Last July, The Atlantic styled Pope Francis as quite the revolutionary in his assertion that “exploiting the earth” is a sin. Now, in the imminent lead-up to the pope’s promised encyclical letter on the environment, fevered speculation on its contents is generating the journalistic equivalent of global warming.
Environmentalists have welcomed news of the document, with some expressing hope that it will cause a “paradigm shift” in the Church’s approach to the issue. Almost everyone, in fact, seems to be betting that Francis will say something earth-shattering that no pope has ever said before, leading the Church further and further into uncharted areas.
In the midst of this rampant conjecture, one essential fact risks getting lost: Although Francis is something of an ecological crusader, he will never be a radical environmentalist.
The simple reason is that his starting suppositions regarding the origins and purpose of the environment are completely different. Where radical environmentalists reject an anthropocentric view of the world – meaning that human beings are the most important element of the natural universe – Christians necessarily embrace it.
Instead, the pope espouses a Biblically informed ecology: “When we talk about the environment,” Francis said during a 2013 General Audience, “my thoughts go to the first pages of the Bible, to the Book of Genesis.”
Francis’ theological view of the environment, or “theo-ecology,” is not an ideological environmentalism à la Greenpeace. It’s a natural development of the Christian understanding of man’s relationship to the rest of creation.
The Book of Genesis ascribes to human beings a unique place and a unique role in creation. Two passages in particular describe the task that God lays on the human race, both of which are central to Francis’ thought. The first speaks of man’s dominion over the earth and is narrated as follows:
“God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:28)
During his January trip to the Philippines, Francis took up the theme of concern for the environment, making particular reference to the idea of dominion in his prepared text for young people. “Men and women are made in the image and likeness of God,” Francis said, “and given dominion over creation. As stewards of God’s creation, we are called to make the earth a beautiful garden for the human family.”
The second Genesis passage says:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Gen 2:15)
Pope Francis has drawn inspiration from this passage as well. He asks: “What does cultivating and preserving the earth mean? Are we truly cultivating and caring for creation? Or are we exploiting and neglecting it? The verb ‘cultivate’ reminds me of the care a farmer takes to ensure that his land will be productive and that his produce will be shared.”
A Christian environmentalism is necessarily anthropocentric, because it is theocentric. Man is not just a part of the created world, he is also “like God” and has been entrusted with carrying on God’s work of co-creation and care of the environment. Or, as Pope John Paul II said, God called man “as his living image to share in his own lordship over the world.”
Francis has continually emphasized the importance of the environment as human habitat. On World Environment Day last June, he stressed the need to “cultivate and care” for the environment, saying it is part of God’s plan that man “nurture the world with responsibility,” transforming it into a “garden, a habitable place for everyone.”
For Francis, the environment doesn’t matter “for its own sake”; it matters because it is our home and the home of our children and their children. It is our habitat.
Like the word “environment,” the word “ecology” is similarly anthropocentric in its roots. From the Greek oikos + logos, ecology means the study of the “home,” of the “garden” in which we live.
For Francis, environmentalism is an expression both of respect for the Creator and of human solidarity, just as trashing the environment is a sign of pride and selfishness. For him, environmental ecology is inextricably linked to human ecology. He has repeatedly challenged all to rethink the reigning culture of waste and to oppose a lack of ethics in economy and finance.
“I would like us all to make a serious commitment to respect and protect creation,” he said, “to be attentive to every person, to counter the culture of waste and disposable [mentality], to promote a culture of solidarity.”
Pope Francis is an unabashed believer in human exceptionalism, the philosophical expression meaning that the difference between humans and the rest of creation is of kind and not merely of degree. It represents a distinctiveness that separates man in a real way from the rest of creation, such that man is not merely the highest point of a continuum, but rather a qualitative leap away.
Radical environmentalism, on the contrary, is based on the assumption that the human species has no special place in the universe, and no essential superiority over any other species. We take our place alongside the snail darter, the ruffled grouse, and the fennel plant as fellow inhabitants of planet earth, morally and metaphysically equal to all others. Or, in the eyes of some, inferior —because we’re more dangerous.
Self-identified radical environmentalist groups such as “Earth First!” formally reject a biblically based, anthropocentric view of the world, and normally adopt one of three other alternative approaches: biocentrism, eco-centrism, or deep ecology. Each of these approaches deposes the human person as the center of creation, replacing man with living beings, ecosystems, or the ecosphere.
The Deep Ecology platform, for instance, says that the well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have “value in themselves.” These values are “independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.”
This platform is also linked to population control (what the pope has recently criticized as “neo-Malthusianism”), saying that the flourishing of nonhuman life requires “a substantial decrease of the human population.”
Dr. Warren M. Hern, a radical environmentalist (and late-term abortionist) from the University of Colorado, Boulder, has compared the human race to a cancer on planet earth, equating population growth to the way a cancer metastasizes in the human body. Hern refers to the human population as “a malignant ecopathologic process.”
According to Hern, the human race “grows without restraint” and “our activities are steadily destroying the global ecosystem in which we evolved.”
Hern’s ecology is light years away from that of Francis, which asserts man’s special place in the world.
Other radical environmentalists argue against what they call “speciesism,” or the assignment of special status to human beings just because of their membership in the species homo sapiens. Some, such as Richard Dawkins, expressly says that speciesism is fruit of “our Christian inspired ideas.”
The term “speciesism” was coined by British psychologist Richard D. Ryder in a pamphlet by the same name that he wrote in 1970.
“Since Darwin,” Ryder wrote, “scientists have agreed that there is no ‘magical’ essential difference between humans and other animals, biologically-speaking. Why then do we make an almost total distinction morally?”
This is not how Francis thinks. People from different places on the ideological spectrum could view it as a good thing or a bad thing, but the fact remains, because of his biblically informed view of creation, Francis will never be a radical environmentalist.
There is good reason to suppose, therefore, that Francis’ letter will represent not a “paradigm shift” but continuity, not revolution but ongoing development. The “paradigm” is already there for all to see, on the very first pages of Genesis.