Liberals hate him for his incorrigible position on abortion and homosexual marriages, but they revere him for his ecological policies. Three years in power and Pope Benedict XVI has turned the Vatican into the most environmentally friendly country on earth.
At first glance, the Vatican has not changed for centuries. St. Peter’s Basilica, completed in 1625, still dominates the state the size of an average shopping center. But as it often happens in matters of faith, the most important is invisible to the eye. Squeezed between Renaissance buildings, the relatively modern and simple Paul VI auditorium conceals the state-of-the-art technology that is about to set the example for other countries.
Red roof tiles may look classy but they cannot produce energy. Unlike 2,700 solar panels that are being installed on the roof of the Paul VI auditorium. “With this plant, if it is working, in about two weeks we avoid 200 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and this is equivalent to 70 tonnes of oil,” one worker told the Associated Press. The ultimate goal is to produce enough solar energy to light and heat the entire Vatican, but in the first phase the panels are expected to make the auditorium independent of oil.
Investing in ecology pays off. It pays off literally because the panels worth $1.5 million, which the Vatican received from a private company, will significantly cut energy costs that otherwise consumed big portions of the annual budget. It pays off figuratively because, as Pope John Paul II said in 1990, “the dominion humans were given over creation is not one of exploitation, but of service and ministry aimed at continuing the work of the Creator.”
Pope Benedict XVI, who became the head of the Catholic Church in 2005, has continued the pro-environmental policy of his predecessor. Far from being an ecology extremist, the Pope repeatedly calls on the people of all religions to choose the “way of life that is respectful of environment.” In his yet strongest speech on the issue, Benedict XVI said in July 2007, “We cannot simply do what we want with this Earth of ours, with what has been entrusted to us.”
But going green must not harm human beings. Should we close all factories that pollute the air even if it meant thousands of people losing their jobs, as some environmentalists insist? “Such decisions are not easy and the Church offers moral guidance,” Fr. John Flynn of Xt3.com recently told me. “In such a decision weight also has to be given to the scientific and economic factors, which play an important role as well,” he said. “In the end we also have to use our intelligence and make the decision.”
The love for Mother Earth comes from our hearts, says the pope. And like faithful life, ecology begins with small, ordinary steps. Last Saturday, Benedict XVI called on tourists to “respect the environment and local cultures,” by leaving the places they visited clean and untouched. If the marble Vatican could turn green, so can one billion Catholics around the world.
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