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The Pope’s encyclical, theology and ecology

OPINION | Mick Pope & Ian Hore-Lacy

Friday 3 July 2015

Oddly enough for a pronouncement by a religious leader, Pope Francis’ latest encyclical (teaching letter) Laudato Si gets reaction not on the basis of theology, but ecology. The subject is climate change, and how to fix it. Eternity has gathered responses from two key observers Ian Hore-Lacy, a senior research analyst for the World Nuclear Association and a long time Christian commentator based in Melbourne, and Dr Mick Pope, also from Melbourne, an ecotheologian, meteorologist and part of Ethos, a group of public theologians. 

Ian describes Laudato Si as “largely devoid of understanding or sympathy with those who labour to provide for the needs of a populous planet”. Mick likes the way the encyclical takes up some of St Francis’ thinking of “nature is creation and our Mother Earth, our sister.”

Ian Hore-Lacy: Laudato Si is “largely devoid of understanding or sympathy with those who labour to provide for the needs of a populous planet”.

The Pope’s eagerly anticipated encyclical Laudato Si – on care for our common home, has arrived. It is a massive 87 pages, evidently put together by a few committees. Contra its title, it is mainly devoted to breast-beating for the world’s many woes than praise for so much being achieved with God’s abundant provision.

The tone is set by an introductory assertion that “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor;” which leads me to heavily discount what follows.

“Climate change is dealt with in just four paragraphs.”

That is not to say that the environmental critique is unwarranted, simply that it is preoccupied with environmental change and ignores the purpose of God’s provision in his creation for benefiting people, including most urgently the poor. Eulogising St Francis’ aesthetic appreciation of creation leaves its utilitarian aspects ignored, or assumed to be inexorably negative. It sets the tone for a lengthy and mostly reasonable exhortation about environmental care, waste and consumerism.

Climate change is dealt with in just four paragraphs, where the scientific consensus that humans contribute significantly to increased atmospheric CO2 concentration through emissions and deforestation, with consequent warming, is accepted. It even refers to CO2 as pollution. “Substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy” is commended, without mention of the more significant potential of nuclear power.

However, until affordable alternatives are available, continuing to use “highly polluting fossil fuels” is legitimate as “the lesser of two evils”. Also, internalising environmental costs by market pricing mechanisms such as trading carbon credits places a disproportionate burden on the poor while avoiding facing up to the radical changes required in energy.

“The fair management of the global commons is shown as an important challenge today.”

“It must also be recognised that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power”, but without any assurance of wise use. Nevertheless, “advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy”, which show that humans are capable of intervening positively.

The document asserts that “The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty;” leading to a focus on availability of clean water, especially for the poor, which it affirms as a basic human right.

While the immediate context is biodiversity, language about “The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production” doesn’t leave much room for consideration of how those resources are and should be used in line with God’s purposes, to eliminate poverty.

Atmosphere and climate are ‘global commons’ rather than a ‘no man’s land’, hence what is dumped there is strongly related to justice and property rights. We need “an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons’“ including oceans. Hence much of the world’s fossil fuel resources need to be left in the ground, this “subordination of private property” and devaluation of assets being justified for the collective good. The fair management of the global commons is shown as an important challenge today.

The epistle concludes with a long-winded exhortation to “cultivate a sober and satisfying life… free of the obsession with consumption” and expressed in gratitude to God. However, elevating Mary to be the Mother and Queen of All Creation is a distraction.

Laudato Si fits within the genre of clerical and academic discourse which purports to offer a prophetic critique, but one largely devoid of understanding or sympathy with those who labour to provide for the material needs of a populous planet. It makes some important points, but its tone and length will diminish its impact.

Ian Hore-Lacy is a senior research analyst for the World Nuclear Association and a long time Christian commentator based in Melbourne.

Dr Mick Pope likes the way the encyclical takes up some of St Francis’ thinking of “nature is creation and Mother Earth, our sister.”

A number of years ago, Stephen J Gould tried to establish that science and religion were two separate magisteria. In the magisterial Laudato Si’, Pope Francis has produced a remarkable synthesis of the two. Indeed as a total ecology both of the human and non-human world, Francis has I believe re-established Albert Einstein’s dictum that “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

This encyclical was widely touted as addressing climate change, and while this is the largest environmental issue facing us today, it is a more general part of something known as the Anthropocene, the age of man where human beings are leaving a discernible geological impact on the Earth. While Francis doesn’t use this language, his discussion of human impacts touches upon most of the nine planetary boundaries that represent crossing this threshold into the Anthropocene, including climate change, ocean acidification, land use changes, species loss and so on. Likewise, he also echoes the language of “donut economics” when he links ecology of nature to human ecology and the need for development in many parts of the world.

“Francis develops a very incarnational theology, one that affirms the material and a total ecology of connectedness.”

One of the key themes that runs through the Encyclical is the need to recognise connectedness. Without using the language, Francis develops a very incarnational theology, one that affirms the material and a total ecology of connectedness. This is how he can move from a discussion of ecosystems and climate change to a critique of endless growth, disembodied multinational corporations and city-bound decision makers. When there is a lack of connection between human beings, there is little reflection of the impacts of economic systems on real lives.

Francis takes aim at technology, not because he is some naïve primitivist, although he does invoke the simplicity of his namesake, but because technology is his view is too often a tool simply for profit, and an unquestioned epistemology. He recognises that technology has delivered great good in the exercise of human dominion, and yet has also wrought great harm in often excarnating us. Internet technology can inform but isolate, genetic modification may be safe but is used to destroy local communities and small-scale farmers. His is, I believe, a balanced approach to human dominion.

“While it is true that affluence has outstripped population as a driving factor of climate change, population growth is still an issue that requires serious theological reflection.”

Somewhat pleasingly, and I think an advance over Francis’ writings, is a recognition of the value of creation for its own sake, its own role in the praise of the God who made it. More than merely an inert object for our manipulation and profit – a tacit critique of Francis Bacon – nature is creation and our Mother Earth, our sister. Protestants who baulk at such language should recognise both our co-createdness with all that is, i.e. our filial relationship, but also the nurturing aspect of the Earth. It is from the dust of the Earth we are raised and it is from that same dust we will arise in the resurrection.

My main critique would be that, while it is true that affluence has outstripped population as a driving factor of climate change, population growth is still an issue that requires serious theological reflection. Francis appears unwilling to deal with this fully beyond inequalities of population growth.

It will be a bit that perhaps a future Pope will need to take between their teeth. This notwithstanding, it is an admirable document worthy of reflection. As the theological leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination, it is very encouraging to see.

Dr Mick Pope, is a Melbourne-based ecotheologian, meteorologist and part of Ethos, a group of public theologians. 

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