Solar power and moral leadership



A letter writer to the Inquirer recently spoke against solar power for clean and unlimited electricity for autos. He said that would only move the pollution from where people live to where the carbon-burning plants generate power. Fairly sure his concern was not for the tiny area around the smoke stacks, I wondered what the real objection was. I can only guess it was an attempt to protect the carbon industries of coal, gas and oil, something understandable if he were a stockholder with a vested interest. We are hearing objections like his as more and more people begin to think like Pope Francis. They see a collective responsibility to clean up our air, water and land as the earth’s climate relentlessly rises in temperature. Melting polar ice shelves and rising sea level make today’s young families foresee their grandchildren moving inland, away from the coasts where something like a third of the world’s population lives in proximity. And all this verified by nearly all the world’s scientific community.

I have speculated before about the reasoning of opponents of renewable power sources like solar, wind, tidal and geothermal. But today I would rather encourage care for Mother Earth, which should not need convoluted argument since we all like living here.

Pope Francis and recent popes before him are on record as endorsing the recognition of climate change as caused by human enterprise. They have no vested interest in selling anything even if carbon devotees do. So let me tell you about the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall in Vatican City. It’s just a few years old and ultra-modern in architecture, able to accommodate about 11,000 people. It’s ironic that it does not get much use since audiences these last few decades have had popular popes drawing weekly pilgrims many times that number for the Wednesday morning audiences. It was St. John Paul II who gave the order to cover the massive roof with solar panels for use in the 108.7 acre state surrounded entirely by the city of Rome. The net result is that Vatican City became the nation that has given over to solar power a higher percentage of land than has any other state. When is the last time you saw the Vatican lead the charge in something so secular and non-religious?

Papal example shows how restricted our notion of what is religious versus secular has become. We were used to popes and bishops instructing us about unarguably religious topics like the Eucharist really being the Body and Blood of Christ, not just a mere reminder or symbol or representative of them. But only lately have we come to realize that our categories have been a bit narrow. We have gradually learned that any secular subject having a moral facet to it is fair game. Solar power is one such. If the very life of the planet depends on our caring for it, and if human life is still acknowledged as in the purview of popes the way the subjects of abortion or capital punishment or handgun possession are, who can call today’s papal teaching out of bounds?

Moral leadership is a central component of papal and episcopal and sacerdotal office. Pope, bishop or priest can no more neglect moral subjects like climate change than they can the Eucharist. It is true that religious leaders have begun to comment upon the moral parts of secular controversies only in recent decades, perhaps pushed by the Vietnam war, among other pressing secular matters. They have been criticized for it, even by Catholic notables. They have been told to stay with sacristy issues and leave the secular to secular officials like those in government, industry or commerce. From our side of the line, we would like these bodies to confine themselves to their secular competence without invading ours with immoral secular practices needing moral criticism.

I have written here before about my 1984 trip to Israel and my surprise at seeing so many solar panels on every other roof. Then I realized that Israelis had little chance of buying petroleum from hostile Arab neighbors. So if they can go solar, we can.