A recent image of Pope Francis holding a T-shirt with the slogan “No al Fracking”—“No to Fracking”—has sparked varied response, including worries from Sarah Palin and praise from environmental groups.
Reports from a meeting held on Monday between Francis and Argentine environmentalists hint that the pope may be preparing an encyclical dedicated to environmental issues, including the issue of fracking. If these reports are true, the pope would be following in the steps of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, who both recognized the depths of our current environmental crisis and eloquently encouraged appropriate responses. It also makes sense that the namesake of St. Francis would dedicate thought and energy to environmental action, especially after John Paul proclaimed St. Francis “the heavenly Patron of those who promote ecology” in 1979.
John Paul had some very strong words on the human duty to address the current environmental crisis in his 1990 World Day of Peace address. He explicitly emphasizes the moral character of environmental issues:
Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. . . . Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives. . . .
[W]e must go to the source of the problem and face in its entirety that profound moral crisis of which the destruction of the environment is only one troubling aspect.
Certain elements of today’s ecological crisis reveal its moral character. First among these is the indiscriminate application of advances in science and technology.
Fracking is a relatively old technology—the first well in the USA began operations in 1968. And the recent boom (of perhaps “indiscriminate application”) undoubtedly has its benefits. It offers a major economic boost, especially for communities that sit on top of shale gas reserves. Furthermore, fracking has already contributed to the U.S.A.’s energy independence, and offers the promise of energy stability for years to come.
But the past three popes have all argued that short-term economic gains do not justify themselves, especially given the challenges humanity faces in terms of climate change and widespread environmental destruction. It is unfair and immoral to pursue current prosperity at the expense of the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren.
Additionally, John Paul recognized that environmental issues cannot be disconnected from a care for the poor. And it makes sense that Pope Francis, with his vision of a “Church for the poor,” would worry about the dual exploitation of nature and worker that can occur when an economy is based on non-renewable resources. We only have to look to areas of the U.S.—Appalachia, for example—to see what can happen to rural communities when mines run dry (sorry, mixed metaphor). As John Paul said:
Proper ecological balance will not be found without directly addressing the structural forms of poverty that exist throughout the world. Rural poverty and unjust land distribution in many countries, for example, have led to subsistence farming and to the exhaustion of the soil. Once their land yields no more, many farmers move on to clear new land, thus accelerating uncontrolled deforestation, or they settle in urban centers which lack the infrastructure to receive them. . . . In the face of such situations it would be wrong to assign responsibility to the poor alone for the negative environmental consequences of their actions. Rather, the poor, to whom the earth is entrusted no less than to others, must be enabled to find a way out of their poverty. This will require a courageous reform of structures, as well as new ways of relating among peoples and States.
If the pope speaks out explicitly against fracking there surely will be a lot of noise, but given the various papal declarations from the last twenty-five years, we shouldn’t be hearing gasps of surprise.