- University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary - https://usml.edu -

Is Christianity to Blame for Our Ecological Crisis? Pope Francis’s New Encyclical

A draft of Pope Francis’s new encyclical [1] (‘Laudato Si’ Praised Be) was made available yesterday by Reppublica. The encyclical gets its title from a prayer of praise by St. Francis of Assisi. Many people are already hysterical that the Pope is writing on the environment, but before the media construes the Pope as revolutionary and departing from orthodox Christianity I would like to look at an essay that attempts to make the same claim in regards to St. Francis and show how such interpretations read Christianity, including Pope Francis and St. Francis, incorrectly.

In “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” [2] Lynn White, Jr. famously blamed orthodox Christianity for the current ecological crisis. Reading Genesis’ portrayal of man’s dominion over creation (the man-nature relation) as domination and not care (“nature has no reason for existence save to serve man”), White concluded that the West’s tendency to objectify everything as a “standing reserve” (Bestand is Heidegger’s term) was a consequence of Judeo-Christian theology. However, for White, St. Francis is an exception. Francis “tried to substitute the idea of equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation.” But White is missing the hermeneutical key that opens Scripture to its true meaning: Christ.

Christ is not an exception to Scripture as White sees it, but its fulfillment. Christ is the incarnate love of God communicated to man. Orthodox Christianity, lived in the Church, is an extension of Christ’s incarnate love through space and time. Christ is the New Adam who perfectly lived out Adam’s original call to care for creation. The Old Adam violated this. The New Adam restores it and affirms the goodness of creation. Man and nature are not enemies; nor are they equals. Man, like a good caretaker, brings things out of nature that would not arise without him (e.g. wine, bread, cheese, temples, etc.). He does not violently force it out of nature but calls it into being by the work of his hands. Ultimately, creation finds its home in the Church and the Mass, where bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ and offered to the Father. The New Man in Christ is not a threat to creation but the one who elevates it. Man plays a positive role in bringing creation to its eschatological fulfillment. The Pope is calling us to see nature as creation and man as the priest of creation offering everything back to the Creator. While corruptions have arisen in Christianity, that does not mean the essence of Christianity is what White makes it to be. Hopefully, Pope Francis answers White in his forthcoming encyclical, setting the record straight.