Flourish Magazine, Summer 2013
There are many unexpected things about the ascension of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy: his election (unpredicted), his chosen name of Francis (the First), his country of origin (not European), and his religious order (Jesuit). He has confounded additional expectations by shunning the trappings of power and privilege in favor of modesty and simplicity, as he has throughout his career.
The mainstream press has made much of Francis’s pronouncements on the environment. In his inaugural address and in nearly every speech since, Pope Francis has mentioned it as one of the priorities of his papacy. That doesn’t mean that Francis is a left-wing theologian. Though critical of globalization, he is no fan of liberation theology. He is a theological conservative with a strong stand for traditional marriage and profound respect for the culture of life.
Pope Francis’s deeply held ethic of creation care should be the least unexpected thing about him. The sanctity of life, for Pope Francis as for Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is intimately bound up with the need to protect the environment that nurtures and sustains life. Just as on the issue of abortion Catholics were out in front of other American Christians, so too they are the strongest voices in orthodox Christianity for creation care, and especially on the need to slow our contribution to climate change.
Pope John Paul II began to explicitly identify the ecological crisis as a moral problem during his long reign (1987 to 2005), with a prescient warning in 1990, in his World Day of Peace Message, entitled “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation.” He spoke about the dangers of pollution, including greenhouse gas pollution that threatened human health and flood-prone lands. In his words, “The most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for life evident in many of the patterns of environmental pollution.” [emphasis in original]
Twenty years later, in his own Word Day of Peace Message, entitled “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation,” Pope Benedict warned about remaining indifferent in the face of “such realities as climate change.” He claimed that a greater sense of ecological responsibility “would safeguard an authentic ‘human ecology’ and thus forcefully reaffirm the inviolability of human life at every stage and in every condition….”
There was an apologetic aspect to Benedict’s environmentalism. Benedict was clear that nature teaches us about limits, both in the realm of human sexuality and social relations, and in the use of natural resources. He believed that if the church recognized the limits put in place by God in how we treat ecosystems, we would be in a better position to help society acknowledge the natural limits he puts in place in how we use our bodies. He, better than most, saw that a recognition of natural law and the natural consequences of transgressing it is a missing piece in modernist ethical reasoning.
Catholics integrate their care for creation with concern for the poor. Francis in particular seems to think of the issues as a single concept, hardly ever mentioning one without the other. His very second tweet as Pope, on March 19, said: “Let us keep a place for Christ in our lives, let us care for one another and let us be loving custodians of creation.”
Many American Christians, and especially evangelicals, are divided between those who prioritize the sanctity of life and those who call for the need to address climate change. American Catholic politicians are no exception, often hewing closely to partisan priorities of the left or the right. Francis may help to bridge to that gap. Perhaps the strong injunctions of three Catholic popes, now spread over more than twenty years, can help Americans see, as Pope John Paul II saw, that “no peaceful society can afford to neglect either respect for life or the fact that there is an integrity to creation.”