He earned the title from both the religious and the secular alike, because he wrote frequently about the environment and asked all Catholics to be better stewards of God’s creation.
Under this pope’s pontificate, the Vatican became the world’s first sovereign state to become carbon-neutral, meaning that all of the small country’s greenhouse gas emissions are offset by renewable energies and carbon credits, thanks to extra trees and solar panels. He also made use of a more energy efficient, partially electric popemobile.
No, “The Green Pope” is not Pope Francis.
It’s his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, which may come as a surprise to those who believe Benedict’s legacy was his staunch conservatism.
During the World Day of Peace celebration in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI chose the theme “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.”
“We are all responsible for the protection and care of the environment,” he said.
Drawing on the wisdom from his own predecessors, including Pope John Paul II, Pope Leo XIII and Pope Paul VI, Benedict in his message implored his flock to view climate change and care for creation as an extension of the Church’s care for humanity. He also addressed the phenomenon of “environmental refugees” several years before Francis noted the environment’s contribution to the current refugee crisis.
“Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of 'environmental refugees', people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources?” Benedict asked in his message.
“All these are issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the right to life, food, health and development,” he added.
This was not the only time Pope Benedict addressed the environment and climate change. In Sydney in 2008, he told the young people of World Youth Day in his opening remarks that care for creation and care for humanity are interconnected.
“The concerns for non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity. They cannot, however, be understood apart from a profound reflection on the innate dignity of every human life from conception to natural death: a dignity conferred by God himself and thus inviolable,” he said.
He even managed to work the topic into his 2007 apostolic exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis”, on the topic of Eucharist as the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church.
In the letter, in a section entitled “The sanctification of the world and the protection of creation”, Pope Benedict XVI noted that even the liturgy reminds the faithful of the importance of God’s creation when “the priest raises to God a prayer of blessing and petition over the bread and wine, ‘fruit of the earth,’ ‘fruit of the vine’ and ‘work of human hands,’” he wrote.
“With these words, the rite not only includes in our offering to God all human efforts and activity, but also leads us to see the world as God's creation, which brings forth everything we need for our sustenance. The world is not something indifferent, raw material to be utilized simply as we see fit. Rather, it is part of God's good plan, in which all of us are called to be sons and daughters in the one Son of God, Jesus Christ,” he added.
His writings on the topic were so prolific and profound that he is quoted numerous times in Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si”.
Like Benedict and his other papal predecessors, Pope Francis noted that an ecology of the environment was directly related to a proper human ecology.
“There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then ‘our overall sense of responsibility wanes,’” Pope Francis wrote in “Laudato Si”, quoting Benedict XVI.
Care for creation, or for “our common home”, as Francis often calls it, will most likely continue to be one of the primary concerns of his pontificate. Besides his encyclical, Pope Francis frequently speaks about climate change and the environment in various audiences, including when he became the first pope to address the United States Congress last fall.
But the important intellectual and practical groundwork laid by his predecessors, and particularly by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, cannot be overlooked.
This article was originally published Oct. 11, 2016.