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Pope Francis's Radical Environmentalism

Pope Francis's Radical Environmentalism

(Extracts from an Article first published in The Atlantic in July)

In a talk at the Italian university of Molise in July, Francis characterized concerns about the 

environment as “one of the greatest challenges of our time”—a challenge that is theological, 

as well as political, in nature. “When I look at ... so many forests, all cut, that have become 

land … that can [no] longer give life,” he reflected, citing South American forests in 

particular. “This is our sin, exploiting the Earth. ... This is one of the greatest challenges of our 

time: to convert ourselves to a type of development that knows how to respect creation.” 

And the pontiff isn’t stopping there; he’s reportedly planning to issue an encyclical, or papal 

letter, about man’s relationship with the environment.

It’s easy to be glib about Francis’s remarks—few people see the chopping-down of the 

Amazonian rainforests as an encouraging development. … But by characterizing the 

destruction of the environment not merely as a sin, but rather as our sin—the major sin, he 

suggests, of modern times—the pope is doing more than condemning public inaction on 

environmental issues. By staking out a fiercely pro-environmentalist position, while limiting 

his discourse about hot-button issues like homosexuality, Francis is using his pulpit to actively 

shape public discourse about the nature of creation (indeed, environmental issues were part 

of his first papal mass). In so doing, he is implicitly endorsing a strikingly positive vision of the 

individual’s relationship with the created world, and with it a profoundly optimistic vision of 

what it means to be human—and incarnate—overall, opening the door for a radical shift in 

emphasis, though not doctrine, when it comes to the Catholic Church’s view of mankind.

Another strand of Christian thought interprets the same reference to “dominion” in Genesis 

as an exhortation to “stewardship.” 

The stewardship mindset promoted by Francis arises from a broader theology that sees the 

created world as inherently sacred because it is made by God. The “fallenness” of the world 

may have damaged the man-nature relationship, but the ideal toward which we should be 

working is one of reconciliation. 

As Patrick Carolan, president of the Franciscan Action Network, writes in U.S. Catholic: “As 

part of the Franciscan tradition we emphasize ‘thisness,’ the unique specialness of each 

particular living and nonliving thing, which is loved individually and particularly by God. 

Every tree every pond, every member of every species is unique and special to God.” Pope 

Francis defends his call for environmental action by arguing that “Creation is not a property, 

which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it 

is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of 

all, always with great respect and gratitude.”

The eco-feminist Christian movement, which grew out of larger feminist and womanist 

perspectives on theology, has also flowered in both Protestant and Catholic thought. Some 

eco-feminists, like the Quaker Grace Jantzen, believe the demand for positive stewardship 

emanates from the very structure of the world. In her God’s World, God’s Body, Jantzen 

argued that God’s relationship to the world is analogous to the relationship between the body 

and the soul. Drawing on the widespread Christian doctrine of imago dei—that man is 

created in the “image and the likeness” of God (as per Genesis 1:16)—Jantzen maintained 

that our embodied state establishes creation as the “body” of God. Unlike the “dominion” 

schools of thought, the stewardship schools take for granted that the created world is 

inherently good—that there is an inherent concord, rather than conflict, between the physical 

and the spiritual…..

What is radical is Francis’s willingness to present environmentalism not merely as a challenge, 

but as one of the “greatest” challenges of our time. By underlining the importance of 

environmentalism to his overall theology, Francis is doing more than simply espousing a set of 

principles. He is also publicly—with the dizzying reach granted to a man in his position—

emphasizing an understanding of nature that, in contrast to the combative dichotomy so 

prevalent in mainstream politico-religious discourse, is intrinsically positive in its treatment of 

the physical world. It’s a vision that is, radically and profoundly, pro-life.

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