Pope Francis is calling for an “ecological conversion.”
In a 184-page letter to Catholic leaders released Thursday, Francis warns of “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us” and recommends renewable fuel subsidies and maximum energy efficiency to combat global warming.
The encyclical—Catholics’ term for a document sent from the pope with instruction on doctrinal matters—bears the title Laudato Si' (“Praised Be”) and displays Francis' concern for the poor. The most vulnerable victims of climate destruction, he claims, are the world’s poorest people, who lack the resources to adapt to climate change and natural disasters.
The pope envisions a new partnership between science and religion, each with a “distinctive approach to understanding reality” yet “can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both.” He prescribes carpooling, taking public transportation, planting trees, and recycling to help combat human-caused climate change.
Some critics say the pope should refrain from speaking about scientific matters, while others laud his letter as a major contribution to the climate change debate. (Evangelicals who are Francis fans are split on climate change.)
The encyclical, however, is far more than a doomsday letter or a how-to of environmental care. Underlying the warnings and prescriptions, he offers a theology of creation that emphasizes how, by God’s design, human beings and the created world are deeply connected. If we understand this, Francis says, it can change the way we relate to God, to one another, and creation.
‘Everything Is Interrelated’
Francis sees the ecological crisis as far more than a political or biological problem. The predicament we find ourselves in has multiple causes; therefore, solutions cannot emerge “from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality,” says the pope.
Science and politics alone, therefore, cannot provide a remedy. What we need, he says, is a dialogue and partnership between all branches of wisdom, and religion is a key partner. The “light offered by faith” illumines the world as it is, and the Bible teaches that humans have a unique responsibility to care for nature and each other.
We are, after all, God’s image bearers, designed to participate in God’s sustaining the world. But Francis does not describe creation as a static world that we simply oversee in some distant way. Rather, the universe is “shaped by open and intercommunicating systems.” Quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Francis says, “God wills the interdependence of creatures…. [No] creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.”
This idea of intimate connectedness comes from the Genesis creation accounts, the pope writes. They “suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself.” Yet Francis is quick to point out that sin has fractured these vital relationships:
The harmony between the Creator, humanity, and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between humans and nature became conflictual (Gen. 3:17–19).
Still, our relationship with creation remains intact and must be respected. Even ancient stories about Cain and Abel, Noah, and others “bear witness to a conviction which we today share, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice, and faithfulness to others.”
Francis says the Bible teaches every created being has value, and the “Spirit of life dwells in every living creation.” This does not suggest panentheism, nor does he “forget that there is an infinite distance between God and the things of this world, which do not possess his fullness.” Further, this notion does not
put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility. Such notions would end up creating new imbalances which would deflect us from the reality which challenges us.
Francis’s point is that God’s presence “ensures the subsistence and growth of each being.” God is at work in our world still, and he calls humans to join him in renewing it.
And drawing from the Psalms, Francis says the “universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God.” Creation reflects the very nature and power of God. The world was created “according to the divine model,” he says, and for Christians, belief in “one God who is trinitarian communion suggests that the Trinity has left its mark on all creation. This is why the world is a web of relationships.”
Preserving Quality of Life
This theology grounds the pope’s statements about caring for the poor, protecting the unborn, the universal right to clean drinking water, even urban planning. If we want to protect quality of life, we must protect every aspect of creation since everything interdependent. Nothing can be discarded as worthless. The phrase “throwaway culture” appears five times in the encyclical, and Francis mercilessly critiques our habit of discarding anything we no longer find useful—especially other human beings.
Further, no one group has a monopoly on the natural resources. Quoting John Paul II, Francis says, “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone.” Francis extends this principle beyond issues like clean drinking water to matters like private property. While the Catholic Church upholds the right to private property, it also emphasizes that there “is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them,” says the pope.
Francis implies that only when we recognize the connection that all creatures share—modeled after the Trinitarian life—can we combat the rampant individualism and self-centeredness of our postmodern culture that so prizes instant gratification.
For Francis, then, it is clear that the renewal of our relationship with nature cannot occur apart from renewal of humanity itself:
There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then ‘our overall sense of responsibility wanes.'… Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.
The encyclical is far more than a prescription for swift social and political action on climate change. It calls for a renewed vision of reality and a fresh commitment to God and to those with whom we share a common existence. It’s a message intended to both challenge and inspire, an invitation to rejoice in—and in so doing preserve—the beauty of God’s creation.
Kevin P. Emmert is assistant online editor for CT. You can follow him on Twitter @Kevin_P_Emmert.