As Pope Francis prepares to release a high-profile encyclical on ecology and climate change, the Vatican appears to be softening its message to the world’s business community.
Yesterday, the Vatican sponsored a conference exploring "how economic growth and sustainability can go hand in hand." The goal of the event, said Cardinal Peter Turkson, who has played a major role in coordinating the rollout of the impending high-level papal teaching, was "to help business people recognize these new opportunities … it’s not going after business with a stick, but going after them with a carrot."
That’s a departure from some of the earlier rhetoric coming from Turkson and other Vatican officials, which often tied rising carbon dioxide emissions to negative consequences of the global, profit-driven economy.
"The ever-accelerating burning of fossil fuels that powers our economic engine is disrupting the Earth’s delicate ecological balance on almost-unfathomable scale," Turkson said in April. "In our recklessness, we are traversing some of the planet’s most fundamental natural boundaries" (ClimateWire, April 29).
Last week, another high-level cardinal dismissed groups criticizing the coming encyclical as being solely motivated by economics. "The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they don’t want to give up their profits," said Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a top Francis adviser whom many Vatican observers have called the "vice pope" (ClimateWire, May 13).
But yesterday, the message was much different: Businesses should not have to sacrifice profits in order to move to a lower-carbon economy.
Looking to companies for ‘creativity’
"The need for sustainable development solutions is both a moral imperative and an economic incentive as a business issue," Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, said at a roundtable discussion during the Rome conference. "To take it up courageously is pro-business. Government has a role, and we clearly need strong international agreements. But in moving ahead, business and economic interests necessarily play a significant role."
"It is surely in our tradition to look to free enterprise, for creativity in developing the ‘engine’ — energy — of a more climate-friendly and sustainable economy," Wuerl said.
"The aim of the conference was really to get business on board with the content of the encyclical," said Anthony Annett, a climate change and sustainable development adviser at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, in an email. Annett, who attended the conference, added, "the theme of the speeches was business has a key role to play in all of this."
The shift in tone could be viewed as a strategic effort on the part of the Vatican, which is hoping the encyclical will reach far beyond the usual theological and academic circles that papal teachings typically circulate within. Francis has made it clear he hopes the document can help influence U.N. climate negotiations in Paris this year.
That’s the view of Pittsburgh-based Republican political operative Mike DeVanney, who has worked on messaging campaigns in both politics and the Catholic Church.
"As documents move from theory into actual publication, many constituencies are taken into account. This is a much more pragmatic approach," DeVanney said. "The idea that an encyclical or U.N. conference are going to end the use of fossil fuels is naive. But if there is a way to recognize opportunities working within current confines — for clean energy, for renewables — I think an audience can view that as a much more nuanced position, a position they may be open to."