Player Profile: The Holy See and Pope Francis’s Influence on COP21

The Holy See coat of arms

Before I began researching the position of the Catholic Church on climate, I admit I had no idea they had an official legal presence at the United Nations in the form of the Holy See. The Holy See is the central governing body of the Catholic Church, consisting of the Pope and the Roman Curia. Although commonly referred to as the Vatican, it should not be confused with Vatican City, which is an ecclesiastical city-state of which the Pope is the non-hereditary monarch. The Holy See is considered a sovereign judicial entity under international law, and as such is one of two permanent non-member observer states at the United Nations (the other is Palestine). It cannot vote in the General Assembly or put forth a resolution without a co-sponsor, but is otherwise entitled to all other rights of full members, including the ability to negotiate on and ratify international treaties as a full negotiating party.

Although Pope Francis is visiting Africa during COP21, the Holy See’s representative to the United Nations, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, delivered a statement at the Leader’s Event on Monday urging for a “global and transformational” agreement, stressing the ethical importance of sustainable development and common but differentiated responsibilities. Another member of the Holy See delegation, Cardinal Peter Turkson, sent a letter to 5,000 bishops last week suggesting they encourage their congregations to “exercise their ecological citizenship” by participating in climate marches around the globe.

As someone accustomed to closely following US politics, it sometimes feels strange watching institutions I would identify as “conservative” strongly advocating for climate action, which is commonly identified as a “liberal” stance in this country. The Catholic Church in particular is notoriously unprogressive; I clearly remember a guest speaker who was a priest telling an undergraduate class I was in that “change” is the scariest word in the Church’s lexicon. Yet the current pope, Pope Francis, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of action on climate change, and his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI installed solar panels on the Vatican and exhorted nations to act back in 2009 in the lead-up to Copenhagen.


The differences between official Catholic pronouncements on climate change and the denialism shown by some Catholic congressmen, including current presidential candidates, is an interesting example of the timescale and reference points we use when we think of the status quo. After all, one could argue that mitigating anthropogenic climate change is a conservative action in the most basic sense of the word: resisting change. The concept of “change” must be defined in comparison against a chosen baseline, and while the tacit baseline of politically conservative Americans seems to be one of unfettered industry, it is just as valid to take the Earth system itself as that which we do not wish to change.

Will the Catholic Church’s leadership’s vociferous calls for climate action, particularly in the past two years, have an effect beyond rhetoric? The Pope’s 192 page encyclical on climate change, released this past June, is the most read papal document in history, and the image of his pair of shoes at the symbolic climate march this past Sunday has been plastered across social media. Of particular note is the way the Pope has repeatedly framed climate change as an issue of poverty and increasing resource scarcity, stressing human impacts over ecological diversity ones. By doing so, the Catholic Church has joined an increasing number of voices calling for climate change action to be framed in terms of environmental and social justice, which will hopefully help this movement avoid the perceived elitism of similar ones in the past.

Although the Holy See is only one observer member at the UN, with limited direct power and economic influence, they provide a highly publicized religious rationale for acting on climate change, one that can be used by world leaders in many countries to bolster their ethical mandate for crafting or being party to a strong deal. Let’s hope world leaders seize this political cover and run with it.