By Suzanne Goldenberg | 25 September 2015
The Vatican official who wrote the first draft of the papal encyclical has said abortion and the death penalty still hold primacy over climate change as issues for the Catholic church, despite the pope’s ringing call for action on the environment.
As the pope moved on to New York for the second leg of his US tour, Cardinal Peter Turkson said personal issues of life and death still came first for the church, notwithstanding the Catholic leader’s efforts to get world leaders to fight climate change and poverty.
The cardinal, who is a key adviser to the pope, also said the Vatican had no plans to rid itself of holdings in fossil fuels, and that the encyclical should by no means be seen as a call by the pope to divest from coal, oil or gas.
Francis was due to address the United Nations on Friday morning, shortly before leaders adopt a set of 17 sustainable development goals including an end to hunger and poverty, equal access to clean water and sanitation, and other causes embraced in the encyclical.
But Turkson, who heads the pontifical council for justice and peace, said global challenges elevated by Francis – such as climate change and justice – would still take second place in importance to individual life-and-death issues such as abortion and the death penalty.
“I would not put them on the same level. I would not associate them at all. Climate change is something that has happened to the world around us,” he told a small group of reporters in a telephone interview. “It’s something essentially that we can control, we can rein in, whose impacts and consequences we can master.”
Personal issues such as abortion remained in a category of their own. “Abortion, death penalty are, however, our religion,” he said. “Because God created humans in his image, the only thing he ever created in his way, the only blueprint.”
Turkson also ruled out any moves for the Vatican to sign on to the global fossil fuel divestment although he noted a number of individual churches had pulled out of coal, oil and gas.
“To date, I’m not aware of any decision that the Holy See or for that matter the holy father has taken that now says that the Vatican or Holy See is divested, that it has moved all its investment from fossil fuels and all of that,” Turkson said.
He had no knowledge of the extent of Vatican holdings in fossil fuels. “The encyclical … does not advise people to cut their relationship immediately with fossil fuel. It advises people to consider their relationship and then with due diligence and prudence plan in their own way to gradually diminish and reduce the impact on climate change.”
He offered reassurances to countries such as Poland, which is heavily dependent on coal, and where some had feared the pope had backed the divestment call. “They found the encyclical to be very threatening, understanding and thinking that the encyclical is calling for the closure of the coal mines,” Turkson said. “The encyclical is not doing anything like this.”
The cardinal, from Ghana, is often described as the voice of the developing world within the Vatican. He is widely seen as the pope’s right-hand-man in his efforts to transform the Catholic church’s teachings on the environment and equality.
Those new teachings have rattled some conservative Catholics, especially in the US. The three Catholic Republican presidential contenders all took issue with the pope’s intervention on the environment.
Turkson sought to offer assurances to those conservative Catholics, batting away suggestions that the pope was opposed to capitalism. “The pope has great admiration for business,” Turkson said.
Since the release of the encyclical last June, Turkson has played a very public role in promoting the pope’s teaching on the environment. He is reported to have orchestrated the press conference for the release of the encyclical, as well as other high visibility moments.
One such moment will arrive on Friday with the pope’s address to the UN as countries prepare to adopt development goals.
Officially, only one of the goals addresses climate change by appealing to countries to reach a strong deal in Paris to limit warming to 2C. But many of the other goals incorporate the themes from the pope’s message: ending poverty, hunger and inequality, equal access to water and sanitation, and clean energy, and protecting the oceans.
Turkson’s role as wingman to the encyclical has not come without controversy. He said the spread of genetically modified crops was “dangerous” because it encouraged greater use of pesticides and fertiliser. “If it’s going to be possible to develop GM crops without pesticides … then it would be good,” he said.
Pope Francis addresses Joint Session of Congress – FULL SPEECH
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