Vatican and Urban Leaders Committed for Action

Pope Francis Patrick #2Saint Peter's Basilica

On Tuesday, July 21, Pope Francis is meeting with 50 leaders from important urban areas in the world. Eight U. S. cities are represented, an eclectic mix including San Francisco and San Jose (California), Birmingham (Alabama), Boston, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Portland (Oregon), Seattle, and New York. Governor Brown of California will also be there as one of the few government officials who is not a mayor. The dialogue is taking place at a Renaissance villa (the Casina Pio IV) in the Vatican Gardens, which is the home of two pontifical academies—of Science and the Social Sciences—that are under the direction of Bishop Marcello Sánchez Sorando (Saint Mary’s College Montini Fellow in 2012).

Casina Pio IV from museum
Vatican Gardens, Casina Pio IV, designed by Pirro Ligorio

The conference is part of the international dialogue Pope Francis called for in his recent encyclical, a dialogue that would include a concern for all anthropogenic problems, especially the major environmental and social degradations, all addressed under the banner of “integral ecology” a term given new and particular usage recently by the Vatican and other bodies committed to care for the world as our “common home.” The conference title, “Modern Slavery and Climate Change: The Commitment of the Cities,” signals the Vatican’s efforts to link the struggles against human-induced climate-change and the exploitation of humanity. The connection to be explored is two-fold. The first is a series of abuses: of the environment, by objectifying nature as something that is separate from humanity and merely consumable for economic and scientific purposes, and of humanity, by taking away the rights and dignity of others for economic or scientific gain.   Secondly, the damages to the natural and social environments originate for the most part in the urban centers of the world and so it is there that the solutions to both kinds of problems are best sought. Calling mayors together from around the globe is hope for a common cause in the places where actions for good or ill have the greatest impact.

Timing is crucial for this meeting, as the pope prepares for his address before the United Nations General Assembly on September 25 of this year.   He wants to help promote a shared international commitment to urge the U. N. to condemn modern slavery and human trafficking as crimes against humanity and to do so in the context of the U.N.’s discussion of a sustainable global development post-2015. The figures for slavery and trafficking are sobering. They range from 12.3 million to 30 million victims annually and an underground economy of $44.3 billion to $150 billion annually.

The Vatican’s linking of environmental concerns with modern slavery and human trafficking has been met with some misunderstanding and also criticism.   Pope Francis addressed the inter-connectedness of the problems in section 91 of his encyclical, Laudato Si, quoted below.

A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted. This compromises the very meaning of our struggle for the sake of the environment. It is no coincidence that, in the canticle in which Saint Francis praises God for his creatures, he goes on to say: “Praised be you my Lord, through those who give pardon for your love”. Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society (Laudato Si, 91).

It will take the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love for individuals to make wise assessments of the realities of our time and to have the courage to build communities of action to correct the ills besetting us.

Papal portrait by Brother Patrick Martin, F.S.C.   Vatican photos by Brother Charles Hilken, F.S.C.

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