The encyclical is addressed to every person living on the planet. Pope Francis cites widely, referencing secular scientists, philosophers and even a Muslim mystic. He is mindful that, regardless of one's faith perspective, “we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.” Francis' commitment to care for creation is motivated by a passion for social justice. Our well-being depends upon the condition of the environment that sustains us. Therefore, we should all have access to a safe, healthy environment.
What is often not given enough attention is that this idea goes both ways: the Pope's commitment to social justice is motivated by his passionate concern for creation.
We Are All Connected
To grasp this mutual relationship, we need to see the universe as Francis sees it. His foundational observation is that everything is connected. This idea has been drawn upon by figures throughout history, from Leonardo da Vinci to Martin Luther King Jr. But the Pope seems to point toward the thought of ecologists like Barry Commoner. Commoner claimed this idea as the first of his four laws of ecology, maintaining that what affects one thing affects all things. The scientific word for this is ecosystem. Each part of an ecosystem acts on other parts in complex, dynamic ways.
We tend to forget that we are part of the natural world. For most of us, life is lived inside buildings and supplemented by technological devices. It's no wonder that we so easily lose sight of our connection with the natural world. But Pope Francis reminds us that human beings are natural beings, and we, too, live interdependently with the rest of creation. Ecosystems provide the resources necessary to support and sustain life—human and otherwise.
For most of us, life is lived inside buildings and supplemented by technological devices
Clearly, nature is valuable because of its usefulness to us. But the pontiff doesn't limit nature's value to its utility. He insists God values ecosystems and all their natural inhabitants in other ways, too. In fact, Francis' understanding of Scripture entails that the natural world has been created not merely to sustain human life; nature has intrinsic value—it is valuable in and of itself. In Christian theology, intrinsic value is commonly applied to human beings. Less often expressed is the intrinsic worth of the rest of the cosmos.
According to the first creation story in Genesis, even before humans arrive on the scene, individual elements of creation are celebrated by God as good (see Genesis 1:1-25). That is, they are good in and of themselves, apart from any sense of their usefulness. At the same time, the text is clear that God involves the earth itself in producing new kinds of life (see Genesis 1:11-12, 1:24-25). The ecological dependence of animals and vegetation on the land is figured into God's creative work.
The Land is Mine
Later in this story, human beings are created. God calls them to fill the earth and use its resources for sustenance (see Genesis 1:27-29). The text also says that humans are created to subdue the earth and rule over other forms of animal life. It appears that amongst living creatures and within nature's web of interdependence, human beings are somehow extraordinary. We are created in God's own image.
Christians have applied all sorts of interpretations to the phrase “image of God.” It's perhaps impossible to explain it comprehensively. But, without doubt, human beings, male and female, were created to be in a unique kind of relationship with God, as well as with each other and the rest of creation.
Among the things that make us unique in the natural world is our ability to act with intention at a level that greatly surpasses that of any other creature. Not only do we engage the universe, we can also study and evaluate the consequences of our engagement. This is one way we “rule” in creation. But we do not, the Pope insists, own creation. God is sovereign. Francis supports this statement by making reference to God's words in Leviticus 25:23 (RSV): “… the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.” Leviticus also contains just provisions for the land. The fields that yield crops and the vineyards that bear fruit are to be left alone on a periodic basis. Even today we understand the importance of fallow seasons in farming. Responsible engagement with the land offers benefits to human and non-human forms of life.
While human beings have a unique relationship with God, this does not mean the rest of creation is not in relationship with God. God delights in all creation (see Psalm 104:31). And the Scriptures are full of commands for nature to praise God—not only the creatures that breathe, but also the sun, moon and stars, the dry earth, the oceans and even the weather! All are called to praise God (see Psalm 148). It is not remiss to turn to the old story of St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. He echoes the words of Jesus, telling them to be joyful and thankful because God has provided enough for them and their offspring to live. The birds respond in kind, praising God in song and flight.
All creation has intrinsic worth in God's eyes. Returning to the first creation story, we read that it is when God's creation is complete—when the ecological web of interrelationship is woven—that the natural world is celebrated as very good (see Genesis 1:31). What is more, while the world is enslaved by humanity's sinfulness, Christ comes to redeem not only human beings but the entire cosmos (see Romans 8:19-22). Indeed, we can say with the prophet, the whole earth is full of God's glory (see Isaiah 6:3).
This basic understanding that all creation has intrinsic goodness provides a foundation for Pope Francis' ethical approach to nature. The Pope wants all of us living on this planet to have a change of heart and cultivate a fresh appreciation for the beauty of a universe that exists first of all for the glory of God.
What does this change of heart entail from a moral and behavioural point of view? Our ability to act in intentional and sophisticated ways goes hand-in-hand with a moral responsibility to care about how our actions impact other aspects of creation. As our technological capacities grow, the effect we have on the planet and its ecosystems becomes increasingly hazardous. Wastefulness and consumer¬ism impact the welfare of the natural environment and the people who inhabit the planet. Without a change of heart, says Francis, the consequences of our behaviour will only worsen.
Does this mean that we are not permitted to use nature in ways that sustain us? No. A great part of God's glory is shown in the way we exercise our God-given talents and creativity. And we have been created for a life of interdependence with the rest of creation. But without understanding the delight God takes in all creation, we will continue to be overcome by the temptation to exploit and exhaust nature's resources for the purpose of fulfilling our self-centred desires. Francis calls us back to responsible action. The earth needs periodic rest if it is to be blessed with abundance.
A Change of Heart
Each of us is capable of great evils such as selfishness and indifference. But we are also capable of rising above ourselves and choosing to celebrate what is very good. Although the Pope does not pretend to know all the practical ways this change of heart might work itself out, he speaks in favour of a drastic change in lifestyle for those of us in economically developed societies. We must move away from defining success in terms of economic profit. We must be less envious of those who have more than us and learn to become spiritually detached from our possessions. We must use less, waste less and pollute less. Simply put, we are called to live a simple life. “Christian spirituality,” writes Francis, “proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little.”
We are followers of Jesus, a man who had nowhere to lay his head and who challenged his disciples to seek eternal treasure. How many of us can say we would be happy with little? It's a difficult challenge, to be sure. But consider going for a walk in a park, taking time to appreciate its God-given beauty. If we remain attentive to our embeddedness in the natural world, we can be mobilized to live responsibly in our common home.
Dr. Aimee Patterson is a Christian ethics consultant at The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg.