To say I was standing in the shadow of St. Peter’s would be to some extent getting things backward. To be sure, from my vantage on the curved roof of the pope’s audience hall in Vatican City, the bronze dome of the basilica next door loomed large. But the main attraction for me lay in the full glare of the sun: 2,400 solar panels, curled over the sweep of the hall’s roof, which were busy transmuting photons into electrons—generating electricity and preventing, according to the Vatican, some 230 tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere this year.
Yet if the high-tech power plant seemed anachronistic atop an institution better known for swinging censers and festooned Swiss guards, its importance was clear: for the Vatican, the solar panels signify a path forward, silicon monocrystals on which the heir to Saint Peter could continue to build his Church.
“The push came first and foremost from the very top,” said Mauro Villarini, one of the Vatican engineers in charge of the project. “When it comes to technology, there’s complete openness as long as it contributes toward good. And the environment is clearly considered good, in line with our Christian values, as the Holy Father has said so many times.” In addition to the panels on the audience hall, the Vatican has installed a solar cooling facility on the roof of one of its cafeterias, and Villarini says he’s hoping to introduce more solar and biogas projects. In 2007, the Vatican attempted to become the world’s first carbon-neutral state, by investing in a Hungarian tree-planting project that ultimately failed (and may have been a scam).
Pope John Paul II may have broken ground on environmentalism in 1990, when he described ecological destruction as a “moral problem,” but Pope Benedict XVI has made it part of his regular message, even devoting a section to it in his 2009 encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate, in which he described a “covenant between human beings and the environment” and called for conservation and investments in alternative energy.
In Catholic conservationism, humanity remains at the center of creation. It’s an environmentalism that doesn’t oppose economic development, but supports it—especially when it comes to the very poor. The Church has joined with environmental movements in Latin America and the Philippines, for instance, out of concern not only for saving rainforests or protecting species but for the indigenous peoples and the impoverished, who feel the effects of their destruction most keenly. The same conviction underlies Benedict’s frequent warnings from the pulpit about the dangers of global warming, which will almost certainly hurt poor nations more than rich ones. (Noting the Vatican’s support for a treaty to address climate change, one U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks dubs Pope Benedict the “Green Pope.”) In the U.S., the Church helped shape the section of the climate-change legislation introduced in the Senate last year that would provide funding to help poor countries adapt.
Revealingly, the pope has accompanied his focus on the environment with a renewed emphasis on natural theology, or the search for divine truth in the created world. In that sense, environmentalism may play a role in what Benedict sees as his core mission: the re-evangelization of the secular West. “The environmental movement does not stand within the Catholic Church on its own,” says Martin Palmer, the director of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a secular organization that works with major faiths to help them develop environmental programs. “By emphasizing the protection of life, whether that’s the elephant in the forest, the polar bear on its ice floe, or the unborn infant in Africa, Benedict is playing a very skillful game and saying that all life needs to be protected.”
In Western society, where the Bible’s authority has long been in decline, wonder and awe of nature remain undiminished. And the natural world makes a commanding case that there are things greater than man.