The Deep Ecology of Pope Francis

pope francis in congress
Pope Francis addressing Congress

Pope Francis has brought a moral dimension to the crisis of climate change, raising global public awareness of the gaping inequalities of our times and the environmental catastrophe our civilization is causing. This week, in addressing the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, he used the public stage to emphasize his hallmark issues of global poverty, environmental destruction and the urgent need to address climate change.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the Pope’s stance is that he is speaking as head of one of the most conservative institutions in world history. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, published in June 2015, he wove together a masterful synthesis of traditional Catholic theology and a sophisticated, systems-oriented understanding of the effects of human activity on the natural world. As one crucial aspect of this synthesis, he has reformulated the traditional Christian account – shared with the other Abrahamic religions – of the relationship between humanity and the natural world.

Dominion Over Nature

The formation of the modern world has been undergirded by a series of root metaphors, embedded deep in the foundations of our culture, that have defined how humans relate to the rest of the world. Many of these metaphors came from the Bible, which served for a millennium and a half as the cornerstone of Western values. In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a Divine Lawgiver, nature’s commander-in-chief, boasting: “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.”

As Divine Lawgiver, one of God’s first laws was to bestow on mankind Dominion Over Nature. After creating Adam and Eve, God commands 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. [Genesis 1:26-8]
Adam and Eve enjoying dominion over nature
Adam and Eve enjoying dominion over nature

As many historians have noted, this root metaphor provided a theological and moral justification for humanity to exploit the natural world ceaselessly without concern for any intrinsic value it might otherwise have. It also provided Christian Europe with a deep-seated assurance that God had created the world for no other reason than humanity’s benefit.

The Pope’s ecological insight

Pope Francis attacks this idea of mankind’s absolute Dominion over Nature with all theological guns blazing. “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” he avers. “Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” [Laudato Si, 67]

The Pope doesn’t reject the notion that God has given humanity Dominion over Nature; instead, he emphasizes that this dominion comes with responsibilities. “Each community,” he proclaims, “can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”

Showing a profound ecological understanding of the world as a network of interconnected systems, the Pope talks about “how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. These ecosystems, he declares, “have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system.” [Laudato Si, 140]

Reverent guests of nature

What is fascinating to me about the Pope’s take on the Old Testament is that, as much as he parts company with traditional Christian interpretations, his understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature feels right at home in other non-Christian worldviews.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting shows humanity embedded delicately within nature
Traditional Chinese landscape painting shows humanity embedded delicately within nature

Traditional Chinese cosmology saw humanity as interconnected with heaven and earth in a resonant web. Rather than claim dominion over nature, the Tao Te Ching proffers an alternative approach for those who wish to harmonize with the Tao: being “reverent, like guests.” [Tao Te Ching 15]

Traditional Chinese philosophers understood the natural world as a series of interlocking systems, recognizing that the same principles organized the human organism as well as the natural universe. In the memorable words of Zhang Zai:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.

What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.

All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.

The Chinese weren’t alone in this view. In fact, the vast majority of indigenous views of nature saw humanity as part of nature, and respecting the natural world as intrinsic to their very existence. Rolling Thunder, the native American leader, summarized this as follows:

It begins with respect for the Great Spirit, and the Great Spirit is the life that is in all thingsall creatures and plants and even the rocks and the minerals. All thingsand I mean all thingshave their own will and their own way and their own purpose; this is what is to be respected. Such respect is not a feeling or an attitude only. It’s a way of life. Such respect means that we never stop realizing, and never neglect to carry out our obligations to ourselves and our environment.

In more recent times, this approach to nature is expressed powerfully by ecological philosopher Arne Naess, who developed a platform known as Deep Ecology, which states:

  • The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth have value in themselves… These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
  • Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  • Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs…

Structural issues of monotheism

My interpretation of the Pope’s approach in Laudato Si is that he is heroically trying to transform the Catholic view of nature to one that is more consistent with these other worldviews, one that would permit humanity to thrive sustainably on a flourishing earth. He was the first Pope to take the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. This symbolism is clearly of far-reaching importance for him.

However, in his attempt, the Pope necessarily avoids dealing with some structural problems in the Christian interpretation of the cosmos. To begin with, God is still the Divine Lawmaker. In contrast, a true systems understanding of life points to the fact that nature self-organizes. There is no blueprint for nature handed down by an external God; rather life arises as an emergent property from the top-down, bottom-up reciprocal processes taking place within each cell.

Similarly, the dominion humans possess over nature was not assigned by a benevolent lawgiver. Rather, it arose from the unique cognitive capabilities that evolved in our human ancestors – our patterning instinct – which has also driven our global civilization to the imbalances we’re feeling so deeply with today’s environmental crisis.

Of course, the Pope can’t point to these structural issues within monotheistic religion. Given the cosmology inherent to his faith, he is performing a herculean task in attempting to redirect Catholic thought towards a sustainable worldview. Ultimately, however, I fear that contradictions may inevitably arise. If we desire humanity to hold a sustainable relationship with nature, not just through this century, but for millennia to come, we need a to forge a new approach, one that begins by understanding that humanity’s place in the universe is not a God-given birthright of dominion, but one that emerged from our evolved cognitive capabilities.

These evolved powers have given us civilization replete with its technological marvels – and have also brought us to the precarious precipice of climate change and environmental collapse we are all facing. We would do best to recognize our intrinsic responsibility to harmonize with nature, to rebalance what we have damaged. To do so, we must seek our source of meaning from that interconnected web of life in which we are all embedded.

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