The Ecological Originality of Pope Francis
Soon we will reach the first anniversary of the launching of the much awaited and much critiqued encyclical Laudato Sì (hereafter LS) of Pope Francis, on the care of the earth, our common home.
It turned out to be the first document of the universal Church entirely devoted to the question of care for creation. Some might ask at this point what was it that might be new about what Pope Francis brought to our understanding of nature and of the relationship that human beings have with it. There is no doubt that the present Pope stood on the shoulders of his predecessors, beginning with the seminal address on ecology by Bl. Paul VI, and moving through the letters of St. John Paul II and ending with the magnificent Caritas in Veritate of Benedict XVI.
Following from giants such as these, Francisco saw his ecological itinerary develop, resting on three strong pillars. He is fully convinced that we have to say no to, 1) the dominant global economy, as an economy that looks for immediate returns, denying any possible economic relations that included the logic of gift and gratuitousness; 2) a culture of voracious consumerism associated with this, that makes nothing of any kind of fraternal relations among people, and 3) the environmental deterioration that is a serious threat to the most disadvantaged of the world today and of future generations.
With this road map, the journey began. In line with his style, he seemed to have no reservations. With a reference to the saint from Assisi, he invites women and men everywhere to look at the earth not only as a home, but also as “our sister and mother earth” (LS1) establishing a kind of family intimacy with nature, something not seen before with such mystical nuances. He thinks of the earth as having a certain subjectivity, given that she, nature-earth is in crisis, and has a voice that cries out on account of the damage done by human beings. (LS 2) It is clear that this metaphor finds support in the Bible. That is why the Pope reminds us that the land that is oppressed by human beings “groans and suffers the pains of delivery (Rm 8,22). The Bible also offers support to our origins: “we too are earth”, Francis reminds us. (cf. Gen 2,7) This metaphorical language, coming from the mystics and from the Bible, allows Francis to talk about catholic thought in harmony with the environmental sciences and ecology.
From here on, the encyclical will be an appeal for an environmental enlightenment and an understanding of the problems of the environment based on the sciences. Francis, from the beginning, rejects the biblical language of “domination” and in its place offers a metaphorical understanding using the concept of “integral ecology” that demands new categories that go beyond “the language of mathematics, or of biology and connect us to the essence of what is human.” (LS 11) I believe that here Francis is opening the door to the language of the spirit. In other words, integral ecology is a way of living in a kingdom vein.
Thus, an integral ecology connects human beings with their environment, as part of an overall process of evolution, and with the Creator. This supposes a threefold connection between God, humanity and the earth. We read in no. 83 of the encyclical:
The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things. Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.
This text, in the context of the ecclesial magisterium concerning the relation between nature and human beings is revolutionary. It is in line with the evolutionary approach of the natural sciences, that we find already in Paul VI, and with the language of the spirit. In a certain sense it gives new value to creatures who tend towards God, with and through the whole of humanity. Nature is not there just to be at the service of humans for them to use and abuse it in whatever way they like, but rather the human person has the responsibility to take care of nature and orient it and orient humanity itself in the direction of the transcendent. Here we are talking about the “spirituality” of the cosmos. In the text we can detect signs of the influence of the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit, anthropologist and theologian, a thinker for whom the “grammar of the earth” is expressed by means of the evolutionary unfolding of the present potentialities of created material.
Integral ecology finds its niche in the fact that “everything is intimately related”. Therefore, ecology and social justice are intrinsically united (LS 137). For Francis, with integral ecology a new paradigm of justice comes into view, since every true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (LS 49) and it could not be otherwise: it is the key to the Kingdom!
As a metaphor the concept of integral ecology would seem to connect two planes, one immanent and the other transcendent. On the immanent plane it means that the ecological integrity in a particular geography and social justice in that concrete place are two faces of the one coin. They are united because human beings and nature are part of interdependent and nourishing systems of life. On the transcendent plane, integral ecology connects the exercise of care for the natural world with the exercise of justice towards the poorest and most disadvantaged people of the earth, who represent God’s option of preference in revealed history, those with whom he identified. For that reason, the exercise of care for creation could become a way of expressing or indeed of cultivating my connection with God. Integral ecology indicates that my faith and my eschatological hope in new heavens and new earth (Ap 21,1) may be seen as the same as the present moment in terms of the Gospel: “as often as you did this to my little ones you did it to me” (Mt 25,40), including creatures.
This is the point at which we see the duty of our faith communities. Our charismatic identity could help us recover the spiritual bond that there is between humans, the environment and God as a way of supporting the initiative proposed by Pope Francis in the final chapter:
By spirituality I mean that way of living that is shaped by values and beliefs that guide the fundamental options and decisions of life, a new way, that gives rise to an alternative life-style, distinct from the dominant culture of consumerism and waste. This connection at first sight does not look like a very simple undertaking. It demands, first of all, confidence in the future and in the human person (faith in the Resurrection).
The Pope recognises that the human person of today is a descendent of the biblical paradise where sin upset human freedom. Just as the human person, so also nature is damaged by human sin, which is responsible for cosmic consequences (imbalances). It is clear that our care for the environment is far from being perfect, but, every time that we show that care, we demonstrate our faith in the redemption of all creatures.
Beginning with the Book of Genesis we know that God did not give man an instruction manual as to how to use and care for the natural world. He simply said, “Take care of it and cultivate it”. This duty could not be fulfilled in any way other than with the gift of God that is human intelligence, however imperfect. That much is clear. That is why the Pope has great hope in this quality of the human person (LS 78,164,192). In No. 124 he tells us explicitly:
Any approach to an integral ecology, which by definition does not exclude human beings, needs to take account of the value of labour, as Saint John Paul II wisely noted in his Encyclical Laborem Exercens. According to the biblical account of creation, God placed man and woman in the garden he had created (cf. Gen 2:15) not only to preserve it (“keep”) but also to make it fruitful (“till”). Labourers and craftsmen thus “maintain the fabric of the world” (Sir 38:34). Developing the created world in a prudent way is the best way of caring for it, as this means that we ourselves become the instrument used by God to bring out the potential which he himself inscribed in things: “The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them” (Sir 38:4).
Francis is one who is happy to believe in human dignity and in our creative capacity to meet all challenges. Above all he trusts in human beings and in God’s help. This fundamental trust is his spirituality which is so attractive to people at the present time. “Let us walk on, and sing” is what he writes towards the end of the encyclical. May our struggles and worries for this planet not take away the joy of our hope”(LS 244).