This may come as a surprise: Pope Benedict XVI has become one of the leading international voices calling for environmental protection. The measures he advocates are challenging but balanced — and likely to work.

So why are they falling on deaf ears?

A papal diplomat took the pontiff’s proposal last month to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, where nearly 200 countries were gathered to try to come up with an accord to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

But the meeting fell apart after two weeks of chaos and contentiousness, with walkouts from developing nations, a firestorm of controversy over a leaked backroom agreement between developed nations, a damaging diplomatic flap between China and the United States, and hundreds of protester arrests. And it took place against the backdrop of new revelations of a rift in the scientific community.

The same divides that fracture the secular debate can be found in Church circles as well. In some Catholic circles, there is a kind of eco-theology that is saturated with New Age concepts and seems almost to divinize the earth. It often adopts the language and causes of secular environmentalism.

On the other side, there can be a politicized skepticism that seems eager to dismiss every environmental concern and pit consumer and business agendas against any effort to address systemic environmental concerns.

Amid all of the debate and rancor, Pope Benedict offers a welcome alternative environmental vision. He has developed it in several speeches and messages over the past couple of years, but it reaches a new level of articulateness in his message — released during last month’s Copenhagen climate summit — for the Jan. 1, 2010 World Day of Peace (see story, Page 4).

It is revolutionary primarily for its common sense, but it may also surprise many Catholics who might think the Church is agnostic on this issue.

First, the pontiff takes it for granted that care for the environment is essential and “of immense consequence.” The earth is God’s gift to us, and thus is deserving of our respect.

Second, creation is God’s gift to all mankind. Therefore we must care for it not only for ourselves, but also for future generations and for the poor among us.

Third, while industrialized countries bear a special responsibility for situations of ecological crisis they have caused, developing nations are not exempt from adopting policies that protect the environment.

Fourth, any policy adopted to protect the environment must respect the inviolability of the dignity of the human person.

Finally, and most uncomfortably, the pope urges us to “more sober lifestyles” with reduced energy consumption.

“It is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view,” the pope writes.

North and south, east and west, rich and poor, we are all in this together, the pope tells us. Rich nations cannot expect that their lifestyles and patterns of consumption will not change. Poor nations cannot ignore environmental concerns and the related impact on the health of their own people and of the planet.

Copenhagen may have failed, but the environmental problems we face have not disappeared. Catholics would do well to start 2010 by reading the pope’s World Peace Day message. See the excerpt on Page 4 or read the entire message at http://bit.ly/7Ev231.