This article is adapted from the forthcoming book, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, which will be published in November by Henry Holt and Company. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Though Francis might look like a raving revolutionary to the captains of capitalism, and though some of his critics within the church have accused him of importing socialism and radical environmentalism into Catholic social teaching, the current pope has in fact pushed out from a path firmly forged by his predecessors.
Saint John Paul II called for an “ecological conversion” of the church through “concrete programs and initiatives,” and Benedict XVI did just that, installing a thousand solar panels on the roof of the Vatican’s audience hall and a hybrid engine in one of the popemobiles. But Benedict’s greatest achievement was to engage theologically with the rising ecological awareness. Noting in Caritas in veritate how nature expressed “a design of love and truth,” a “grammar” that “sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation,” he observed that the logic of gift underpinning the moral intuition behind ecology was incompatible with the ethic of sovereign autonomy.
In a series of addresses, Benedict observed how insisting on respect for the given order of the natural world sat oddly with the contemporary attitude toward sexuality and human life. Permissive laws that upheld a woman’s “choice” assumed that choice alone could specify what was good without reference to transcendent criteria, such as the sacred value of life. Yet when mining corporations pouring toxic waste into rivers claimed it was a necessary price to pay for jobs and consumer goods, progressives were appalled. If creation were merely raw material without intrinsic value, subject only to cost-benefit analysis, then these choices were justified; but if humanity and creation were governed by a logic of gift, in which the right response to creation—whether human or natural—was respect, why did the same thinking not apply in both cases? Benedict called for the development of a “human” ecology to supplement a “natural” one, as a way of connecting with contemporary sensibilities.
Benedict’s arguments were compelling and clear, but they were aimed more at challenging ecologists than converting Catholics. In the hands of the culture warriors, “human ecology” became simply another stick to beat up liberals in rows over gay marriage or abortion laws. Yet the more that prolife, pro-family groups, especially in the United States, appealed to “human ecology,” the more exposed was their own lack of commitment to natural ecology. Many saw no contradiction in arguing against abortion and gay marriage while defending a free-market model of unrestrained consumption, the right to carry guns, and the death penalty.
Francis gently challenged this schizophrenia at a Vatican conference on male-female complementarity in September 2014, organized by prominent American conservatives, including Professor Robert George of Princeton University. The conference was an astute bid to respond to the deconstruction of marriage and sexuality by highlighting the ecological basis of conjugality: how maleness and femaleness run through all cultures and faiths, as well as the natural world. (Jonathan Lord Sacks, the former chief rabbi to the United Kingdom, offered an account of marriage that began with what he claimed was the first-ever act of copulation—by prehistoric Scottish fish.) To loud applause, Francis described how the collapse of family and marriage under pressure from a “throwaway culture” advanced under “the flag of freedom” had caused “spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.” But he went on to point out that this was “an ecological crisis; for social environments, like natural environments, need protection.” Equating the two environments was a subtle but clear shift, and the applause was more muted.
Francis needed, for the sake of the church’s credibility, to challenge American conservative double standards, but his main aim was to take ecology where science couldn’t: into the realm of the sacred. Science could pinpoint the “is” but not the “ought”; it could inform, but not move to act. It could shout and sound the alarm, but it could not ask people to care about what they did not love.
This was a point made by climate scientists themselves. One of the great oceanographers of modern times, Walter Munk, remarked in a Vatican conference in 2014 that global warming could only be overcome by “a miracle of love and unselfishness.” Media stories of endangered minorities and species appealed to classically liberal moral concerns but often left religious people unmoved. A Stanford University study published a few months before Laudato si’ came out showed that a message centered on purity and protecting God’s creation from desecration would resonate deeply with religious sensibilities, moving people both to accept the evidence and to act on it.
That meant providing a new narrative that transcended liberal ecology, one that could take the polarity of respect for nature on the one hand and respect for human uniqueness on the other and create a new synthesis beyond the dialectically opposed ideologies of biocentrism and anthropocentrism. Laudato si’ called this new thinking “integral ecology” because it offered a unified moral narrative. Humankind was called to be a custodian of creation, rather than its arrogant overlord; human beings were interconnected with, and biologically dependent upon, our fellow species. All of us were God’s creatures. Thus Laudato si’ would be the first authoritative Catholic document to teach, unequivocally and emphatically, the intrinsic goodness of nonhuman animals, making animal welfare a prolife issue.
Integral ecology also enabled Francis to position the global church at the heart of a drive to respect the divinely gifted design of love and truth in every “environment.” Whether in the natural world, the family, or urban spaces, integral ecology offered a lens with which to judge the misuse of human autonomy and the idolatry of power. It was a challenge both to prolife, pro-family conservatives to respect the integrity of the natural world, and to environmental campaigners to safeguard the institutions and laws that protect human life and family. In this sense, Laudato si’ has been key to Francis’s evangelization call. The purpose of the church in the contemporary world is not to dominate but to serve, to reveal a loving Creator who cares deeply about His creation.
Laudato si’ wasn’t addressed only to the bishops and faithful, or even—as some encyclicals have been—to all “people of goodwill,” but to everyone on the planet. The pope was inviting every human being to join in a new great task of collaboration with their Creator and with each other, one that was about “ecology” in the original Greek sense of oikos, meaning “home.” At the church of San Damiano in Assisi, Jesus appeared to St. Francis to ask him to repair His church. Now a pope named after St. Francis was asking humanity to repair God’s world.
According to Pablo Canziani, an Argentine atmospheric physicist who studies climate change, Francis’s genius was to discern the moment when science and religion were reaching out to each other, ready for a partnership that could enable new ways of seeing among the mass of citizens of the world, and so halt the hurtling train of consumption and destruction. That new lens starts with the anguished realization that something vital has been lost and leads to a conviction that things have to be done differently to get it back. The old-fashioned word for this is “conversion.”