It’s hard to believe that the run up to a church teaching document could create so much of a buzz. Yet not a day passes without various news items concerning the forthcoming ecology encyclical, which the Vatican has confirmed will appear in June. What’s more, it’s not just readers of the Catholic Herald, the Tablet or the National Catholic Reporter who are lapping up the latest tidddbits about what the Pope might possibly say. There’s also considerable interest from civil society and the business world.
And the Vatican is certainly making the most of attention from secular quarters: so much so that it makes me wonder whether the delay in the encyclical’s publication was a deliberate ploy to stimulate cross-sector engagement.
Take the example of two conferences sponsored by the Holy See in the past month. On 29 April, experts from the worlds of science, politics, business and academia joined religious leaders in a conference entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave the opening address. Last week witnessed a meeting on “The New Climate Economy: How Economic Growth and Sustainability Can Go Hand in Hand” in which cardinals shared a platform with the CEO of Unilever, directors of HSBC and the former President of Mexico.
So what’s behind these forums and the considerable effort to get different “actors’ on the world stage talking to each other? I think a clue is to be found in Francis’ words to the COP-20 in Lima last year. He said that that the challenges of climate change can only be confronted through “collective action” which overcomes mistrust and fosters “a culture of solidarity, of encounter and of dialogue”.
Is Francis revealing his Jesuit-ness here? When the Society of Jesus is at its best, it helps build bridges and act as a conduit for dialogue. “Reconciling the estranged” is how the Society’s foundation document the Formula of the Institute (1550) puts it. I think the Pontiff is asking the Church to take up the challenge of acting as an agent of reconciliation on this matter. Sadly the whole issue of ecology is characterised by divergence. So we get polarisation over the causes of climate change. We get the perennial argument that we must choose between economic and environmental interests. And then there are disputes over the obligations of rich countries versus poorer ones.
But do business and civil society leaders who the Vatican is dialoguing with really count among the “estranged”? Well, to the extent that the various “actors” in environmental debate are prone to simply talking past each other, they are. A major message emerging out of the recent conferences is that the type of collective action required to avert ecological meltdown involves governments providing global governance frameworks and for business to bring the requisite enterprise and innovation to find solutions. So the Church can help shepherd this collective response and forge what Pope Benedict termed “fraternal and economic development” (Caritas in Veritate).
All in all, we can agree with Nigel Baker, British Ambassador to the Holy See who comments in his blog, “Pope Francis’s encyclical is likely to provoke and challenge”.