Pope Francis's Radical Environmentalism

Exploiting the earth "is our sin," the pontiff says.
Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

This past weekend, Pope Francis did something that was quietly revolutionary. In a talk at the Italian university of Molise, Francis characterized concerns about the environment as “one of the greatest challenges of our time”—a challenge that is theological, as well as political, in nature. “When I look at ... so many forests, all cut, that have become land … that can [no] longer give life,” he reflected, citing South American forests in particular. “This is our sin, exploiting the Earth. ... This is one of the greatest challenges of our time: to convert ourselves to a type of development that knows how to respect creation.” And the pontiff isn’t stopping there; he’s reportedly planning to issue an encyclical, or papal letter, about man’s relationship with the environment.

It’s easy to be glib about Francis’s remarks—few people see the chopping-down of the Amazonian rainforests as an encouraging development. And a pope championing environmental protection isn’t entirely new; after all, The Guardian dubbed Benedict XVI the “first green pontiff” for his work in this area. But by characterizing the destruction of the environment not merely as a sin, but rather as our sin—the major sin, he suggests, of modern times—the pope is doing more than condemning public inaction on environmental issues. By staking out a fiercely pro-environmentalist position, while limiting his discourse about hot-button issues like homosexuality, Francis is using his pulpit to actively shape public discourse about the nature of creation (indeed, environmental issues were part of his first papal mass). In so doing, he is implicitly endorsing a strikingly positive vision of the individual’s relationship with the created world, and with it a profoundly optimistic vision of what it means to be human—and incarnate—overall, opening the door for a radical shift in emphasis, though not doctrine, when it comes to the Catholic Church’s view of mankind.

The Christian view of the individual’s relationship to nature—“creation,” we might call it in a theological context—has traditionally revolved around interpretations of the exhortation in Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Many have cited the idea of dominion to justify an anthropocentric view of the world, in which nature exists solely to provide man with its bounty—a position that is often more prevalent in evangelical Protestant circles, especially within the United States. Legislation such as the Louisiana Science Education Act, which seeks to enact a “balanced” (read: climate-change-denying) curriculum on environmental change in schools, has received support from organizations like the creationist think tank the Discovery Institute and the Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom. The Cornwall Alliance, whose declaration has been signed by luminaries of the religious right, released a 12-part video series in 2010 entitled “Resisting the Green Dragon,” about the dangers of environmentalism. This perspective, however, is hardly limited to Protestants. Consider the Catholic politician Rick Santorum, who at a 2012 energy summit in Colorado rejected the threat of climate change. “We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth’s benefit,” he said.

Such hostile stances on environmentalism are themselves rooted in a far more profound question: To what extent should the self be understood as existing against, or in concordance with, nature? In many Christian traditions, and particularly among the Christian right, the individual and the created world are considered at odds—a product of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and God’s declaration in Genesis 3:16 that “Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.” The act of original sin, in other words, sets up an inherently combative relationship between man and nature; any conflict is part of “God’s plan.” As G. Elijah Dann, a professor of religion and philosophy at Simon Fraser University in Canada, put it in a Huffington Post article on the evangelical mindset: “To somehow think we can correct climatic instabilities is [seen as] a denial of God’s judgment against human disobedience.” Furthermore, any attempt to ‘fix’ the natural world is an unwelcome effort to shift emphasis from the soul to the body. As Dann writes, “When scientists back in the ’70s were starting to worry about the environment, they were seen as engaging in a secular form of salvation—to save the planet—and, as such, were an affront to God. Emphasis should rather be on the salvation of souls.” The secular and the sacred are, in this worldview, totally separate: to focus on saving the physical world is to harm the immortal soul.

Presented by

Tara Isabella Burton is a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, where she is working on a doctorate in theology and literature. She has written for Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Salonand The New Statesman.

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