By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pope Benedict XVI has barely arrived Down Under, and already environmentalism is emerging as one key theme of his visit to Australia for the 2008 edition of World Youth Day.
The pope made a brief refueling stop in Darwin, on the northern tip of Australia, after flying directly from Rome. After landing in Sydney, Benedict XVI will take three days of rest before beginning the World Youth Day program on July 17.
Even before he left Rome, the pope struck a “green” note. In a message to the people of Australia and the youth from around the world converging on Sydney, Benedict listed environmental challenges as among those global phenomena currently “perplexing” young people and sometimes depriving them of hope.
“They see great damage done to the natural environment through human greed,” the pope said in his message, released July 4. “They struggle to find ways to live in greater harmony with nature and with one another.”
During his 15-minute session with reporters aboard the papal plane, Benedict actually touched on environmental themes three times. The first mention came in response to a question about what his essential message will be for the young people converging on Sydney.
Among other things, the pope said he wants to focus on the role of the Holy Spirit as Creator, and thus human responsibilities towards Creation.
"This seems to me a very important theme in the present moment," Benedict said.
The pope was then asked by an Australian journalist about religious indifference in his country. Benedict replied that while religion does face something of a crisis in the Western world, various forces today illustrate the need for religious faith -- among them, environmental challenges.
"In this historical moment, we begin to see that we do need God," the pope said. "We can do so many things, but we cannot create our climate. We thought we could do it, but we cannot do it. We need the gift of the Earth, the gift of water, we need the Creator; the Creator re-appears in His creation. And so we also come to understand that we cannot be really happy, cannot be really promoting justice for all the world, without a criterion at work in our own ideas, without a God who is just, and gives us the light, and gives us life."
Finally, Benedict was asked about climate change following discussions on the environment during this month's G-8 summit in Japan.
"As I already underlined in response to the first question, certainly this problem will be very present at this World Youth Day, because we’re talking about the Holy Spirit, and in consequence, about Creation and our responsibilities with regard to Creation," the pope replied.
"It’s not my intention to enter into the technical questions which politicians and specialists have to resolve, but to offer essential impulses for seeing the responsibility, for being capable of responding to this great challenge: rediscovering in Creation the face of the Creator, rediscovering our responsibility before the Creator for the Creation which he has entrusted to us, forming the ethical capacity for a style of life that’s necessary to assume if we want to address the problem posed by this situation and if we really want to arrive at positive solutions."
Environmentalsm has shaped up as a key social theme under Benedict XVI. Aside from numerous public comments, the pope has also approved plans to install solar panels atop the Paul VI Audience Hall, in addition to signing an agreement to reforest a stretch of central Hungary sufficient to offset the Vatican’s annual carbon output.
Among other things, Benedict XVI sees the environmental movement as a promising route for the recovery of a strong sense of "natural law," meaning the idea that moral limits to human conduct are inherent in nature. If people are willing to accept that idea about the environment, Benedict seems to hope, perhaps they will be more open to the claims of natural law in other areas of life as well.