The scientific language and specificity of information contained in Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment allows Francis to head off at the pass accusations that he should stay out of science. The underlying message is that the chemist knows his stuff.
The biblical and economic language employed by the pope is especially interesting. The encyclical describes the earth as an “abused” and “pillaged” sister. The personification of earth is reminiscent of biblical prophecy in which the land of Israel was depicted as a woman. Just as the Biblical prophets were concerned with abuses of the poor, so, too, is Francis. By using this language, he is adding to the Biblical grammar of sin and saying that care for the environment is a traditional sin just like abuse of the poor.
Similarly, the economic language of the rich being indebted to the poor levels the global economic playing field. Everyone has racked up debts, says Francis, and it is the obligation of the rich to care for the poor. Care for the poor is fairly standard Francis stuff, but it is now couched in terms of economic debt.
This is language that is sharp and significant in both theological and practical terms.
Finally, although he isn’t afraid to take aim at Christian climate change deniers who ridicule concern for the environment, Francis offers some olive branches for conservatives, too.
Pope Benedict XVI linked the destruction of the environment to same-sex relations; Francis subtly ties care for the body of the earth to respect for the gender of one’s own body. In keeping with Church teaching — and perhaps under the influence of Peter Turkson — the encyclical specifies that people should respect the femininity or masculinity of their own bodies.
This may be an olive branch for conservatives bristling at the encyclical’s main message, but it might also be a sign that even in the Catholic Church, the terrain of the culture wars is shifting.
Candida R. Moss is a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.