Holy Environmentalism! Religious Leaders Stand Up for Mother Nature

Pope Francis and other spiritual leaders are breaking green.

Pope Francis and His Anti-Fracking T-shirts
Photo: Tony Gentile/Reuters
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Is Pope Francis a "fracktivist"? The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics made headlines this week after pictures of him holding anti-fracking T-shirts went viral. Posing next to Argentine filmmaker and eco-activist Fernando "Pino" Solanas, the pope was photographed holding one T-shirt that read “No to Fracking” and another bearing the message “Water Is More Precious Than Gold.”

While the pontiff did not make any official statements about fracking, the controversial process in which a concoction of water and chemicals is injected into the ground at high pressure to release pockets of oil and gas, he has become known as a proponent of environmental preservation since his elevation to the papacy in March.

The pope took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology, and during his inaugural Mass described the church’s mission as “respecting each of God’s creatures, and respecting the environment in which we live.” He is also reportedly drafting a papal memo, known as a cyclical, about environmental stewardship.

But His Holiness isn’t the only religious leader addressing ecological issues this month.

Compelled by news that the local Mafia was burying cancer-causing toxic waste around his city, the archbishop of Naples, Crescenzio Sepe, announced on November 6 that “polluters are not in the grace of God and cannot take Communion.” Denying a Catholic the right of Holy Communion—the sacred wine and wafer served during Mass—is typically reserved for those judged to be in a state of grave sin.

For other theological leaders, though, it’s not only the act of polluting but also the rejection of global warming that falls under immorality. Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, a professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary of the United Church of Christ, this week referred to the denial of climate science as a “sin” in a Washington Post column written in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

“First, there is the moral evil of continuing to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, producing global warming,” she wrote. “Second, however, is the moral evil of climate change denial, that is, those who would continue to deny, in the face of mounting evidence, that violent climate change is upon us and it is accelerating.”

Public debate about religion and science can often make them sound like two schools of thought in diametric opposition to each other. But Thistlewaite recommends addressing global warming with a traditionally theological approach: admission that the problem exists, repentance for the role humanity has played in causing it, and a real commitment by humankind to changing our behavior.

Even though Thistlewaite represents a different denomination of Christianity, Pope Francis might well agree with her advice.

“Take good care of creation. St. Francis wanted that,” he said during an April meeting with Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa. “People occasionally forgive, but nature never does. If we don't take care of the environment, there's no way of getting around it.”

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