By Rod Benson (published in APBF Digest, June 2015)
When he chose “Francis” for his papal name in 2014, in honour of St Francis of Assisi, we might have expected former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to make a significant contribution to the Catholic Church’s witness on environmental issues. With the Encyclical released on June 18, he has.
Originally an official circular letter sent to churches in a particular region, an Encyclical is a long essay by an incumbent pope offering guidance on issues deemed of significance to Catholics. The most recent letter takes its place as a valuable part of the Catholic Church’s theology of creation and environmental care. Since World War II, only one other Encyclical has generated widespread public interest beyond the church – Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life,” 1968), affirming official Catholic teaching on the inviolable link between sex and conception, and opposing contraception.
In the 2015 Encyclical, Laudato Si (“Praise Be to You”), Pope Francis restates his Church’s teaching on creation and environmental stewardship. He goes further, equating environmental degradation with sin, supporting the case for anthropocentric climate change, and drawing a link between capitalism, consumer culture and the global environmental crisis. In doing so, he demonstrates his noted distaste for “desk-bound theology” and “cold syllogisms” in theological discourse.
The structure of Laudato Si
My task here is not to examine all these claims, nor to assess the appeals to empirical science or church tradition, but to comment on the Encyclical’s use of Scripture. The document totals about 40,000 words and is divided into six chapters followed by a very brief conclusion and two model prayers.
After a general introduction (s.1-16), Chapter 1 (s.17-61) outlines the environmental degradation evident in “our common home.” Chapter 2 (s.62-100), “The gospel of creation,” summarises selected biblical teaching on creation and providence, the call to environmental stewardship, the scope of redemption, and hope for both the earth and humankind. Chapter 3 (s.101-136) addresses the human roots of the ecological crisis. Chapter 4 (s.137-162) discusses “integral ecology,” by which Francis means a clarification of the human and social dimensions of the global environmental crisis. Chapter 5 (s.163-201) offers lines of approach and action, laying a practical foundation for averting the crisis. Finally, chapter 6 (s.202-245) extends the proposals of chapter 5, giving suggestions for ecological education and spirituality.
In a statement on climate change and ecological degradation specifically addressed to “all people,” one might expect rather less appeal to Christian scriptures in this Encyclical than in previous ones – or indeed than in a longer theological tome. Certainly there are long passages in the document where no biblical references are cited. Yet there is, happily, a strong biblical anchoring of propositions, arguments, and calls to action in the document as a whole.
Scripture, faith and science
On my count, there are 28 separate Old Testament references in Laudato Si, six from the Apocryphal literature, and 26 from the New Testament. Most of these naturally occur in chapter 2, “The gospel of creation,” and the latter half of chapter 6, “Ecological education and spirituality.” There are extensive footnotes but these contain no biblical references.
At the beginning of his letter (s.2), Francis acknowledges his identification of the current crisis with Paul’s reference to the earth groaning “in travail” (Rom 8:22), and claims that this is a result of human sin – the neglect and abuse of our divinely imparted ecological responsibility. From Genesis 2:7 we learn of our intrinsic and universal bond with the natural world. While strongly influenced by the philosophy and natural theology for which St Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226) is famous, the first pope to bear his name observes that St Francis, “faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” (s.12). In support of this claim he cites Wisdom 13:5 (“For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator”) and Romans 1:20.
To those who may question the church’s right to offer a definitive opinion on matters such as ecology, climate change, or large-scale action to mitigate the adverse effects of the global environmental crisis, Francis reiterates the centuries-old claim of the Catholic Church that “science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue faithful to both” (s.61). Indeed, this is one of the aims of the present Encyclical.
Biblical and theological teaching
Francis expresses confidence that “the great biblical narratives” offer an enduring and relevant perspective on the relationship of humans with the world (s.65), complementing the witness of science and other fields of human knowledge. For example, Scripture declares that God has created everything, viewed the created order as “very good,” and has invested every human person with “infinite dignity” (Gen 1:26, 31; 2:2-3; Ps 148:5-6; Jer 1:5).
In sections 66-74, Francis draws on classic biblical teaching to emphasise the importance of stewardship, the consequences of disobeying divine commands, and the redemption available in Christ leading to personal, social and ecological hope.
While the earth and all it contains belongs to God (Ps 24:1; Dt 10:14; Lev 25:23), human sin has distorted our harmony with the world and the stewardship of its resources which we ought to be exercising (Gen 1:28; 2:5; 3:17-19). We are responsible to exercise care and management of the world and its living creatures on behalf of the Creator (Dt 22:4, 6; Ex 23:12; Prov 3:19). Other species besides humankind bring glory to God (Ps 104:31).
Regarding human consequences for disobedience, Francis alludes to the blood of murdered Abel which is said to have “cried out” to God from the ground (Gen 4:9-11), and the divine decision to obliterate humankind for its wickedness in the days of Noah (Gen 6:13). Yet there is hope: “all it takes is one good person to restore hope” (s.71), and the ensuing renewal entails recovery not only of personal and social relationship with God but also restoration of the earth’s natural rhythms (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 16:23; 20:10; Lev 19:9-10; 25:1-4, 10).
Francis asserts that divine creation implies the presence of a loving plan where each creature possesses value and significance (s. 76). We are linked to the rest of creation in a “universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect” (s. 89). In response to the degradation of the natural world by the destructive and negligent actions of people, God acts as a transcendent and just liberator (Isa 40:28-29; Jer 32:17, 21; Rev 15:3). Hope is assured because it comes from God.
But humans must work with God to actualize the promised redemption. Might is not right, and the present ecological crisis calls for humble servanthood and sacrifice (Mt 20:25-26). Rich and poor share equal dignity (Prov 22:2; Wis 6:7; Mt 5:45). Jesus sanctified human labour (Mk 6:3), and calls the church to collaborate with him for the redemption of humanity, to the glory of God (Col 1:16, 19-20; Jn 1:1-18; 1 Cor 15:28; and see s. 98-100).
In s. 101-123, drawing on the biblical and theological foundations set forth in s. 62-100, Francis argues that humans are culpable for (at least the severity and scope of) the present global environmental crisis. Yet he quotes no biblical texts in these sections until he comes to address the need to protect employment (s. 124; Gen 2:15; Sir 38:4, 34), and economic development “which favours productive diversity and business creativity” (s. 129).
Similarly, in s. 163-245 (chapters 5 and 6), it would seem that there are many opportunities to reference Scripture, but Francis is content to frame his arguments and propose solutions to problems without resort to proof-texting (e.g. s. 204 on greed, consumption and the common good).
There are nevertheless biblical principles articulated in these sections. For example, in order for us to experience “ecological conversion” (s. 219), Francis invites us to imitate God’s generosity in self-sacrifice and good works (Mt 6:3-4; Mk 10:21; Rom 12:1). Such spiritual discipline is a key “to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers” (s. 226). Likewise, the Sabbath principle of regular rest and refreshment (Ex 23:12) “motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor” (s. 237).
As we obey God’s gracious commands, and work in partnership with God, we participate in a journey of transformation and liberation from oppression and injustice, coming at last to an eternal rest, the New Jerusalem, our common home.
Ethics practiced without reference to the timeless resources of Scripture is arguably a matter of reflecting the prevailing cultural attitudes of one’s time and place. At the same time, Scripture applied without reference to the contemporary challenges of ethics, whether personal or global, is arguably a religious curiosity lacking power to transform individuals and communities.
The world needs more people who take both the challenges of ethics and the resources of Scripture seriously – who understand the enduring relevance of biblical wisdom and learn how to apply such wisdom to the tough ethical issues of the day in meaningful and convincing ways. In this context, Pope Francis’s Encyclical on urgent environmental issues is a welcome contribution to public debate.
For a contemporary Baptist statement on similar issues, see the Asia Pacific Baptist Federation’s Daejeon Declaration (2011).
 Evangelii Gaudium, released by Pope Francis in 2013, nn. 142, 133.
 See Laudato Si, s.3.
 Apocryphal references are from the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Version (1995).