Pope Francis may have a green streak to complement the traditional white papal garb. The newly elected pontiff's earlier ministry in Argentina, as well as statements he has made as pope, suggest Francis considers care for the Earth to be entwined with care for the poor.
However, the pope's philosophy may need time to influence the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and may have little affect on voting in the United States.
While soon-to-be-Pope-Francis Jorge Bergoglio was serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he stressed the importance of protecting the environment and did his part to reduce energy use.
For example, Bergoglio discussed the environment, along with other issues, during his weekly appearances with rabbi Abraham Skorka on channel 21 in Buenos Aires, reported Argentinian newspaper La Nacion.
In 2011, Bergoglio met with a group of 1,300 lay people and priests. Together they expressed concern over problems facing humanity including the “increasing alienation of the Earth, the problems of the environment, the deforestation, and the sale of lands with families living on them,” reported La Nacion.
In his daily life, Bergoglio practiced what he preached.
“In the archbishop's palace he used only one room for himself, with only an electric heater because he did not want the heating to be turned on when there was no staff,” Andrea Tornelli, papal biographer and Vatican correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, told Discovery News. “This could also be a sign of his humility.”
Bergoglio also preferred to ride public transportation around Buenos Aires, according to Catholic News.
Pope Francis' two predecessors made environmental stewardship part of their message to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. For example, in 2008, Benedict XVI installed 2,7000 solar panels on the roof of the Paul VI auditorium. In 2009, Benedict wrote an encyclical letter in which he criticized the hoarding of non-renewable energy and called for developed nations to reduce energy consumption. Benedict even used an electric car at his summer residence. Benedict's green leanings led to some dubbing him as the “green pope.”
“The latest Popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both made strong declarations in favor of a responsible engagement of Catholics towards protection and respect for creation,” Fr. José Ignacio Garcia of the Jesuit European Social Center told Discovery News. “If the present Pope keeps on this line of teaching, or even strengthens it, it will have a strong effect in the life of the Church...not only in the United States but in the entire Church.”
Bergoglio's choice of the papal moniker Francis suggests he may intensify the Catholic Church's attention to the environment. In the Catholic tradition, Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals and the environment.
“The Pope has explained that the name Francis was chosen first because Francis was a saint for the poor and for peace,” said Tornelli, “But it's also clear that from his very first speeches that he has a profound respect for the environment and could be another 'green' pope.”
For example, in Francis' homily during his inaugural Mass he spoke of the need to be protectors, “It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.”
During Francis' recent meeting with diplomats from 180 countries, he drew a connection between environmental stewardship, poverty elimination and his namesake Francis of Assisi. Francis spoke of a journey towards ending mental and spiritual poverty.
“But it is a difficult journey, if we do not learn to grow in love for this world of ours,” said Francis, reported the Vatican News. “Here too, it helps me to think of the name of Francis, who teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation and the protection of our environment, which all too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment.”
However, even if Pope Francis were to come out as a strong advocate for action against climate change, or some other environmental and human welfare issue, it could take time for his philosophy to spread to the world's Catholics.
“We have to acknowledge that the Catholic Church is a huge organization, spread thorough the world, and living in quite different cultures and social contexts,” said Garcia. “Local communities, as individuals, need to adapt the message to their own context.”
In the United States, contrary to the fears that accompanied Irish Catholic immigration or the election of John F. Kennedy, papal preaching doesn't necessarily translate into political proclamation.
“I don't think that his position could affect Catholics' voting in the United States, any more than the other issues are affected by the Pope,” said Tornelli.