Cardinal Peter Turkson helped guide the writing of Pope Francis' unprecedented teaching document on environmental protection. Here he participates in the Holy See's first-ever press conference at the UN Climate Summit. Image by Justin Catanoso. France, 2014. Add this image to a lesson

Rodrigo de Castro Amédée Péret, a Franciscan monk from Brazil, cautioned that though media reports of the Paris agreement were largely effusive, “We need to approach the document as defective and fragile.”

It was late afternoon on Dec. 12 at the 21st United Nations Climate Summit; the historic Paris Agreement had just been released. Some 15,000 internationals were abuzz at the sprawling venue — the airport where Charles Lindbergh landed in triumph in 1927 after crossing the Atlantic by plane for the first time ever. A similar euphoria was in the air.

Delegates from 196 nations, for the first time ever, agreed to reduce their carbon emissions, wean the world economy off fossil fuels and, in essence, give the planet a shot at surviving the accumulating dangers of global warming in the decades ahead.

I dashed into the media center and stopped the first person I recognized, Joe Ware, a spokesman for Christian Aid, a faith-based group in London dedicated to environmental protection. He was breathless.

“Creation care is what this (Paris) agreement is all about,” Ware told me. “And creation care is at the heart of every world faith. For too long, the movement has been hijacked by environmentalists, the good guys, really. But they only scared people away. The church is now playing catch-up, even the Catholic Church, which moves at glacial speed. But now it’s in the forefront.”

Two days later, I was in Rome, the seat of the Catholic Church. I had interviews arranged to test a premise, one established last June by Pope Francis.

That’s when he released his historic teaching document Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. The 180-page encyclical espouses that it is possible for man to destroy life on earth through the unabated extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

Would 1.2 billion Catholics, joined by Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Hindus, leave behind such divisive issues as gay marriage and abortion? Would they instead come together to fill a vacuum in environmental protection left by political leaders who have ignored melting ice caps and rising sea levels to side with the money, power and pollution of big oil, gas and coal?

“People are saying this is the Catholic hour; the Christian hour,” Sister Sheila Kinsey told me in her office at the Christian Brothers House in Rome, where she runs the Justice Peace & Integrity of Creation Committee.

“We are dealing with issues that are critical to human nature,” she added. “There has to be a way to come together and do it right, to protect the environment and human rights.

“We can go to the moon, for goodness sake! Why can’t we deal with this? It’s a matter of setting our priorities, establishing our values.”

The Pope Francis factor

To be candid, Pope Francis and his encyclical are late to the game of faith-based environmental protection. His two predecessors were outspoken on the issue. Groups such as Kinsey’s, Christian Aid and the ecumenical GreenFaith, among many others, have for years been pressing churches, synagogues and mosques to reduce their carbon footprint, divest from fossil fuel investments, and teach their congregations to reduce consumption and increase recycling.

But given his overwhelming global popularity and charisma, Pope Francis has raised the visibility and hopes of a profound faith-based impact on climate change. He did so with great care and management savvy, Cardinal Peter Turkson explained to me at the Vatican, after my meeting with Sister Sheila.

Turkson is from Ghana. Some Vatican insiders thought he would succeed Pope Benedict XVI, not Francis. Instead, he heads the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, where the pope put him in charge of the 18-month effort to research and draft Laudato Si with input from world experts in myriad fields.

Sitting in his formal conference room outside his office, Turkson shocked me with his candor.

“At the time Pope Francis took over, the church had a lot of bruises,” he explained. “Pedophilia was at its raging height, OK? So many accusations. He set up a commission to deal with it. It’s not that the bruises are gone. But his own sense of leadership, simplicity, authenticity and credibility have helped shove a whole lot of this bad stuff into the background.”

Turkson wasn’t finished. In a backhanded way, he acknowledged what led to Pope Benedict’s unprecedented resignation in 2013: “It’s not to say Benedict didn’t do anything. But Francis’ style of leadership is different. You don’t open The New York Times every day and read about pedophilia and all these scandals. It’s as if those are things of the past.”

Vatican scandals are still being reported. But Turkson’s point is a good one. Francis believes so fervently in fighting climate change and its impact on the world’s poor that he is clearing the fog of Vatican chaos so that the message of Laudato Si can become a top priority for people of all faiths to rally to.

“This is referred to as the Pope Francis factor,” Turkson told me.

‘Defective and fragile’

Sister Sheila invited me to a meeting of the Integrity of Creation Working Group the day I spoke with her. Thirteen international monks, nuns and other faith leaders, seated around a large table, shared their impressions from Paris.

Rodrigo de Castro Amédée Péret, a Franciscan monk from Brazil, cautioned that though media reports of the Paris agreement were largely effusive, “We need to approach the document as defective and fragile.”

There is a goal to keep temperatures from warming another half-degree Celsius by 2100, but no plan as to how, he claimed. The entire agreement is voluntary. And funds to help vulnerable nations adapt to sea-level rise, for example, are billions in arrears.

“If we have the papal encyclical behind this document, that’s good,” said Péret, who has fought illegal mining in Third World nations. “But we must remain vigilant. We must hold countries accountable. Human rights are at stake.”

Others around the table, from Indonesia, the Philippines, Ghana, Australia and Detroit, were more upbeat.

“There are small people who are ready to listen and to act,” said Sister Maamalifur Poreku, with the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa. “For change to come, we need an approach from the bottom and the top. We will never ask for a plastic bag, for example. This is an action we can take. Make them conscious of our faith and action. If the grass roots are awake, something will happen.”

This is the hope at the intersection of faith and environmental protection. Sister Sheila said education is the key. Where faith leaders preach forcefully and set consistent examples, while using Laudato Si as their guide, congregations will be inspired and follow.

“This is the moment the spirit is trying to work,” she told me. “We need to be there, in all corners of the world, to carry out the message as best we can. We believe in it. We believe in it.”

‘People need hope’

Tall and thin, easily spotted in a crowd, the Rev. Fletcher Harper is executive director of GreenFaith, Interfaith Partners for Action for the Earth. He has run the influential organization for a dozen years and is based in Highland Park, N.J.

His priest-like collar and purple sweatshirt caught my attention at the climate summit. He was in high demand, constantly on his cellphone. But he agreed to talk at the media center about the role his organization has played since 1992 in faith-based environmental protection.

“Over the past 18 months, we launched a campaign called Our Voices designed to lift up the voices of faith leaders in support a strong agreement in Paris,” Harper told me a few days before just such an agreement was signed.

“We do a range of things like leadership training for clergy and lay leaders.”

GreenFaith claims other practical accomplishments. It has installed a megawatt of solar projects in communities in northern New Jersey. It advocated for state-owned vehicles to pollute less. It successfully sued an incinerator that was violating air emissions standards and won an $850,000 settlement.

Talk with Harper for just a few minutes and you get a sense of the vast potential of global faith communities that Pope Francis envisions coming together as one — from the grass-roots action, to the solar-topped roofs, to the courtrooms — to care for “our common home.”

“There is no Plan B because there is no Planet B,” said United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon at a Paris press conference.

Harper is no idealist. He’s a pragmatist. He knows that charisma of the kind exuded by Pope Francis can only take you so far.

“The biggest danger of the encyclical, and the pope is very aware of this, is it’s not enough,” Harper told me. “You need people to do it. That’s why we’re making such a big commitment to leadership training.”

But even training isn’t enough. If we are to save the world from global warming, we all have to change. Every one of us. We need to use less energy. We need to use less plastic. We need to elect politicians who do not politicize a dire scientific reality. We need to change the way we live.

“We need a green economy,” Harper said. “Religious groups are going to start speaking out more about this. We need a commitment nationally to create millions of new jobs.

“We need solar panels and wind turbines. We have to retrofit buildings all over the country and around the world. That’s how jobs are created. That’s how you lift the poor out of poverty.

“And the apocalyptic narratives have to stop. People need hope. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t say, ‘I have a nightmare.’ He said, ‘I have a dream.’

“That’s how we move people. That’s how we effect change.”

Project

Image by Justin Catanoso. Italy, 2015.
Latin America's first pope derides our "throw-away" culture while offering a stern prescription for environmental protection. Will those who revere him in his native region follow his lead?

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