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Vatican joins environmentalists

James Dechant | Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Vatican, led by Pope Benedict XVI himself, is the latest group to hitch up their cassocks and jump on the environmental bandwagon. In what may be a watershed year for the Church’s nascent earth-friendly message, the Pope has led several initiatives not only to green up Vatican City but also to make Catholics more eco-conscious. Last month, the Church declared one Sunday “Save Creation Day” as the Pope led a youth festival in Italy with eco-friendliness foremost on its agenda. Earlier in the summer, Rome announced plans to re-do the roof of the Paul VI Auditorium Hall with solar panels (imagine a roof covering Notre Dame Stadium).

Now the Vatican has taken on its most ambitious project yet: It plans to become the world’s first carbon-neutral state. Earlier this year, the Church accepted a donation from a Hungarian firm to create a 37-acre “Vatican Climate Forest.” Trees planted in the ancient forested area in Hungary, now denuded and abandoned, will theoretically absorb an amount of carbon dioxide equal to the emissions of Vatican City throughout the year. The move sends a strong message about the “green culture” promulgated by Pope Benedict.

The rosy picture painted by the theory of carbon neutrality has its drawbacks, however. A Time Magazine piece by columnist Charles Krauthammer this March exposed some of the fallacies of the “have your cake and eat it too” carbon philosophy. Krauthammer compared the practice to the selling of indulgences (his editorial, written before Rome’s announcement, railed against trendy Hollywood eco-fadsters, not the Vatican). We think as long as we pay the piper, we have a free ticket to sin – or pollute, in this case.

Therein lies the main problem: Carbon neutrality may create new green areas, but it cannot erase the damage you do simultaneously. The idea may even exacerbate the problem by encouraging a free-for-all attitude, spurring us to be carefree in our carbon burning as we falsely assume it’s all being taken care of by a forest somewhere on the other side of the world.

A statement by the Pontifical Council of Culture equated the offsets to true pollution erasure. “To eliminate emissions,” Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca y Alameda said, “there are two ways: Either you reduce them by renouncing the use of cars or heating systems, for example, or you do something good to compensate them, such as planting trees.” Unfortunately, “compensating” is only a stopgap. It’s a treatment, not a cure; penance without forgiveness. The real change comes when we actually reduce our negative output. Reliance on new forests won’t get us there.

Carbon neutral sites also have an impermanent effectiveness. For the first 50 to 150 years of forest growth, trees indeed absorb significant amounts of CO2. But when the forest reaches maturity, the potency of this carbon vacuum cleaner declines significantly due to the natural carbon output of dying trees. Furthermore, calculations concerning these “offsets” are guesstimates at best – whether the Hungarian forest will really absorb the exact amount of carbon emitted annually by the Vatican is highly speculative.

Those complications may just reduce the luster of the cure-all that is carbon neutrality, but it can be worse. Sometimes, companies forcefully take the land used for offsetting sites from local farmers in economically disadvantaged countries, even using threats and violence. Krauthammer mentions a Dutch company that has used scare tactics on local inhabitants near a Ugandan national park, all to clear the land so that Western companies may have a clear conscience while driving their SUVs.

The Vatican example avoids some of the pitfalls made by rich multinationals: The site was donated by a local company in Europe, uses free land, and may create jobs in the indigent surrounding region. You could accuse the Vatican of accepting the Hungarian company’s offer only to create a good public image, true, but the Church is backing up their action with further efforts (like the solar roof).

More importantly, the Vatican distinguishes itself from political phonies by embracing sound teaching about the duty to steward God’s creation. Preaching a religious message about environmentalism isn’t the same as politicizing faith or using it to back a particular philosophy of the moment – Christianity has contributed to more than its fair share of appropriation, from slavery-backers to holy wars. But in this case, the message is valid, the intent is true, and the methods are sound – mostly.

You need only wander Rome to see the corrosion that its thousands of automobiles do to its church facades, to its air quality, to its tree-lined streets and piazzas. Pollution rears its ugly head in the Eternal City, but the Church can help adjust our course. First, it must wise up on carbon neutrality. The Hungarian forest is an admirable first step, but it is not enough. The Vatican must then take further steps to set a worthy example, and it should continue its religious teachings about caring for the earth. It must move beyond being a carbon-neutral state and become a truly environmentalist state.

James Dechant is a senior English and theology major. Questions, comments, and rude remarks can be sent to him at jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

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