Vatican Takes an Academic Approach to Environmentalism

Pierre Metivier

Today man finds himself a technical giant, and a moral child.

– Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, Day 1 of the “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility” Conference

Earlier this week, the Vatican concluded a four-day joint meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences titled, “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility.” The Vatican is no stranger to the environmental movement. In fact, recent popes have been quite outspoken about the need for environmental change.

But this meeting was different. Attendees weren’t there to tackle environmental issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. Instead, it was an intellectual exchange between religion and science. Attendees listened to leading experts — including four Nobel Laureates — discuss humanity’s needs for food, health, and energy, and the restraints on nature’s ability to meet those needs.

“There should be no question that Humanity needs urgently to redirect our relationship with Nature so as to promote a sustainable pattern of economic and social development,” wrote the authors of the meeting’s program booklet.

The Vatican’s decision to take a more academic approach to environmentalism was made in direct response to the failures of Rio+20. Although governments and environmental groups had anticipated using the 2012 summit to set worldwide targets for things like carbon emissions, it really just turned into an occasion for different groups and organizations to voice their particular concerns. In the end, the Vatican blamed the summit’s failure on a lack of an “overarching intellectual framework that was used to identify Nature’s constraints.”

The Vatican’s joint meeting was meant to fill this intellectual void. Although some have pointed to problems with the meeting, the Vatican’s academic approach to environmentalism should be applauded. Environmental policies often miss the mark because they seek to quickly “fix” the environment without considering the incredible complexity inherit in environmentalism.

As the meeting’s booklet acknowledged, terms like “environmental problems,” “future prospects,” and “sustainable development” present themselves in different ways to different people. Some may rightfully say that population growth is an environmental problem, while others associate environmental problems with excessive consumption and materialism. Sustainable development can also be defined as both a limitation to development as well as an opportunity for development possibilities. “There is no single environmental problem, there is a large collection of environmental problems.”

It will be interesting to see how the Vatican uses the discoveries made during the joint meeting to inform its stance on future environmental problems. An open-minded exchange between science and religion can only lead to good things.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .