Utah eco-activists hope Francis becomes the eco-pope
Pope Francis sure seems green and not just because he's new at his job.
Instead, think trees, rivers and oceans. Think flora and fauna, resources and recycling. Think the Earth. That kind of green.
The new pontiff sent a signal of a possible eco-papacy even before he uttered his first public words as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. After all, he took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment and animals who was known for living simply in the woods and, as legend goes, preaching to sparrows.
Then, in his inaugural sermon as pope, Francis mentioned the importance of caring for creation a half-dozen times.
Being human "means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as St. Francis of Assisi showed us," he said in his March 19 homily, according to a CNN transcript. "It means respecting each of God's creatures and respecting the environment in which we live."
Francis implored "all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of good will" to be "protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment" and not to "allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world."
Such strong advocacy of a green gospel for the planet has energized many in the environmental movement as they approach Earth Day on Monday. It was especially moving to Utahns who share the pope's belief in the sacredness of nature.
In Genesis, each part of God's creation is built upon the others, says Mary Beth Vogel-Ferguson, a researcher in the University of Utah's College of Social Work. "It's a model of how things can all be balanced. There are checks and balances in the animal world, then we come in and wipe out pieces of it."
To value and honor creation should be a way of life, not just a response to crisis or fear, she says, and it is profoundly connected to care for the poor.
That's why Vogel-Ferguson, who served on the Salt Lake City Catholic Diocese's Peace and Justice Commission from 1999 to 2011, is as impressed with Francis' actions as she is with his words.
Before and after his election as the first Jesuit pope, Francis eschewed limousines in favor of buses, vans and his own two feet. He has opted to remain in the residence of cardinals, rather than moving to the spacious Vatican apartments much as he did as archbishop of Buenos Aires. In Argentina, he gave up the archbishop's palatial residence in favor of a tiny downtown apartment, where he did his own cooking.
"His emphasis on creation is consistent with his social-justice perspective and attitude toward the poor," Vogel-Ferguson says. "Why heat an entire building for one person when you can [live comfortably] with other people and save electricity?"
It is the poor and vulnerable who "end up with the leftovers of creation, living in the garbage heaps [of materialism]," she says. "Those with lots of means will find ways to have enough of what they want. When we run out of water, those who suffer won't be the wealthy."
In 2007, Catholic bishops in Latin America met to discuss issues facing the region, including questions relating to the environment.
Francis, then known as Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, led the committee that drew up the group's conclusions, according to the Inter Press Service (IPS).
The document criticized "the extractive industries and agribusiness for failing to respect the economic, social and environmental rights of local communities, and question[ed] the introduction of genetically modified organisms because they do not contribute to the fight against hunger or to sustainable rural development," Marcela Valente of IPS writes. "The final document also stressed the region's rich flora and fauna and social diversity, defended traditional indigenous know-how that has been 'illicitly appropriated' by the pharmaceutical industry, and called for the preservation of the Amazon rain forest as part of 'the inheritance we received, for free, to protect.' "
Dee Rowland, who recently retired as head of the Salt Lake City Diocese's Peace and Justice Commission, is delighted with the new pope's emphasis on creation. But she sees Francis' approach as a continuation of the work of his predecessor, rather than a break with the past.
"I've always regretted that Pope Benedict XVI didn't get more notice for his writings and addresses on the traditional ecological teachings of the Catholic Church," Rowland says in an email. "As far back as his message to the 2009 Summit on Climate Change, he was consistent and emphatic on the vocation of stewardship. ...Â He was not hesitant to emphasize the reality of climate change and our need to try to prevent it."
For proof, she points to Benedict's 2009 encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate" (Love in Truth).
"The environment is God's gift to everyone," the document says, "and in our use of it we have a responsibility toward the poor, toward future generations and toward humanity as a whole."
In 2011, Benedict "urged international leaders to reach a credible agreement on climate change, keeping in mind the needs of the poor and of future generations," Catholic News Service reported. The now-emeritus pope said he hoped world leaders would "agree on a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrisome and complex phenomenon. ... Urgent action is necessary."
Rowland recognizes, though, that Francis "might be in a better position to get that message circulated and thus inspire us all to take the necessary actions."
The new pope does seem to be heard round the world and in communities beyond Catholicism.
"Any time a faith leader makes statements about creation, it's positive for everyone," says Elaine Emmi, a Utah Quaker and longtime environmental activist. "It gets other faith leaders thinking about those issues."
Many religious leaders, she says, recognize that "our faith is inseparable from our environmental concerns."
It's all about "living intentionally," Emmi says, recognizing that actions have consequences for human beings and the Earth they inhabit.
So far, she says, this new, green pope seems to get the connection.