assessments to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions,” the pope says.
Those caveats aside, Benedict’s ecological emphasis in the new message is strong.
“We need to care for the environment,” Benedict writes. “It has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion.”
The pope goes so far as to say that new international agencies may be necessary to promote stewardship of the common human home.
Energy supplies are a special source of papal concern.
“Technologically advanced countries are facing two pressing needs: to reassess the high levels of consumption due to the present model of development, and to invest in alternative sources of energy and greater energy efficiency,” Benedict says.
“Emerging counties are hungry for energy, but at times this hunger is met in a way harmful to poor countries which, due to their insufficient infrastructures, including their technological infrastructures, are forced to undersell the energy resources they do possess. At times, their very political freedom is compromised by forms of protectorate or, in any case, by forms of conditioning which appear clearly humiliating.”
On the arms race, Benedict calls the global traffic in weapons a “baneful commerce,” and calls for an “effective demilitarization,” especially with nuclear weapons.
The pope does not exempt anyone from blame.
“The countries of the industrially developed world profit immensely from the sale of arms, while the ruling oligarchies in many poor countries wish to reinforce their stronghold by acquiring ever more sophisticated weaponry,” Benedict writes.
In a statement presenting Benedict’s message to the press, Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said that global spending on weaponry reached $1.204 billion in 2006, and that spending on arms went up 37 percent over the period 1997-2006.
“It’s the largest level of spending ever recorded, even during the period of the so-called ‘Cold War,’” Martino said.
Moreover, Martino argued, the arms race this spending fuels is actually counter-productive with regard to anti-terrorism efforts, since build-ups in arms actually make the world less secure, not more.
Beneath the level of these specific policy concerns, Benedict XVI returned to a by-now familiar theme in his 2008 World Day of Peace message.
When Benedict XVI turns to politics, his leitmotif is usually this: There’s no stable foundation for a just world apart from God. Either the world acknowledges a universal and objective moral law based upon a transcendent Creator, or ultimately human egoism and the blind will to power will prevail.
In that sense, the heart of the pope’s argument comes in paragraph 12, on the relationship between international law and morality:
“The juridic norm, which regulates relationships between individuals, disciplines external conduct and establishes penalties for offenders, has as its criterion the moral norm grounded in nature itself,” the pope writes. “It is necessary to go back to the natural moral norm as the basis of the juridic norm; otherwise the latter constantly remains at the mercy of a fragile and provisional consensus.”
That, in a nutshell, has been the consistent argument of Benedict’s papacy anytime he turns to questions of peace and justice, from his recent encyclical Spe Salvi to his book Jesus of Nazareth to his speeches in Brazil during his trip last May.
Without grounding in transcendent values rooted in faith, the pope warns, international law and relations among states will be forever “subject to manipulation for selfish or ideological reasons.”
That’s the reason, Benedict suggests, that he opens his reflections on world peace with an assertion of the traditional Christian understanding of the family as rooted in marriage between a man and a woman, marked by “the responsible acceptance of new life” – an indirect reference to church teaching on birth control and abortion.
Given the family’s role as a primordial school of peace, Benedict suggests, “the denial or even the restriction of the rights of the family, by obscuring the truth about man, threatens the very foundations of peace.”
In a statement released this morning by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, President of the conference, said that the pope's message "points out that everyone of us, individually and as a nation, bears responsibility for peace-making, which begins at home both in how we treat one another and how we use all the earth’s resources."
In the conclusion to his message, Benedict XVI notes that 2008 marks three important anniversaries: it's the 60th anniversary of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 25th anniversary of the Holy See's adoption of the Charter of the Rights of the Family, and the 40th anniversary of the World Day of Peace itself. Pope Paul VI created the annual observance as a gesture of the Catholic church's concern for peace, and placed it on Jan. 1, New Year's Day, rather than a traditional Catholic feast day, in order to signal openness to all "women and men of good will."