ROME – On Thursday top Vatican officials hailed Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, recently named TIME Magazine’s “Person of the Year” for her environmental advocacy, as a “great witness” of Church teaching on care for creation and the human person.
Speaking to reporters at the Dec. 12 publication of Pope Francis’s message for the 2020 World Day of Peace, celebrated on Jan. 1 each year, Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican office for Integral Human Development, called Thunberg “a great witness to what the Church teaches on the care of the environment and the care of the person.”
“What is her objective? Skipping school for a future, a future that can’t be guaranteed because there is no care for the environment,” he said, adding that in many cases, there is a complete lack of coherence between the international policies on the environment and what children are told.
Asked whether she was a model of the “ecological conversion” Francis calls for in the message, Turkson said that “model” was not the right word, but insisted that her activism brings attention to the Church’s insistence that “attention to the poor and society also coincide with care for the environment, the common home.”
“It’s a coherence with the Church’s teaching,” he said, adding that care of the environment is also a matter of faith.
Turkson said a separation is often made between attention to the environment and to the faith “that must at times be overcome,” and pointed to the Old Testament, which recounts how “fidelity to God’s covenant implied care for the weakest members of society and for creation, the environment.”
“You cannot find someone who really adores the Lord and transposes care for the environment and for others,” he said, adding that Thunberg’s “protest and her witness brings attention to the great need to be coherent in our care for the environment and also for the people who live on earth.”
Thunberg was named TIME Magazine’s “Person of the Year” as she participates in the United Nations COP25 climate conference in Madrid.
Every December since 1927 the magazine features a personality who, for better or for worse, has made a major impact that year. The first person to get the title was Charles Lindbergh, with the title “Man of the Year.”
Francis himself was given the title in 2013 after his election to the papacy earlier that year, and he has continued to show up on the list since. The magazine has featured other popes, such as Popes John XXIII in 1962, and John Paul II in 1994.
At just 16, Thunberg is the youngest individual ever to be named TIME’s Person of the Year, speaking volumes about how she has been able to captivate the world and drive attention to the climate issue at a time when it is perhaps one of the biggest talking points in international politics.
Speaking to delegates at the COP25 summit, Thunberg argued that rich countries are not doing enough to stop the climate crisis.
“Rich countries need to do their fair share and get down to real zero emissions much faster and then help poorer countries do the same so people in less fortunate parts of the world can help raise their living standards,” she said, asking, “Tell me how do you react to these numbers without feeling at least some level of panic?”
“How do you respond to the fact that basically nothing is being done about this without feeling the slightest bit of anger and how do you communicate this without sounding alarmist? I would really like to know.”
She pointed her finger at business and political leaders for using what she called “clever accounting and creative PR” instead of rallying to combat climate change, saying, “We indeed have some work to do but some more than others.”
Insisting that today’s climate crisis cannot be solved without having the full picture, she said that “Finding holistic solutions is what the COP should be all about. But instead it has turned into some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes and to avoid raising their ambition. Countries are finding clever ways around having to take action.”
Born in Sweden in 2003, Thunberg exploded onto the global scene in August 2018 for initiating the “school strike for climate” movement, with her protest outside of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm gaining widespread media attention.
Thunberg’s movement erupted and has since grown into an international initiative in which students skip classes to participate in demonstrations demanding action on stopping global warming and climate change.
According to a TED Talk she gave in November 2018, Thunberg has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism, though none of it has slowed her down.
She has continued to be a leading voice on the climate issue and has spoken at several international venues, including the COP24 U.N. climate conference in December 2018, as well as a conference of the European Economic and Social Committee and to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker in February 2019, demanding that the E.U. reduce CO2 emissions by at least 80 percent if they are to meet their climate goals by 2030.
In April she traveled to Rome, where she had baciamano tickets to Pope Francis’s general audience, meaning she was in the front row and got to shake the pope’s hand. (Baciamano literally means “kiss the hand.”)
Francis has often praised the teen’s efforts, most recently in remarks to the 48 Jesuits present for the conversation in Thailand, during which he alluded to the student-led strikes Thunberg launched, saying recent climate movements created by young people “are the road on which to walk” going forward.
“Today it is the young people who are able to understand with their heart that the survival of the planet is a fundamental issue. They understand Laudato Si’ with their hearts,” he said, adding that “we must continue to work so that the fundamental message that Laudato Si’ intends to communicate is shared worldwide.”
During the October Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, a Vatican bulletin at one point reported that some participants pointed to her as an example of the “social commitment of youth, capable of pushing the Church to be prophetic in this area.”
However, she has also been the subject of harsh criticism from those who disagree with the action she is calling for.
In one strong show of resistance, on the same day Thunberg was praised in the Amazon synod she was hung in effigy from a Roman bridge, with a sign around the mannequin’s neck reading, in English, “Greta is your God.” A previously unknown group calling itself Gli Svegli, or “The Awake,” took to Twitter and Facebook to claim responsibility.
At the time, there was no evidence to suggest that there was any connection between the gesture and the synod, however, the incident served as a vivid illustration of broader blowback against the ecological movement which has also been seen in criticism of the pope’s own initiatives surrounding the environment, specifically in regards to the Amazon.
Also speaking to the press at the Dec. 12 press conference was Father Bruno Marie Duffé, secretary of Turkson’s department.
“Ecological conversion,” he said, “is a path for thinking and living in harmony with nature, with the world, with the community, with God and with others, and this harmony is the work of a reflection, of the heart, a task that we must do with dialogue.”
Specifically, he said this dialogue is an “intergenerational” task that must be accomplished day by day with “respect for human rights of every person” and with “an openness and sensitivity in all forms of daily life.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.