The Sacrament of Creation: What Can We Expect from Pope Francis’s Ecological Encyclical?

Pope Francis has made no secret of his conviction that human-induced climate change, along with other forms of environmental degradation, represents a grave threat to humanity’s future.

At times he even speaks in quasi-apocalyptic terms: “Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!”

His forthcoming “ecological encyclical” – expected around the middle of this year – is shaping up as a decisive intervention. We can surmise that he hopes it will help turn the world away from a path of self-destruction.

I want here to try to anticipate the message and the meaning of the encyclical by considering what appear to be the principal influences feeding into its preparation – namely, Francis’s own public statements, previous encyclicals on the environment, the science as expressed by the Pontifical Academy of Science, the example of Saint Francis of Assisi and the eco-theology of Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff.

The encyclical is anticipated with excitement by climate change campaigners and dread by some Catholic conservatives. But beyond the immediate political impact, a more enduring implication could lie in the theological shift it may represent.

In a valuable contribution, Irish theologian Donal Dorr has shown that Francis’s formal starting point will almost certainly be the encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

After two decades of rising environmental concern around the world, John Paul’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus annus, can be read as designed to keep the Church relevant to the times. The core of the theological question is the relationship between humans and the natural world, and John Paul cleaved to theological tradition in representing nature as separate from man and to be used, albeit more prudently, as his instrument. Thus: “It is through work that man, using his intelligence and exercising his freedom, succeeds in dominating the earth and making it a fitting home.”

Eighteen years later, in Caritas in Veritate Benedict shifted Church teaching more firmly in the direction of environmental protection while weakening the language of domination. In a pregnant turn of phrase, Benedict described the laws governing the natural world as a “grammar … which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use.” He reaffirmed that the natural world is “God’s gift” to humankind, and rejected the drift towards the “total technical domination over nature” that is manifest in practice and still defended by some theologically. Nevertheless, neutralizing any accusation of “neo-paganism,” Benedict retained an essentially anthropocentric theology of man in nature that deprives the natural world of any value in itself.

Donal Dorr expresses the hope that Benedict’s successor will initiate a theological conversion “situating us humans … within the wider context of nature.” In his public statements, Pope Francis has already raised the stakes considerably. Catholics are “called to care for creation not only as responsible citizens but as followers of Christ.” And, perhaps revealing the inner motive behind the forthcoming encyclical, he has said that to protect creation is a service that “the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out.”

In a departure from those conservatives who denounce the greens as the new pagans, Francis has affirmed that those who work to preserve creation are Christians, adding in strong language: “A Christian who does not protect creation, who does not let it grow, is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.”

Admittedly, the call to let creation “grow” rather than merely protect it, includes the idea of humans as builders and transformers and so marks out Francis’s Catholic vision as incompatible with that of deep greens, for it endorses what the pontiff calls “a positive judgment about the legitimacy of interventions on nature” (although he stresses that they must always be beneficial ones, performed responsibly).

The message of creation

Politically and theologically, Francis’s starting point is always solidarity with the poor. If we examine his various statements on the environment, we find he consistently links ecological decline to the immiserisation of the poor and vulnerable, sometimes referring to the destruction of South American forests as an example.

For Francis, environmental preservation is linked directly to Catholic Social Teaching (CST), a link that makes his position less vulnerable to criticism from conservatives. Certainly, as the scientific evidence has mounted, the fundamental principles of CST – solidarity with the poor and vulnerable; the protection of the life and dignity of the human person – demand that the Church take a stronger position on the harms from anthropogenic climate change, which promises to visit widespread and long-lasting suffering on the world’s poorest. There can be no economic justice without environmental justice.

Francis has several times stressed that nature is God’s gift to humankind. In his ecological encyclical, he may well point out the obvious implications: those who exploit nature are spurning the most precious grift, and by exploiting nature for themselves they are depriving the poor of God’s gift. Denying future generations the fruits of God’s gift is surely a sin in any language.

I will suggest that, theologically, Francis seems to leading the Church towards a contemporary recovery of a pre-modern understanding of the creation. What, though, is he thinking of when he speaks of creation? What, exactly, are we called to protect?

Of course, a simple answer can be given in scientific terms. Yet when Francis speaks of creation as the common gift to humanity, “entrusted to our protection” and not our property to rule over, he is not speaking of the world in a material sense – that is, a collection of interdependent ecosystems and resources, although he sometimes seems to equate it with “nature.” Creation is the place created by God for us to inhabit and which embodies His divine plan for us.

Yet there are many ways humans can dwell in their environment, and in the history of Christianity there are precedents for overturning the idea of separation from nature and domination over it. As Giovanni Monastra shows, the idea of domination came into Christian dogma not from the Old Testament but at the threshold of modernity in the Renaissance. As Europeans acquired the power to manipulate and control nature, they looked for a warrant to do so in their sacred texts.

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict did stress that we should not think of the natural world in purely “naturalistic” – that is, scientific – terms, for creation has an “intrinsic balance.” This idea is not so much the ecological one of the environment as a fragile balance of the forces of nature, but imagines nature as invested with a teleological purpose, as essential to God’s plan for humanity. And yet the two exist together, as the outer dimension and the inner dimension. By disturbing the ecological balance we upset God’s plan, we deny Him his purpose of making a habitable place in which humans, His chosen creatures, may flourish.

Is there room in such a theology for allotting any intrinsic value to animals or other element of the natural world? For his part, Benedict gave three kinds of reason for protecting the environment, each of which was human-centered: destroying the environment causes suffering for the poor and powerless and harms the prospects of future generations; harming the environment shows disrespect for the creation whose purpose is to serve human ends; and, exploitative attitudes to the natural environment reflect and spill over into exploitative attitudes to other humans.

However, judging by several of his public utterances and his deep admiration for Saint Francis, it may be that Pope Francis is tempted to go significantly further than Benedict, and introduce a theological break by both situating humans within nature and ascribing to nature an uncontrollable, autonomous and even divinely-infused dimension. Consider these comments:

Francis adopts Benedict’s emphasis on the “grammar” inscribed in nature and the idea that interventions in nature are legitimate if they are meant to “be beneficial and are performed responsibly” so that the environment is used wisely for the benefit of all. Yet he hints that humans must abide by the grammar in the sense of living within ecological limits and respecting natural laws. These injunctions are undoubtedly reinforced by those around him in the Pontifical Academy of Science.

In a remarkable statement, Francis said, “God sometimes forgives, but when mistreated nature never forgives.” If accepted, this thought would represent the deathblow for all understandings of dominion as domination. For Francis is saying that, far from being a passive domain in which man asserts his mastery, nature has her own agenda, is more powerful than man and will punish us if we push her too far. It is a view of nature consistent with the emerging understanding of Earth system science and captured by eminent palaeoclimatologist Wallace Broecker: “The palaeoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.”

In his message for the 2014 World Day of Peace, Francis called on all people to respect not just the usefulness of every living thing but its “beauty” and “finality” – descriptors loaded with theological meaning and suggesting some intrinsic value to non-human life that departs from the more utilitarian attitudes of his predecessors.

In a radical break from all theology consistent with nature’s disenchantment – that is, theologies that view nature in purely secular terms, with God displaced from the earth to another realm – Francis may be reintroducing a theology of God’s being-in-the-world. He decries the loss of an attitude of wonder towards nature in favour of an instrumentalist one. He laments that we are no longer “listening to creation,” implying that nature has a message for us. More strikingly, he writes: “Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of species as a painful disfigurement.”

This last is, of course, the essence of the message of Saint Francis of Assisi. Indeed, behind the pope’s various declarations one can detect the spirit of the saint in homage to whom the new pontiff chose his name. So what could he have derived from Saint Francis that may provide clues to the forthcoming encyclical?

The spirit of Saint Francis

Saint Francis is remembered for the simplicity and loving-kindness of his life rather than for theological disquisitions. He was renowned for speaking of animals as his brothers and sisters, arising out of intense spiritual experiences of oneness with all creation. In his divine Canticle of the Sun, he famously wrote of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and of “our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us.”

It would be easy to interpret these familial passions as no more than poetic license, but a view more consistent with his life and words is that Saint Francis saw divine perfection in all created things, in stones as well as birds and trees. As all things are created by the one Father, reasoned Francis, they are brothers and sisters in a real sense. His theology was thus “horizontal” rather than hierarchical; instead of the divine order moving down from God on high to man to ever more lowly creatures, God’s investment in nature displaces belief in His remote sovereignty from above.

Yet Saint Francis says here something even more striking, one that breaks from the tendencies of much Catholic theology. In writing that Mother Earth “rules over us,” he diverges from all notions of human dominion over Earth, wherever the notion may fall on the spectrum from full mastery to the most respectful stewardship. For here Saint Francis tells us that Mother Earth rules over us, not merely because we depend on her for sustenance, but because it is in the order of things – the order created by God.

In intimating that God as Father and Creator is in all things, Saint Francis adopts a kind of incipient panentheism. “Everything in God, God in everything.” God does more than overlook His Creation; He revealed Himself in it from the outset and shines forth from it – that is why one can experience God directly and overwhelmingly in nature, as many Christians have attested.

Chiding humankind who “continuously slaps down nature,” Pope Francis recently channelled his namesake in lamenting how we lord it “over Sister Earth, over Mother Earth.” So could Pope Francis bring a “Franciscan” revolution to Catholic theology? If there are definite hints in his public statements to date, it would be another thing to enshrine them in an encyclical. So how far might he go?

The trend in official Vatican thinking is away from the view, adhered to by many conservative Catholics and Protestants, that God and humans must be placed at the centre of the physical world, so that, in the blunt words of one: “only God and human persons are ends in themselves. God gives us nature to serve man, not man to serve nature.” However, the shift from domination to stewardship and an obligation to care for the Earth is now entrenched in the Church’s teaching, and can be justified by various readings of the scriptures.

While Francis appears to view nature as intrinsically valuable, with its own path that resists any attempt at total human mastery, and which is invested with some kind of divine spirit, he has never gone so far as to say that the Earth is sacred. He is unlikely to do so for both theological and political reasons. Politically, it would provoke conservatives, opening him up to accusations (however unfounded) of neo-paganism.

Theologically, there is a subtle but decisive difference between pantheism and the Catholic view of creation to which Francis cleaves. As God’s creation the natural world is not God; it is the other. Yet He is invested in it. God’s transcendence is not remoteness from creation but familiarity and intimacy with it. By implication it has a telos, and that telos is to provide “the setting for our life” – the conditions in which humans may live and flourish.

Moreover, that telos means that God respects the created order, allowing it to grow and evolve according to its own “grammar” and nature. The unbridgeable gap between a secular natural world and sacred human life is now an anachronism. The bridges have been built.

So if the Earth is not sacred, one can nevertheless see Francis moving towards a position in which the Earth becomes sacramental, indicative of God’s presence and a channel for His grace. Such a theology finds explicit development in theologians after Saint Francis, particularly the Franciscan Bonaventure (1221-1274).

For Bonaventure, “the created world is a kind of book reflecting, representing, and describing its Maker.” In her excellent commentary, Ilia Delio explains that, for Bonaventure, the world is the external expression of God so that “we know the Word of God through the world … All of creation … in some way reflects the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Trinity. God shines forth through creation …”

The sin of exploitation

On several occasions, Pope Francis has spoken of the contrast between the way humans are greedily exploiting the environment and the imperative for us to act towards it responsibly – that is, in a way that protects the interests of the poor and future generations and respects the integrity of the natural world as a whole.

As one would expect from a Latin American bishop with radical social doctrines, economic development is essential to draw people out of poverty and so Francis says our duty is not only to protect creation but also to improve it. We are not put on Earth merely to live with nature, but to transform it. Here he identifies with a particular kind of environmentalism – pale green rather than deep green – and avoids some of the more ideologically charged criticism he is likely to encounter from conservatives.

So the essence of his message, and the heart of the forthcoming encyclical, will be how we transform nature, whether we exploit it greedily or care for it responsibly. He calls for a new model of development, one that “knows how to respect creation” in place of the growth-at-any-cost mentality used to justify the wholesale degradation of the natural world.

Whereas deep greens might stumble if asked from where our responsibility to protect the Earth comes, for Francis there is no doubt. If the natural world is God’s gift to us, then to “nurture the Earth [is] to nurture creation.” Thus environmental protection becomes not a self-interested act nor even a moral duty, but a divine calling. Degrading the Earth is, he declares, a sin: “This is our sin, exploiting the Earth and not allowing her to give us what she has within her.”

What about population growth?

If Francis’s encyclical calls on humankind to tread more lightly on the earth, it will be met with the objection that his appeal would carry more weight if he acknowledged the way population growth adds pressure on the environment.

The facts are clear. The growth in greenhouse gas emissions is driven by the combined effect of economic growth per person and population growth, and is offset by improvements in energy efficiency and shifts from high- to low-emissions energy sources. Continued population growth could, however, undermine all efforts to reduce emissions, sending the world beyond a tipping point into catastrophic warming, with massive ecological devastation and loss of human life.

The pope’s scientific advisers understand these facts. We know he takes expert advice seriously and so he is conflicted on the question because his commitment to the Church’s long-held prohibition on contraception seems firm.

There are signs, however, that he may believe there is a way out of the trap. In January 2015 he caused a stir by saying that good Roman Catholics do not need to “breed like rabbits” and should practice “responsible parenting.” Drawing on the authority of “population experts” he advised Catholic families to limit the number of their children to three. So the big Catholic family no longer has papal endorsement.

To add force to this position, he spoke of how he had chided a woman for “irresponsibly” falling pregnant after she had already had seven children by caesarean section. He seemed to be saying that if some pregnancies cannot be justified medically, other pregnancies cannot be justified environmentally.

If Pope Francis is not going to lift the ban on artificial forms of contraception, he is urging Catholics to use natural ones more effectively. Perhaps he is hinting that Catholics who do not abide by the ban on artificial contraception (most of them) may now feel less guilty about it. At any rate, the most important test will be whether the Church eases up on its efforts to block the spread of family planning around the world, in the same way that Francis has attempted to soften the Church’s hard line on same-sex relationships.

The temptation of geoengineering

Pope Francis is said to be corresponding with Leonardo Boff, asking to see all of his writings on eco-theology. The former Brazilian Franciscan priest was in 1992 forced to leave the Church for his liberation theology activism. (Ironically, he was forced out by Cardinal Ratzinger, who had been Boff’s doctoral supervisor in Germany.) In books published in the 1990s Boff began to locate liberation theology within a wider ecological context. Those who oppress the poor are those who exploit nature, and for the same reason, he wrote.

The title of his 1997 book, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, reflected the close connection between social justice with environmental protection, a link often made by Pope Francis and certain to feature in the encyclical. Like the new pope, Boff was deeply influenced by Saint Francis whom he called “the purest figure of Western history.” Boff has argued for a radical Christian eco-theology representing a return to a pre-Cartesian reverence for the Earth, a living world created by the Father as home for all things. For him, ecological destruction is a sin.

Boff sees the world today as dominated by a “vast scientific-technological apparatus” that contains a compulsion to turn always to the technological on the principle that “if we can do it, we must do it.” It is a mentality in which we define ourselves in opposition to nature and that inevitably gives rise to its exploitation.

The belief that the system instinctively responds to problems with more technology instead of a change in orientation raises another issue that Francis may need to grapple with in his ecological encyclical: geoengineering. Sometimes known as Plan B – to differentiate it from the Plan A of cutting greenhouse gas emissions – geoengineering covers a number of technologies designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects.

While some approaches are relatively benign, the scheme attracting most interest involves spraying the upper atmosphere with a layer of sulphate particles in order to reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth. The particle shield would mimic the global cooling effect of large volcanic eruptions. Some climate scientists are so alarmed by the unfolding climatic consequences of the world’s failure to reduce carbon emissions that they expect this kind of planetary intervention, with all of its perils, to be almost inevitable within the next few decades.

As I have written elsewhere, for some, instead of global warming being proof of human failure, engineering the climate would represent the triumph of human ingenuity. While climate change threatens to destabilize the system of exploitation, geoengineering promises to protect it. It would not only entrench the prevailing idea of man’s domination of nature but radically extend it.

There could be no more vivid illustration of Boff’s “vast scientific-technological apparatus” turning to technology to escape a social conundrum than the proposal for humans to take control of and regulate the Earth’s climate system, probably in perpetuity. Controlling the climate would be an expression of human mastery consistent with the most hubristic reading of Genesis and its call to “have dominion.”

Pope Francis would be expected to see this kind of geoengineering as an abdication of our responsibility to care for creation – even as an invitation to an “unforgiving” nature to take revenge on us. Indeed, he may see it as humankind attempting to play God, thereby tempting fate.


How much difference will Francis’s ecological encyclical make? Daniel DiLeo has written a helpful essay on the question of the authority of papal encyclicals and the interpretation of the one due soon. It is a murky doctrinal area but, noting the passionate rejection of climate science by some conservatives in the Church, DiLeo concludes: “Catholics will only be able to disagree with him in good conscience after serious reflection and the determination that the pope has reasoned incorrectly.” That is a low hurdle for deniers of climate science, some of whom have rejected the encyclical already.

But what will it mean for the majority of the world’s 1.2 billion people who call themselves Roman Catholics? Despite today’s widespread disinclination to view the official pronouncements of the Vicar of Christ as infallible, and despite even the resistance of conservative bishops and laity, the pontiff’s words still carry considerable authority, and the weight attached to the office can be augmented by the personal qualities of its occupant.

As a much-loved pope, Francis has influence, not least among the bishops many of whom are hoping the Vatican will take a stronger stance on climate change. Ironically, on becoming Bishop or Rome Francis set about denouncing the dangers of authoritarian leadership and reforming the entrenched curial culture of the Vatican, yet his humility as the “people’s pope” is likely to lend his exhortations in the ecological encyclical more authority rather than less.

While Francis seems to be absorbing Leonardo Boff’s eco-theology, we can be sure that his encyclical will pull back theologically from the radicalized Franciscan vision to which Boff tends, one in which God is present in the world in the form of the “energy” that is the Holy Spirit. What remains to be seen though is how much Francis himself has been gripped by the apocalyptic anxiety in Boff’s writing: “We are on a fast moving train headed towards an encounter with the abyss ahead, and we do not know how to stop it.” It is a vision that would be endorsed by most climate scientists, including the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: “If current trends continue, this century will witness unprecedented climate changes and ecosystem destruction that will severely impact us all.”

If humans and their institutions are unwilling to do what is needed to avoid catastrophe, where can those who see the looming danger turn? Boff turns to Martin Heidegger and his startling prophecy, “Only a God can save us.” If modern humans have driven God from the natural world and then trashed it, will He be inclined to appear as our saviour? Between the lines of Francis’s encyclical, will he be asking us to prepare ourselves for the appearance of the saviour while at the same time bracing ourselves for the end if He declines?

Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, Canberra. He wishes to acknowledge his debt to Canon Scott Cowdell for his advice and comments, as well as to the Right Reverend Stephen Pickard and Professor Wayne Hudson for their helpful discussions.

Published on ABC Religion & Ethics 3 March 2015


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