In the first papal letter dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis uses a tone of prophetic urgency to describe climate change as “a global problem with grave implications” and one that requires a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. Photo courtesy of Carmel Communications

Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical is even more radical than it appears (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) The most significant feature of Pope Francis’ encyclical on environmentalism, "Laudato Si,'" is not about climate change. It is that the document represents a sea change in Catholic -- indeed, Western religious -- thinking on the relationship between human beings and the earth.

In the first papal letter dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis uses a tone of prophetic urgency to describe climate change as “a global problem with grave implications” and one that requires a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. Photo courtesy of Carmel Communications

In the first papal letter dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis uses a tone of prophetic urgency to describe climate change as “a global problem with grave implications” and one that requires a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. Photo courtesy of Carmel Communications

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Naturally, mainstream media has focused on the political ramifications of the encyclical. And indeed, the document is significant for its unambiguous statement that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system” mostly due to human activity.

The pope also writes that “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels -- especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas -- needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

But Francis’ analysis of environmental problems takes up only 28 out of the encyclical’s 184 pages. The overwhelming majority of "Laudato Si'" is, perhaps unsurprisingly, about theology. And while this material has been glossed over by the mainstream press, it is nothing less than a seismic shift in mainstream Christian thought about the human-nature relationship.

First, Francis reads scriptural passages in ways that, while not new, have thus far been confined to liberal theology.

In Chapter 2, he writes: “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.”

Note the radically anti-fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic (“symbolic and narrative language”) and the equation of the relationship between humans and the earth with the relationships between humans and one another and between humans and God.

This is not merely a statement that environmental issues are important. This is a radical theological claim, that human life is centrally defined by the human-earth relationship. How you relate to the earth is as important as how you relate to God.

When liberal religious environmentalists make such claims, they are accused of being “pagan.” But Francis is just getting started. In Chapter 3, he reads Genesis’ controversial injunction that humans should have “dominion” over the earth in precisely the terms of liberal religious environmentalism: “Our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.”

The language of stewardship is familiar to liberal theologians -- but coming in a papal encyclical, it is stunning.

Indeed, it may be read as a response to a half-century-old argument, most famously made by the historian Lynn White, that the biblical relationship of “dominion” is partly to blame for the environmental crisis. Francis is giving a direct refutation of the anthropocentric view that the earth exists only as resources for humans to use.

“The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures,” he says.

Now, it should be noted that the qualifier “tyrannical” still leaves the door open, and similar qualifiers occur elsewhere: “modern anthropocentrism,” “excessive anthropocentrism” and “misguided anthropocentrism" are mentioned. "Laudato Si'" thus does not squarely overturn one thousand years of natural law, which places the human being on a higher moral level than the rest of the natural world.

Nonetheless, whatever anthropocentrism "Laudato Si'" leaves in place is so heavily restricted as to barely qualify. One passage is worth quoting at length:

"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. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to 'till and keep' the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). 'Tilling' refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while 'keeping' means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature."

Here, Francis explicitly states that exploitative readings of Genesis have “incorrectly interpreted” it. Nature is not purely an instrumental good; rather, humans are in a “relationship of mutual responsibility” with it.

What this means is spelled out in the following chapters.

Francis devotes almost half the encyclical to a radical critique of the “dominant technocratic paradigm” and to proposing an “integral ecology” that brings together human, social, cultural, environmental, and economic concerns. Once again, such language would not be surprising coming from a student at a progressive Protestant seminary -- but from the bishop of Rome it is indeed surprising.

Finally, Pope Francis’ overall spiritual attitude toward nature is perhaps the most radical part of the whole encyclical. He begins with his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who found spiritual communion not only in cathedrals but also in forests.

And in the end, he comes back to mysticism again, writing:

“The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.”

Mystical nature panentheism in a papal encyclical! And with a nod to liberation theology! And with a footnote to the Sufi mystic Ali al-Khawas, no less.

Whatever impact "Laudato Si'" has in the political world remains to be seen. But that the pope is here embracing a nature-based mysticism, a highly adumbrated anthropocentrism, and a radical “integral ecology” places the encyclical alongside the best of radical, progressive religious environmentalism -- and far outside what even mainline Protestant denominations have affirmed heretofore.

"Laudato Si'" may turn out to be politically influential. It is already theologically revolutionary.

(Jay Michaelson is a columnist for The Daily Beast who has taught environmental ethics at Boston University Law School and other institutions.)



  1. Make no mistake; the Pope and Rome never take their sights off the political theater that plays out for the fools in the audience watching a magical show; now you see it, now you don’t. The Church in its history has always played musical chairs with those in power who control our perceived world. Remember, even Jesus said treat your slaves with dignity. Look in the mirror, all you fools. Who do you think the “slaves” are? The Church’s main goal was always to survive, even if you have to compromise the truth. Liberation Theology is nothing more than Marxist Philosophy rewrapped as a new gift. To think the Pope has made a paradigm change from Capitalism to Communalism invokes opium dreams of Nirvana on earth. Regarding humans and all that is of earth, are one with God, made by God, and exist through God is correct. Even Jesus told His disciples, “I am not here to be your King, nor to conquer the evils of this world.” Earth is only a crucible for us to pass through. Humans: 0,…

  2. Annually: 47,000 women die from complications of unsafe abortion. 8.5 million women experience complications from unsafe abortion that require medical attention, and three million do not receive the care they need. If every woman who wanted birth control had access to it, annually there would be 150,000 fewer maternal deaths. 640,000 fewer newborn deaths, 600,000 fewer children becoming motherless.” “For the global poor, access to contraception can mean the difference between starvation and nourishment, poverty and stability, illness and health, death and life. Few issues are more crucial to the fate of poor families around the world.” “Any poverty agenda must focus on women because they are 70 percent of the world’s poor. Women comprise two-thirds of the global illiterate population and all women face additional hurdles to their economic and social well-being, including the pay gap and the fact that women are much more likely to hold vulnerable jobs,” according to a UN report.

  3. No, it will have succumbed to arrogant anthropocentrism should the theology ever go away. Theology puts God in the center and is willing to not have all the answers. Scientific ego lacks such self control.

  4. Not having read the Encyclical, what is presented in this article does not seem radical or particularly new. The idea that God expects us to care responsibly for the planet He gave us dominion over doesn’t sound like a new concept at all. Liberation theology? Pantheism? I don’t see that inference at all. All of creation is God-centered, nothing is worshipped outside of God. Cleaning our house sounds rational, not revolutionary….and if humanity is facing a crisis due to it’s own bad management, why shouldn’t the Pope present the whole picture as to what the problems are and how we should go about restoring order to God’s gift to us ?

  5. Yes, from what I have read thus far, the encyclical is similar in approach to all Church stewardship documents. We are given a planet from God, so let’s keep it clean. And whether we agree with the following statement, or not: ““a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” we must at least look to what we have personally done to contribute to the mess, whether it be wasting food, dumping non-biodegradable garbage, keeping the air conditioning overly cold, wasting energy, excessive driving, etc. etc.. We all can tighten up our contribution to the problem. I was at a religious retreat yesterday, and the hotel there had the air conditioning running full blast, while at the same time, they had a fire going in the sitting area for “looks” I guess. I mean, hey, what gives?

  6. Betty, Mother Teresa taught the poor women in India Natural Family Planning, and it doesn’t cost a dime. And they are still to this day very grateful. The problem is fornication and lack of self control. Abortion is never the answer.

  7. “Laudato Si” has started its intended mission in the minds and hearts of people of goodwill across the Planet.

  8. Greg1, most of these women are married. You may consider married sex fornication, but I don’t. They did not have access to birth control or their husbands did not approve and did not allow them to use birth control. Either way it wasn’t their choice and no amount of self control would prevent them from getting pregnant if their husband wanting them to get pregnant.

    Natural Planning doesn’t cost a dime because it is not very reliable. That is the medical facts that you will not accept.

  9. Couples that stay true to NFP find it to be better than any birth control in terms of effectiveness, and it doesn’t mess with the human brain as does the pill.

  10. I took birth control for years until I hit menopause because I had an irregular cycle even when I didn’t need it for birth control. It didn’t mess with my brain, except for the better. I won’t go into details, but it made everything easier, better and less painful.

    You’re just wrong about NFP. It is not more effective than birth control. You must get your information from Catholic non-medical journals.

  11. Greg1, I read the aafp article. It does say that is effective, but not for everyone. It would never have worked for me. Plus you have to use it 100% perfectly, 100% of the time and very few people can be that perfect all the time. Also, you need a willing to cooperate partner and many women around the world and even in America don’t. Don’t assume that married women have willing partners. Women should have the opportunity to learn about every form of birth control and use the one that works best for them. I don’t think that men, especially celibate old men, should be telling them what to do. I also don’t think that scare tactics should be used either. The pill has changed and it uses much less hormones than it used to.

    I doesn’t say anything about it being more effective than other forms of birth control. I don’t know where you got that from.

    I don’t know the background of AAFP. It could be a conservative organization.

  12. Betty,

    Your preaching about promiscuity finds no place in this article. If “women” emancipated by feminism, didn’t act like men, there would be need of only a handful of abortions. And they wouldn’t be the kind that is just another form of birth control to avoid the consequences of immorality.

  13. The article was part of a Pro & Con editorial. Greg1 being a shill for the Lord did not bother to include it in his link. But a link to the rebuttal is in the article. It is not an academic article or meant to be subject to the rigors of peer review.

  14. No, again. It is the absence of proper theology that has gotten us into the ecological mess. Not having read the work but only such analyses as this one, I should say that it is perfectly aligned with Biblical teaching – especially that of Christ himself.

  15. Assuming that your statistics are correct, abortion is not the answer. Perhaps education might be a large portion of the solution you are seeking but abortion is still murder.

  16. Dr. Coelho,

    This is the start of a marketing campaign to fill pews of Cathedrals. How is this any different than selling the idea the Jesus was born on December 25th to entice pagans o plop down coins in the coffers?

    Selling out the Gospel to liberals is no different than other paganism offered to worldly people and adopted by Roman Catholics to gain or regain power and influence.

    What’s next, canonizing Mohammad? Adopting Jihad as an orthodox Christian doctrine?

    You can almost smell the snake oil.

  17. Assuming that your statistics are correct, abortion is not an acceptable answer, morally, to many of us. Perhaps education might be a large portion of the solution you are seeking.

  18. Hey Greg,

    Didn’t you see that Larry told you to shut up? You’re just a “shill” for the Lord.

    You rascal you.

    Guys like Larry 2000-years ago were screaming with delight as Christians were fed to lions and burned alive as street lights.

  19. What can we expect from a pope who claims to follow St. Francis but criticizes “rabbits” (Catholics who have more than 3 children?

    Jay Michaelson conveys how radical “Laudato Si” is.

    It endorses the unproven claim of “climate change,” allying the Pope with powers who are hostile to Christianity and the Catholic Church.

    Francis states that population control is NOT the answer (contrary to the pro-abortion/ pro-contraception females in this discussion), then fudges and says “distribution” of population may be a problem. My ears begin to quiver!

    The half-baked idea that humans must answer to the :environment is not found in tradition or Scripture.

    Francis overlooks the achievements of development, and chastises us for our use of air conditioning, cars, etc.

    Does Francis wish to encourage humans to be “groovy” with the earth–like the tie-dyed hippies with flowers in their hair who often received welfare from the society they castigated in the…

  20. While many of these ideas have been brought up in what is commonly referred to in the West as “liberal theology”, the ideas aren’t new or all that radical within the overall history of the Church. Even in the early centuries of the Church, these ideas weren’t without support from Church Fathers. In the U.S. particularly, we are so familiar with evangelical fundamentalist voices that we forget about the 1900 years prior.

  21. Too bad the author of this article has no clue that the Catholic Church has a long history of social teaching that goes right along with Genesis 1: 26, when God made man and said, ” Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air…..” There is very little news in this document, other than the four paragraphs where Francis actually discusses the scientific info that supports global warming. However, he only discusses it long enough to remind people that whether the earth is warming or not, mankind has a responsibility to care for the earth and all of its creatures.

    That said, I wish Francis would have taken a stand against people killing, mutilating in the name of Almighty God. To me, that would have been a much timelier topic.

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