Seeing Beyond Nature to Creation

For Pope Francis, says theologian Dr. William Cavanaugh, we cannot really get to the heart of creation, ecology, or economics without theology

Dr. William T. Cavanaugh is the director of Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology (CWCIT) and a professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. His areas of specialization are in political theology, economic ethics, and ecclesiology, and he has authored several books on that topics, including Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Eerdmans, 2008), Migrations of the Holy: Theologies of State and Church (Eerdmans, 2011), and The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict  (Oxford University Press, 2009). I corresponded recently with Dr. Cavanaugh about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’.

CWR: I read your book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, not long before reading the encyclical, and I see several common themes, even if the language used is sometimes different. Which themes stood out to you in reading the encyclical? Were you surprised by any of those themes or any of the many assertions made by Francis in the text?

Dr. Cavanaugh: I guess the biggest theme that stood out is the idea that we can’t talk about the environment without talking about everything else.  There is no way to isolate the physical environment in which we live from human social relations, our relations with other creatures, and the relationship of all creation to the Creator.  This was an important theme for me in Being Consumed; we can’t talk economics as if it were separable from the ends of human life.

There is no such thing as “the free market” as such.  The question is always, “When is a market free?”  And to answer that question one must always have an idea of the positive ends of human life, what really makes people free.  This is a prominent theme in Laudato Si’ and in the social encyclicals more generally: we can’t talk about natural ecology without talking about human ecology, animal ecology, and the ecology of our relationship with God.  Pope Francis talks about an “integral ecology” in the last section of the document.

CWR: You’ve spent time living and working in South America. In what ways does the encyclical reflect a South American perspective, if we can use such a descriptive? How does that perspective challenge assumptions that are widespread in the U.S. about the nature of the market and the role of economics?

Dr. Cavanaugh: These issues look different from the perspective of countries in which the majority of people are poor.  For well-off people in rich countries, the economy seems to be working quite well.  Wealthier people have the means to shield themselves from environmental degradation; they buy nice houses in nice pretty places.  By contrast, it seems obvious to the majority of people in the world that the economy is not working well, and the promised prosperity is always just about to arrive, but never actually does.  People in the global South can see their forests being clear cut and their lands being strip mined by foreign corporations; the poor can’t easily move to higher ground when the oceans rise. 

People in South America are also less inclined to buy into the notion that the problem is too many poor people in the world.  To the contrary, as Pope Francis hints in the encyclical (§50): the main problem is not too many poor people, but too many rich people, who consume the world’s resources in ways that are wildly disproportional to their numbers.

CWR: Do you think that Laudato Si’ reflects an anti-modern or anti-science mentality, as some have argued? How would you sum up his approach to modernity and technology?

Dr. Cavanaugh: The encyclical is certainly not anti-science.  To the contrary, Pope Francis is trying to amplify the findings of the 99% of scientists who are convinced that global warming is a serious threat and is mostly a product of human activity.  Pope Francis is clearly on the side of the scientists versus those politicians who would ignore or dismiss the science.  The encyclical is also not anti-technology as such, but it does warn against a certain “technocratic paradigm” (§101) that sees nature as inert matter to be manipulated and controlled by human power.  This attitude is at the very root of the problem, how we got into the mess that we are in, so more of the same is not going to solve the problem; there will be no merely technological fix to environmental degradation, though new technologies can help.

What really needs fixing, however, is our deeper attitude toward the material world.  We need to see beyond nature to creation.  Creation is something alive, not dead or inert.  We need to cultivate a sense of reverence for the created world.  One of the most moving sections of the encyclical is that in which Francis draws on Francis of Assisi to describe a kind of falling in love with creation (§11).

CWR: What are some points or passages in the encyclical that you think are either being overlooked or misunderstood, in both the secular and Catholic media?

Dr. Cavanaugh: The secular media tends to overlook the theology in the encyclical, and some of the Catholic media does too.  It is easy to see the encyclical as the Church rather belatedly adding its voice to the general realization that the health of the planet is endangered and good people should do something about it.  Appeals to God are seen as okay in small doses, but what we really need is more generic language that can appeal to all people of good will, whether they believe in God or not.

But for Pope Francis, we cannot really get to the heart of the matter without theology.  To see nature as creation we must see the Creator; to think of it as a gift we must recognize the Giver.  Francis does a sensitive reading of the biblical materials and shows that from the idea of a good Creator comes two important data: creation is good, and creation is not God.  We must embrace creation as bearing the imprint of love from a loving Creator.  At the same time, we must recognize that we are not God, and we must adopt an attitude of humility and respect—not control and manipulation—before the creation of which we are a part.

People like [historian] Lynn White have read Genesis as being human centered, but it is not; it is God-centered.  Being neither human-centered nor earth-centered, but God-centered, is the solution to the ecological crisis.

CWR: Do you think the encyclical signals a shift in how Catholic social doctrine is understood or applied? If so, how so?

Dr. Cavanaugh: I don’t think the encyclical represents a shift in Catholic social teaching.  The themes found here are found in previous popes’ writings.  But the fact that Francis has devoted an entire encyclical to the question—his first encyclical—raises the issue of the environment to a new prominence in Catholic teaching.  A non-Catholic friend said to me that this will be the most read document on the environment ever produced by anyone.  That’s cool.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.