The defence of the common home, from Paul VI to Pope Francis

In attending COP28 in Dubai, Pope Francis will make history as the first Pope to participate in a United Nations climate change conference. It’s the culmination of decades of work by the Apostolic See to defend our common home.

By Marine Henriot

Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis has placed great emphasis on the safeguarding of Creation.

His 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ illustrates this focus. It is a text dedicated to environmental and social issues, and recalls some of the key themes of his pontificate: “Everything is connected,” and “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor can no longer wait.”

However, although Laudato Si’ and Laudate Deum made contributions to the Church’s ecological doctrine, it roots go further back. As Brother Thomas Michelet, author of the book “Les Papes et l’écologie” points out in an interview with Vatican News, Pope Francis’ green encyclical builds on a tradition that has been unfolding for several decades.

The first mention of an “ecological catastrophe” in Papal writings occurs in Paul VI’s address to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1970.

“This speech marks a turning point in the teaching of the Popes, to a perspective that can truly be called ecological, in the sense we understand it today,” says the French Dominican, a professor at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum, in Rome.

Pope Paul VI in May 1970

Pope Paul VI in May 1970

One of Paul VI’s most memorable speeches was undoubtedly his address to participants in the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

In this speech, as Father Michelet explains in his book, Pope Paul used concepts that were ecological and very modern for the time, such as the inseparability of man and his environment:

” Today, indeed,” the Pope said, “there is a growing awareness that man and his environment are more inseparable than ever. The environment essentially conditions man’s life and development, while man, in his turn, perfects and ennobles his environment through his presence, work and contemplation. But human creativeness will yield true and lasting benefits only to the extent to which man respects the laws that govern the vital impulse and nature’s capacity for regeneration. Both are united, therefore, and share a common temporal future. So man is warned of the necessity of replacing the unchecked advance of material progress, often blind and turbulent, with new-found respect for the biosphere of his global domain, which, to quote the fine motto of the Conference, has become ‘one Earth’.”

Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace

After two decades marked by relative disengagement on the part of the Holy See on these issues, ecology returned to the centre of the Papal magisterium with John Paul II’s Message for the World Day of Peace on 1st January 1990.

Today, this text is considered to be the first Papal document have dealt comprehensively with ecology.

“Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem,” the Polish Pope declared, “unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause. As I have already stated, the seriousness of the ecological issue lays bare the depth of man’s moral crisis.”

Numerous declarations on the environment were signed after this speech, and ecumenical climate movements were born.

Pope John Paul II in Hungary, 1996

John Paul II, the Pope from the industrialised East, saw with his own eyes the suffering inflicted on nature.

“There really was an ecological catastrophe in these Eastern countries, and I think that Pope John Paul II was aware of this, and in certain passages of his encyclical letter on work [Laborem exercens], for example, we see this issue come to the fore”, explains Brother Michelet.

Benedict XVI, the green Pope

Benedict XVI’s aim was to make Vatican City the first state in the world to have a balanced carbon footprint, or, in other words, to fully to offset its greenhouse gas emissions. The German pontiff encouraged the planting of trees, the installation of photovoltaic panels on the roof of Paul VI Hall, and a ban on non-organic pesticides at Castel Gandolfo, the Popes’ summer residence.

In addition to these symbolic actions, Benedict XVI’s interest in ecology is also reflected in the encyclical Caritas in veritate, published in June 2009. 

“Questions linked to the care and preservation of the environment today,” the German Pope wrote, “need to give due consideration to the energy problem. The fact that some States, power groups and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries. Those countries lack the economic means either to gain access to existing sources of non-renewable energy or to finance research into new alternatives.”

Pope Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo in 2013

Pope Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo in 2013

At the same time, Benedict XVI was “concerned with denouncing the somewhat neo-pagan overtones of certain ecological ideas”, says Professor Michelet.

The novelty of Pope Francis

Pope Francis is obviously following in the footsteps of his predecessors by drawing on Christian thought on the preservation of Creation.

According to Brother Thomas Michelet, “Francis’ new perception, very strong in Laudato si’, is this perception that the planet has become a small fragile being”.

“The planet itself has become this poor little thing in the hands of humanity, which has become super-powerful through technology, which obviously it was not before. “

In fact, humanity now has the technical means to destroy planet Earth, “which obviously greatly changes our approach to the world”, concludes the Dominican friar.

Greening the Vatican

On 6 July 2022, the Vatican officially joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, pledging to accomplish Benedict XVI’s goal of carbon neutrality.

Building on this, the governorate announced last November that it had launched a sustainable mobility development programme entitled “Ecological Conversion 2030”, which also aims to reduce CO2 emissions from its vehicle fleet.

The Vatican City State’s cars will gradually be replaced by electric vehicles, with the aim of making the fleet carbon-neutral by 2030. The Governorate will set up its own recharging network within the State and in extraterritorial areas and will allow employees to use it too, ensuring that its energy needs come exclusively from renewable energy sources.