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A Green Pope?

pope.jpgJohn Paul II, the 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church, will be put to rest on Friday in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica. World leaders are flocking to the Vatican for the funeral. Even Royal Wedding plans have been changed. A controversial and long lasting leader, his life and legacy are being debated all over the world. No matter who or what you read, almost everyone agrees on one thing: that the next pope inherits a much more complex world and religious landscape than JP II, and that this presents major challenges to the future of the Church. Much hangs in the balance in this leadership process for this global organization representing over 1 billion faithful.

But with the serious minded punditry, there is also the voyeuristic fascination with the pageantry, rituals and rites that transcends denominations and religious orientation. We lap this up because so little of this is left in the modern world. I mean who isn't just a little bit captivated by the arcane, cabalistic and ancient trivia of the electoral process for the next pope -- everything from the smashing of the papal ring to the minutia of the voting mechanisms to the burning of the ballots, and of course secret power politicking and intrigue amongst ambitious cardinals. We are witnessing history, a singular event, and this novelty is a refreshing break from hearing about failed states and insurgencies. In a fast-changing world, these traditions comfort us that constancy does persist in some quarters, that some things do survive the ravages of time. (Incidentally, despite the recent offensive by the Catholic Church against Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, his other novel, Angels and Demons provides an eerily accurate portrayal of this process, albeit with the events being pure fiction. My visualization of this real life papal election has benefited from this fictional account.)

Religion is not a regular topic on WorldChanging, but it should creep into our conversations, at least periodically, because whatever your sensibilities regarding religion, it's a powerful and pervasive agent of change -- for great good and great ill -- that ain't going away soon, and as such, is worth watching and understanding with an open mind and through different perspectives. While a "war" is going on between moderns and anti-modernist forces (for example see David Brin's blog debate focused on "Modernism and its Enemies"), I'm more interested in finding bridges across this chasm.

Indeed, it's so easy to focus on just the negative aspects of religion or Christianity, which I grant are many and disturbing. Yet as worldchangers we shouldn't overlook the fact that much good can be done in the name of religion. Religion can bring the best out of certain people. Faith can enable altruistic gestures, channel resources and compassion in noble directions, and rationalize disciplined sacrifices and long term investments for a better world. The question is how do we channel this aspect of human nature for the better?

As a student of long term planning and organizational adaptation and resilience, I'm also fascinated by the Church's history, its trials and tribulations, its responses to crises and ability to change and adapt, an intellectual interest reinforced by some scenario work I did on the Church's future a few years back. For whatever you think of its teaching and practices, as a 2,000 year global institution it has been a remarkable and enduring success, outlasting many civilizations. (In fact, only two civilizations, the Chinese and Egyptian, have lasted longer.) Clearly, we have much to learn from this worldchanging example, which will be the topic of another essay, another time. Whether the Church will be able to adapt to the challenges ahead is anyone's guess, but the staying power and capabilities of this long lived institution should not be underestimated. Having said that, a new schism is a good possibility should the next pope fail to address the many cleavages John Paul II has left behind. So while this is arrogant to suggest from such an upstart group, the Church can also learn from the ideas on WorldChanging as it lurches forward in an uncertain future context.

Meanwhile, the immediate question facing us over the next few weeks is who will be the next leader of the Church? Of course, this is hard to predict. John Paul II was a surprise winner and there is no reason, given the fact that there is no clear front runner, that we won't be surprised again. However, to recap for people not following the media blitz, in selecting the next pope three main factors will be considered: (1) geography -- coming from the developing world versus Europe (most likely); (2) experience -- pastoral or "in the field" person versus curia bureaucrat; (3) age -- youngish or older

The central dilemma is that the Church's growth markets are in Africa and Latin America and the developing world, so the hierarchy would benefit in theory from a leader that better reflects this reality. The developing world, however, is promulgating the most conservative interpretation of the Church's teachings. So ironically, the Church might be best served then if the next pope was from Europe, which is more liberal and open to new directions -- avenues that may save the Church from a debilitating schism or internal revolt. It's a tough set of dilemmas to be sure, with obviously more scenarios than I suggest here.

However, if I could know one thing that would help me anticipate better the outcome, it would the perceived level of urgency amongst the electors for the Church to adapt and change. If this level of urgency is high -- and it should be -- my bet would be: a younger, pastoral, developing world candidate. I would think the Honduran (Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa) and Brazilian (Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of São Paulo) would be the most likely choice because an African pope (Cardinal Francis Arinze) is just too much of a stretch for xenophobia aspects of Italian culture. The Vatican, the centre of the Roman Catholic faith, is still in Rome after all

The question I'm asking now is: what are the implications of this passing of St. Peter's mantle for the environment? Given the impact that this last pope has had on the world, it's tantalizing to imagine the moral force and power of persuasion a green pope might have on the world. Christian teaching, with all of its variations, is quite malleable on this subject. Interpretations vary with huge differences for a better world. Bill Moyers, for instance, has written a punchy polemic which describes the antagonistic relationship between the evangelicalism of the extreme Christian Right and environmentalism. But many Christians, including the Catholic church, nominally embrace sustainability (see Joel Makower's piece). Responsible stewardship of this earth is an important part of many religious beliefs. I believe this view will win out (I hope!) versus the more maladaptive view.

Indeed, looking ahead, as scenarists and futurists like myself will tell you -- and as science fiction authors have evoked -- future religions and sects may go a step further and fuse spirituality, theology and ecology in surprising and decisive ways, say an institutionalized extension of movements like deep ecology. Perhaps this what our own Pope-Emperor, the self-exalted Viridian leader Bruce Sterling, has anticipated all along!

As for the Catholic Church, the environment as an issue has often been bundled and packaged with other issues, which, interestingly enough, is how the environment movement has evolved as well. The relationships between social justice, environmental sustainability, and development are now perceived as highly intertwined, a nexus where the Church has been doctrinally all along. However, as such, this makes it hard to evaluate just how green the Vatican is. Official evidence is not plentiful (then again, I haven't looked that hard nor had the opportunity to interview anyone of importance in the hierarchy so please forward more if you have it.) Even so, the Church has followed with the issues in its own way. For instance, they started taking seriously "its moral concern for the environment" at the Second Vatican Council the 1962 meeting that modernized the Church's practices. And recently, in preparation for the 2002 United Nations' World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Vatican published an overview of the Church teaching on the environment, "From Stockholm to Johannesburg: An Historical Overview of the Concern of the Holy See for the Environment" which focuses on statements from 1972 to 2002. As the Catholic News reports:

Official Catholic teaching on the environment is based on the belief that creation is a gift of God that must be protected, used responsibly and shared equitably... Under Pope John Paul II the teaching has developed, uniting spirituality with morality and addressing concrete problems, including population growth, access to water, development and the impact of genetic manipulation.

Yet of all the talk about the five or six most talked about papal successors, I don't know anything about their green records or instincts. That's not exactly encouraging. However, just as John Paul II grasped what was needed to end Communism, this new pope could help carve a fresh papal direction by championing sustainability. He could reframe the controversial "culture of living" to include our natural systems and sustainability. Indeed, the "whole systems for whole people" mantra could easily fit within existing doctrine. It would be fitting: the great shepherd becoming a true ecological steward of the planet. If a developing world pope was elected, this would be especially relevant, since these are often places most vulnerable to environmental collapse and insecurity. This is why I'm rooting for the dark horse.

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Excellent essay, congratulations! I think many of us were waiting for it on Worldchanging.

You're correct in saying that for the Catholic Church ecology is comprised within theology. Although there are few official texts which make this relation explicit, it is a given.

Father John Paul II was often strongly anti-modern, with reason (see his autobiography). On the social front, this "anti-modernism" included a very strong critique of blind consumerism and unsustainability. Even his moral conservatism is based on very powerful, holistic notions of the absolute integrity of life and the absolute sacredness of our lifeworld in all its dimensions.

These notions can easily be translated into the discourse of "green thought".

Because let's not forget that ecology still means "oikos-logos", the law of the home, and that an entire Catholic theology and cosmology exists around the value of the home, the house and the family - the incarnations of the divine.

I think it's just a small step to fuse both discourses. All we need are translators and interpretors.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 5 Apr 05

I just want to add that several green political parties in Europe, were founded by Catholics.

Agalev, the green party in Belgium, was a Catholic spiritual movement at first, then politicized and became very popular.

So there are real world examples of the two discourses fusing and acting directly within the political arena.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 5 Apr 05

This seems a funny question, I can't understand how it is possible to be pro-sustainabiltiy, but anti-birth control. (unless, of course one is in total denial about human-nature!).

How likely is it that a pope appointed by cardinals appointed by John Paul II, is going to make such fundamental changes.

- Mitra

Posted by: Mitra Ardron on 5 Apr 05

It's a matter perspective.

If you get an aircraft carrier to move just an inch, that adds up to a big physical difference in direction. With a billion faithful, even small pro-environment actions of the Vatican can make an impact. So don't be mislead by surface developments and inconsistencies, which are often the hallmark of any large organization.

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 6 Apr 05

Let's not forget that for Catholics, the Pope's Word is often taken quite literally as Law. This may have potential disastrous consequences, but it can also tremendously good consequences and on a massive scale. After all, the catholic army is very very large...

Posted by: Lorenzo on 6 Apr 05

This article has a great insight of who and whom this great and wondrous man is.

Thanks for sharing your point of view.

God's Blessings to you all.

Posted by: Alexander on 9 Apr 05

John Paul II also said that humanity had to "become reconciled to the Creation." And there are excellent ecological theorists in Catholicism like Berry. And in other faiths related to Christianity like progressive Islam - Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Ziauddin Sardar would be two worth mentioning, and possibly Al Faruqi.

The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and other major spiritual figures also speak up a lot on these very questions.

Yes, theology has a lot to offer ecological activists, if they'll only go looking for it.

Posted by: Craig Hubley on 11 Apr 05



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