The Vatican on Thursday added its voice to a rising chorus of warnings from churches around the world that climate change and abuse of the environment is against God's will, and that the one-billion-strong Catholic Church must become far greener.
At a Vatican conference on climate change, Pope Benedict XVI urged bishops, scientists and politicians to "respect creation" while "focusing on the needs of sustainable development."
The pope's message follows a series of increasingly strong statements about climate change and the environment, including a warning earlier this year that "disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa."
Observers said yesterday that the Catholic Church is no longer split between those who advocate development and those who say the environment is the priority.
Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, head of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, said: "For environment ... read Creation. The mastery of man over Creation must not be despotic or senseless. Man must cultivate and safeguard God's Creation."
According to Vatican sources, the present pope is far more engaged in the green debate than John Paul II. In the past year Benedict has spoken strongly on the need to preserve rainforests. In the next few weeks he visits Brazil.
"There is no longer a schism. The new interest in climate change and the environment is not surprising really. Benedict comes out of 1960s Germany, where environment and disarmament were major issues. It's conceivable that his ministry could even culminate in a papal encyclical on the environment," one analyst said.
The Catholic Church is just one major faith group now rapidly moving environment to the fore of its social teachings.
"Climate change, biotechnology, trade justice and pollution are all now being debated at a far higher level by the world's major religions," said Martin Palmer, secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.
In some cases the debate is dividing traditionalists from younger congregations.
In the US the diverse 50 million-strong conservative evangelical churches are increasingly at war about the human contribution to global warming.
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