At some previous point I already noted that I read Pope Francis’s 2015 Laudato Si’: On care for our common home. It is available for download at the Vatican website (see HERE for the text, PDF and other language versions).
I haven’t really got the words to fully do it justice. It is an appeal to all people – not just Catholics – to reflect on our relationship with the Earth, nature and cosmos. To consider how our actions of consumption, greed, control, and for many Christians, a theology of Dominion, deplete and damage the world of which we are a part. And that it is the poorest of the poor who experience the worst effects of environmental degradation. This Papal encyclical is a God-send for me, as a person of faith with a university degree in Environmental Sociology, and who tries to live a minimalist lifestyle (somewhat unsuccessfully) and who makes an ethical and ecologically-conscious choice to live on a plant-based, wholefoods diet (“diet” in the sense of a lifestyle of healthy eating, as opposed to a temporary fad to effect extreme weight loss), and who is deeply concerned with the sociological impact of theological perspectives on ecological conditions.
A bit of a side story as to why I care about environmental theology:
Despite the fact I was raised and educated in a rural Catholic context that was open to environmentalist concerns, from 2002 to 2015, I was heavily involved in my husband’s nondenominational church. There the natural environment is a low priority for most congregants. Not all congregants, I hasten to add – there are many who are open to learning about advancements in the relevant sciences and who are concerned with the effects of environmental degradation and who might speak out more if they felt it was a safe space in which to do so.
I must acknowledge that there’s a chance many congregants may not have had reason to think about the environment before, so I don’t cast judgement on them because I simply can’t know why – many people, to put it simply, have other priorities in their lives. Important priorities that consume their attention. Their jobs, their families, their health, their battles. Sometimes people are just surviving and to assume their motives are wrong is to make a snap judgement on limited and shallow information (something I am guilty of, I’m sure). So we can’t reasonably expect everyone to be at the same place on every topic. For some of us who’ve studied social activism, we see all forms of oppression as intersecting at numerous points, so to fight for one cause is to work towards a better overall society. I’m convinced that is an essential point to consider. That’s why some people I know fight for animals, or for the poor, or the abused, or children, or egalitarianism, or anti-racism, or refugees – these issues don’t have to be viewed as hierarchical but as threads within a complex interwoven human society. At the same time, it’s easy to argue that some causes are more time-urgent than others. As someone with ecological leanings, while I won’t backpedal on what I said just there about causes being diverse but all significant, I often suspect that if we kill the world that sustains our bodily existence, nothing else is going to matter much anymore.
In retrospect one of the many things that caused me to cut ties with the nondenominational community was the realisation that I simply could not relate to people who would shrug and point to their hope that Jesus would rapture them and burn the planet – “So if it’s all going to burn one day, why does it even matter?” That question was quite seriously posed to me on at least one or two occasions.
In that same era of my spiritual life, I undertook my honours research on the socio-political context of the discourse surrounding climate change. I usually hated it when church people asked what my research topic was because it almost always led to them informing me of everything they knew about climate, always without allowing the possibility that I had learned anything of value that may happen to contradict them in my years of studying the issue under the supervision of some well-regarded academics in the field. I don’t know if they were reading the same news sites as each other but after a number of such conversations I could almost anticipate the very phrasing of the responses they had. I eventually found that some of the popular politicised Christian groups made some very creative arguments against climate change research (a certain Australian political group make the unsubstantiated claim that carbon pollution actually makes farms grow more crops and while they haven’t referenced the research foundation for their statement, they present it as if it is not only unquestionable fact, but somehow intrinsic to the value system of a politicised Christianity … but I won’t do them the service of linking to their list of environmental views, except to hint that their initials are FF…).
And so, without having thoroughly examined their own pre-existing ideas on the environment, and without having read broadly on the topic from sources with a connection to the many relevant streams of research, these individuals with whom I conversed were often convinced that there was a disparity and antagonism between focusing on the environment and their faith in Christ.
Which is where Laudato Si’ is so helpful in articulating a thoughtful, theologically embedded perspective on the spiritual significance of environmental action. Unfortunately, in my limited experience, the people who I would most want to ask to consider Pope Francis’s writings on the topic are those who would also be the sort to dismiss it up-front because they hate Catholicism with a surprising passion. You know, the sort who casually drop a reference to the Whore of Babylon when the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions are mentioned…
Again, as always, that’s a broad generalisation and not everyone in my former church hates Catholics – but a lot of the older folks I met in that particular community and similar churches over the years are unwaveringly convinced that their very specific brand of Christian thought is the only one that is valid. And well, maybe they’re right, and I certainly thought they were for a time or I wouldn’t have been a member for so many years, but these days I’m putting my faith in the hope that God is a bit bigger than human-made denominational demarcation lines and sees what’s on the heart more than what’s in our mortal, finite, limited opinions. And that God actually loves the world, not merely tolerates it.** Maybe. Still, having said that, if I end up in these people’s Hell one day, I’m sure they’ll get a kick out of the postmortem “I told you so” moment. *nervous laugh*
Back to Laudato Si’…
The reason Pope Francis’s writings came to my mind today is that I stumbled across some YouTube videos of a Franciscan priest explaining the theological perspectives on environment. I love to listen to sermons and lectures on a variety of topics when I’m doing my art and have come across many wonderful speakers that way. This priest names three broad categories of environmental thought in theology. I have used his labels but written my own definitions here from memory and personal experience. Anyone who wants to learn more is strongly encouraged to research them more thoroughly than I have!
- Dominion – a very prominent model in most of the theologies I’ve read in recent years, Dominion sees humans as uniquely created in God’s image to dominate, use and utilise the world as we see fit.
- Stewardship – a view that sees humans as responsible for creation, on God’s behalf. We’re a bit like the maintenance guy hired by an absent but concerned landlord and our job is to keep the place looking nice and running smoothly, because we never know when the landlord might drop in for an impromptu visit. Or perhaps, more accurately, we’re like a gardener working for a nobleman whose job is to maintain the grounds in case the Lady of the manor decides to take a stroll. We can still utilise the available resources, but we must do so wisely and without greed, violence, cruelty or evil intentions. Also, and perhaps most significantly, it is not ours. It belongs to someone else. We benefit from it in many ways but one day we must hand it back. In my brief forays into Christian environmentalism, this is the view that seems to be most popular. It has many positive points and is, in my mind, far more ethically correct and practically sustainable than Dominion. However, it has some aspects I find problematic – namely that as someone educated in the ecofeminist philosophical approach, which takes sentient non-humans (animals) very much into account, just as it seeks to also to especially consider the narratives of women of colour and Indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups, I have noticed a discomfort or even occasional outright indignation from Stewardship proponents to consider, for example, whether vegetarianism and veganism may well be effective mechanisms for limiting the adverse impact of human activities on anthropogenic climate change. So for those of us with a leaning towards animal concerns, and I speak anecdotally here, we can tend to be silenced in discussions of Christian approaches to climate change action. Having said all that, I see much value in the Stewardship theology and believe it to be an important space for Christian discourse on our interaction with the natural world.
- Kinship – I had never heard the Kinship model described before, but for me it is immediately the one most resonant. Deeply Franciscan in its approach, it sees humans as deeply entwined and interwoven with the Earth. We are not external to Creation (nature, the universe, the cosmos, the inanimate and animate beings, etc.) but rather a part of it, with a joyful connection to the Earth that nurtures us. Animals, plants, the inanimate world praise God in their being-ness, and we as humans have the unique choice to fully embrace that. The great sin is to cast aside our created human-ness and seek to be not us, but God. It’s a fascinating worldview and one that I intend to learn in more detail.
These videos, which I will link below, argue that Pope Francis has employed a combination of Stewardship and Kinship, for a variety of reasons; the priest who gives these talks speaks of it as a “liminal” space between the two categories. Interwoven with these approaches is a strong nod to the needs of the poor as being absolutely central to the concerns of Jesus and the saints.
For example, paragraph 20 in Laudato Si’ notes:
“Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating. There is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general. Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.”
Over and over again, the Pope calls us to consider how our patterns of consumption affect the poor. (I did a quick webpage search for the word “poor” in Laudato Si’ and it comes up 61 times.) I thought, as I read it, that Pope Francis would make a great sociologist! He really reflects a lot on the complexities of human society without attempting to give any simplistic recommendations.
Now for the video links…
This video series on Laudato Si’ has been really helpful for me to understand the historical and philosophical context in which this encyclical lies, as a theology interconnected with other Catholic thought over the centuries – rather than as an anomalous set of ideas from a radical Pope. (!)
Please note, the video playlist appears to run in reverse order here. So you’ll have to actively select which episode you want.
As I reflect on all these things, I remember back to when I was a child in the 1990s trying to choose my saint’s name for my Confirmation. The teachers remarked that it was a pity I couldn’t take on a boy’s name because they thought St Francis of Assisi would best reflect who they saw me to be. I agreed – St Francis was a light and inspiration to me. (In the end I chose St Helena, the 3rd Century empress and mother of Constantine who searched for the Cross, as her story greatly resonated with me.)
I also found this video presentation very helpful, as it explores the notion of identity and being as found in the teachings of the great Trappist philosopher Thomas Merton, but highlighting the very Franciscan elements of some of his teachings.
C. Cocklin and J. Dibden (2005). Sustainability and change in rural Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press. – I read this in my uni days and found it to be a really useful overview of the difficult social issues facing Australian farmers and rural people, especially with regard to issues of environment and sustainability. See HERE for more information.
For scholarly works on animals and theology, see HERE.
For an excellent and accessible introduction to climate change science, try the Open2Study Climate Change video series by Macquarie University.
**As I write this I suddenly recall a book my husband owned in his late teens that detailed in one of its chapters all the reasons why humanity is disgusting, that this whole world is rubbish, and why God got it wrong in loving it instead of obliterating it. I am so glad to leave behind the cruel, toxic, judgement, heavily burdensome belief that we are ultimately hateful and vile and can only be saved because God is a legalist who won’t obliterate us if we use Jesus as a kind of human shield. While I am not entirely certain, I believe the book in question is this one HERE.