Pope Benedict XVI made environmentalism a central theme of his nearly eight years as Bishop of Rome, earning him the nickname "the green pope." With the conclave underway, it's possible that legacy will have some sway over the 115 red-robed cardinals charged with choosing a new pope.
Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras could further Catholic environmentalism if elected Pope, Mother Jones notes. Cardinal Rodríguez has called climate change a "faith issue," and has advocated for a global treaty to reduce worldwide carbon emissions.
For some, the greening of the church would be less an adaptation to modern trends, and more a reflection of traditional Christian values.
"It's not unlike the realization a few decades ago that social justice isn't a side issue for Christianity but a central aspect of it that flows out of our relationship to a loving God concerned for all people," wrote Robin Gottfried, director of the University of the South's Center for Religion and Environment in Sewanee, Tenn., in an e-mail. "[B]ecause many young people are greatly concerned about the environment and sustainability – by addressing these concerns the church also will position itself to address the youth and help stanch the flow of youth out of the church."
There's a connection between a concern for natural resources and Catholicism's "long-standing, centuries-old" critique of consumerism and materialism, Randolph Haluza-DeLay, an editor of the forthcoming book "How the World’s Religions are Responding to Climate Change," said in a telephone interview.
Benedict, along with Pope John Paul II before him, emphasized that connection.
"The fact that some States, power groups and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries," Benedict wrote in a 2009 encyclical letter. "Those countries lack the economic means either to gain access to existing sources of non-renewable energy or to finance research into new alternatives.
"The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens," he added. "It should be added that at present it is possible to achieve improved energy efficiency while at the same time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy."
Benedict aimed to transform the Vatican into the first carbon-neutral state. Plans to plant a carbon-offsetting forest in Hungary ultimately fizzled, but in 2008, the Vatican installed $1.5 million in solar panels on the roof of the Paul VI auditorium. The 2,700 solar panels produce enough energy to light, heat, and cool the 6,000-seat hall.
For an organization that counts some 1.2 billion members among its ranks, these gestures can be far-reaching. It is a unique environmental perspective – originating from an institution that doesn't frequently align with progressive interests.
"He sort of detangled the issue of the environment as a liberal issue and said, 'No, it’s everybody’s issue. It’s really central to who we are as humans,'" said Mr. Haluza-DeLay, also an associate professor of sociology at The King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta.
It's unclear whether the connection between faith and the environment resonates among Catholics generally. Only 6 percent of churchgoers said that their religious beliefs have had the biggest influence on what they think about tougher environmental rules, according to a September 2010 Pew study.