For those of us who study the relationship between religion and ecology, the Pope Francis phenomenon has been unexpected. Never before has a papal encyclical generated so much worldwide interest and attention by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Never before have we seen conservative Catholic political leaders in the awkward position of disagreeing with their own pope while secular environmentalists and scientists appeal to his teachings. Laudato Si’ has already made quite an impact but its real influence has hardly begun.
Despite ongoing delays in the promulgation date, Pope Francis was adamant that the encyclical be released in time for the summer, giving the world a chance to reflect on its message before his fall address to the United Nations General Assembly and to the United States Congress, among other things. As we watch this process unfold, it is perhaps worthwhile to explore the context of the Pope’s ecological statements.
While encyclicals have been written, in theory, for the whole Church, past encyclicals have sometimes focused on narrow subjects, at times even on a particular regional concern, or have been written in an academic or technical style that would alienate the average layperson, let alone non-Catholics. Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ is distinctly different.
Appealing to a more inclusive understanding of encyclicals, Francis opens Laudato Si’ by noting that we face a “global environmental deterioration” and that he wishes to “address every person living on this planet.”
This is emphasized not only by the accessible language and compassionate tone of the document but also the attempt to draw in multiple voices to the dialogue. As is customary, he draws upon previous papal statements to establish an historical precedent for his position, but he also emphasizes that these statements “echo the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians, and civic groups, all of which have enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions.”
He also affirms ongoing dialogue with other Christian communities and recognizes their “valuable reflections.” While a few past popes have certainly attempted to create this spirit of dialogue, Francis’s level of inclusiveness is unprecedented.
Encyclicals are considered one of the highest levels of authoritative teaching in the Church. In an encyclical, a pope is integrating a particular subject into the fabric of the faith and therefore the teachings require assent for Catholics.
While the Catholic faith recognizes that an individual’s conscience might differ from official teachings, an encyclical compels all Catholics to at least engage with, and reflect upon, the message. Encyclicals also suggest the themes that will be addressed by national Bishops’ conferences, diocesan missions, local parish social justice initiatives, homilies, Catholic elementary and secondary school curricula, university theology programs, academic conferences, and so on. In other words, this encyclical has the potential to have a significant impact on the ecological awareness of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and will certainly challenge the significant number of Catholics, particularly in the United States, who are skeptical of climate change science and/or the gravity of environmental collapse.
While previous popes have indeed raised environmental concerns before, Francis has elevated the centrality of ecological ethics by integrating ecology into the broader tradition of Catholic social teaching. Several years ago, in my first graduate level course on ecology and theology, I remember being perplexed when a fellow student from an evangelical background passionately argued that Christians should not worry about the rainforest while humans are dying of starvation. But Francis declares this common way of thinking a false dichotomy: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis, which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
Adopting the term “integral ecology,” Francis succinctly ties together climate change and ecological destruction with an awareness of global economic injustice, exploitation of the poor, consumerism, and a “throwaway culture.” Moreover, his environmental analysis is attentive to the socio-economic imbalances of capitalism. He borrows the term “ecological debt” to describe the imbalance of resource extraction and carbon emissions between rich and poor nations. He also draws heavily on liberation theology, much of which comes from the same part of the world as he does. While these theological and social analyses have been around for decades, it is the first time that a popehas appropriated and affirmed them so explicitly. Indeed, some have called Laudato Si’ the first third-world encyclical.
One common misconception is that Pope Francis’s emphasis on climate change and environmental degradation is a “new” Catholic development. Secular commentators sometimes depict Pope Francis as marking a dramatic break from an otherwise anti-nature Christian tradition. It is certainly true that Christianity has had deeply anti-nature teachings throughout its history and it is fair to say that an anthropocentric, misunderstood idea of “dominion” has all too often been the prevailing interpretive model of Genesis and of central doctrines. Indeed, Francis acknowledges that “it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures,” and asserts that “nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image andgiven dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
As admissions of error from the Vatican go, this is quite significant, to say the least. But the larger point is that the Catholic and broader Christian tradition have many sources of nature-affirming teachings; Francis of Assisi is but one example highlighted in Laudato Si’ . Moreover, for the last several decades, the field of ecotheology has been flourishing in universities, religious orders and in progressive Catholic and Protestant social movements. Inspired by such thinkers as priest and cultural historian Thomas Berry (a name familiar even to many secular ecological activists and thinkers), ecofeminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, and countless other academics and activists, many of whom are priests or nuns, ecotheology both critiques religious traditions for nature-degrading teachings but also attempts to recover the underemphasized or forgotten ecological themes in the Bible and the tradition.
Also inspired by contemporary science, especially evolutionary biology, ecotheology seeks to tell the Christian story, not with literal reference to Genesis, and not with the ancient Greek philosophy that the early Church used to articulate its doctrines, but with the cosmological vision, seeing a 13.7 billion year-old universe that has somehow led to a human species capable of self-reflexive consciousness. This is not Intelligent Design theory. This is an evolutionary theology that recontextualizes the human as a product of the evolutionary process, intimately related to its fellow species, not as the center or pinnacle of God’s creation.
Yet another theme in ecotheology is the fact that climate change and other forms of ecological destruction have shown our human species, once imagined as the glory of creation, to have become, in Thomas Berry’s words, the “disaster of the Earth.” The theological implications of this realization are overwhelming for many, which may be why it is so difficult for some religious people to accept the science of climate change or the seriousness of ecological collapse.
Climate change denial, at least in its religious forms, often plays on this supposed biblical justification of dominion and consumption. That is, if God created oil and other natural resources for us, then we are divinely sanctioned to use them. From there it follows, albeit somewhat unconsciously, that climate change or serious ecological collapse cannot be possible because God would not have put us in the contradictory situation of being given dominion over an earth that can not handle our exercising of this dominion. But Francis unequivocally condemns this understanding of the Bible. He builds on the Church’s own teachings about biblical interpretation, emphasizing that “the biblical texts are to be read in their context” and he highlights the numerous biblical passages that emphasize mutuality between humans and the rest of creation.
Francis has clearly been influenced by the writings of ecotheologians and proponents of evolutionary theology. Popes do not often reference the work of theologians in encyclicals but Laudato Si’ has some interesting gems. In footnote 53, for example, he acknowledges the contribution of French Jesuit and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was writing about the meaning of evolution forChristian theology in the 1930s. His Jesuit superiors forbade him to publish this work for over twenty years and, to this day, the official Church has by and large treated his work with suspicion.
In the same footnote, Francis also references a 1988 letter in which Pope John Paul II writes to George Coyne, then-director of the Vatican Observatory, and reflects on how the science of evolution and cosmology can further illuminate the meaning of Christian doctrine. Another significant reference comes as Francis makes a connection between “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” which is a clear reference to a book by Brazilian liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, who himself draws on the ecological themes of Thomas Berry’s work.
However subtle, Francis is hinting that ecotheology, evolutionary theology, and liberation theology, which madeprevious popes so nervous, are now a welcome, if not central, part of the dialogue.
Yet I question whether the document goes far enough with respect to clearly endorsing the evolutionary story that has informed much of the ecotheological work Francis himself is drawing upon. Evolution is not an optional add-on to the ecological dimension.
The contemporary understanding of the cosmos revealed by science is precisely what moves us out of the anthropocentric understandings of dominion over nature that the encyclical condemns. Francis has already made statements indicating that he is in continuity with previous popes on the acceptance of evolution, but whether the Church has actually worked through the doctrinal implications of evolution is another issue. Francis has appropriated many of the insights of evolutionary theology in this document but a clearer statement on evolution is lacking, and this will continue to allow the anti-evolution contingent in the Church to downplay the subject. Also missing in his integral ecology are the insights of ecofeminist and feminist theologians who have drawn connections between dominion over nature and patriarchal dominion over women.
Nevertheless, one of the most striking aspects of the encyclical is the amount of science it contains, especially in Francis’s articulation of climate science and ecological science. Not surprisingly, it has been praised by climate scientists, environmental activists, and even the high priest of popular science himself, Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Francis not only acknowledges the value of science for informing our understanding of the ecological crisis, but for its vital role in finding technological solutions to our environmental and social predicament. Certainly, there is also a strong criticism of the dark side of science and an attempt to point out the ways that a blind faith in progress and the misuse of science and technology have also contributed to the crises we face. But he calls for an “intense dialogue” between science and religion, asserting that this will be fruitful for both.
Perhaps this science-religion dialogue will be the real lasting legacy of the encyclical. To solve the crises we face, humans will need to get out of their silos and develop new thinking and new ways of working together. Pope Francis has challenged Catholics to take science more seriously but he has also challenged the anti-religious “new atheism” that has been in fashion for the last decade.
The idea that religion inherently produces war and bigotry, or that all religious people are anti-science fundamentalists becomes all the more absurd as one reads this encyclical. As Francis continues his peaceful, open-minded campaign to work with other faith traditions, scientists, and secular activists to address climate change and the marginalized victims of economic oppression, these figures will start to look just as archaic as the religious caricatures they are attacking. Maybe Pope Francis is right: If the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis, then it will take more than just science and technology to solve it.
Michael Taylor Ross is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto and is a member of the Eliot Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology.