Pope Francis’s Holistic Understanding of “the Environment”

When the Holy Father uses the term “the environment,” he means something very different from what your usual run-of-the-mill “environmentalist” means by the term.

Something not mentioned often enough is that when Pope Francis uses the term “the environment,” he means something very different from what your usual run-of-the-mill “environmentalist” means by the term. “Environmentalists” tend to think of the “environment” as something that excludes humans; Pope Francis does not. There is more evidence that when Pope Francis talks about “the environment,” he means something more like what people mean when they use the pair “nature and society.”

Listen to the way he repeatedly pairs “ecological” concerns with economic and social concerns in his address to the United Nations. “Our world demands of all government leaders,” he began, “concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment…” Okay, so what was he talking about: old-growth forests? penguins and polar bears? snail darters? Perhaps; but the remainder of the sentence exhorts government leaders to take those

concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment, and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism, and international organized crime (emphasis mine). 

How many people would have expected things like human trafficking, marketing of organs, prostitution, and the drug trade to fall under the general heading “preserving and improving the natural environment”? But that’s the way Pope Francis talks. It’s unexpected and noteworthy for that very reason.

In another passage in his address, he warns, “The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species.” In the next sentence he bemoans “the baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power….” Underlying both problems is a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between human freedom and the goods of the created world. We take ourselves to be “as gods” ruling over nature rather than stewards of God’s gifts, using them in accord with the purpose for which God created them: that is, to serve as instruments of God’s love. Instead, we imagine we “possess” them as ours alone, and although we imagine we have become nature’s lords and masters, it would be more true to say that we are in unrecognized ways becoming more and more enslaved.

As C.S. Lewis has argued, “Man’s power over Nature” turns out more often to be “a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” The power of the information age is the power of some to profit from information to which they have access and the rest of us do not. It is the power of those who can to control “the message” and “the spin”: they play the tune to which we are forced to dance. The power of instant international communication becomes the power of international corporations to grow and control regional economies with their ebb and flow determining the livelihood of thousands, sometimes millions in local communities.

Do not misunderstand me. I am far from arguing for the power of some centralized, international cabal of powerful men. That would be far too easy. It’s a popular fairy tale we like to tell ourselves to lend a certain order to our chaos. It’s pleasing in a way to imagine that if we just unveiled these conspirators and let the light of day shine upon them, they’d be scattered like cockroaches, and most of our problems could be solved fairly easily. 

But what if the problem is more intractable than that? What if the chaos is even deeper than we imagine? What if there’s no “evil order” at the center of things, but simply more chaos? What if the moneyed and powerful are as clueless as the rest of us, trying to hang on from day to day to their money and possessions, guarding it all restlessly, wondering when the other shoe will drop and they’ll lose it all—or at least enough of it so they become what we are: part of the great “unwashed,” the “masses,” the ones who wait in line, the D-listers, the non-VIPs, the undistinguished? What if the greed for power and money that gets them where they are keeps them in a vice-like grip of fear at losing any power or money? What if they’re just as terrified at the twists and turns of the economy as we are, precisely because they have so much more to lose?

C.S. Lewis again:

At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’—to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. 

Now listen to Pope Francis again. The “environmental” problems of the world,” he says, which, as we have seen, include both economic and social issues (prostitution, human trafficking, drugs, and the like), “must serve as a summons to a forthright reflection on man” and especially, on what use man makes of his reason. “Man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself,” says Pope Francis, quoting Pope Benedict XVI. “Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature” (note this; we’ll come back to it). “Creation is compromised,” continues Francis,

where we ourselves have the final word…. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves. Consequently, the defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.

Now this is truly fascinating. Man is spirit, but also nature; he is part of nature. Have a concern for “nature”? Look first at man and his spirit. How do we defend the environment and, note well, “fight against exclusion” (and it’s clear by this he means economic exclusion, now an environmental concern): we must recognize once again, says the Pope, the existence of a “moral law written into human nature itself”—what we call “the natural law”—a law which includes “the natural difference between man and woman and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” 

It was Pope John Paul II’s genius not just to include the so-called “life issues” under the umbrella of social justice, but to describe them as foundational to all the rest: this to the great consternation of much of the “social justice” bureaucratic apparatus that had so scrupulously divided them one from the other. For many years, there were “life issues” Catholics and “social justice” Catholics, but never the twain should meet. I know of a large “social justice” convention held every year for many years with dozens of sessions on every conceivable topic you can imagine from energy policy to disinvestment strategies to gender-neutral language for the Bible—every conceivable topic, that is, except abortion, contraception, or euthanasia.

 So too, it has been Pope Francis’s genius now to include “the natural difference between man and woman and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions” under the umbrella of concern for nature and the environment. What sort of respect for nature do you show if you abort unborn children? What sort of respect for nature does it show if you fail to respect the natural differences between men and women or the natural biological connection between biological parents and their children? What kind of environment do you create when you euthanize the weak and elderly?

This connection between “the environment,” nature, and the right understanding of human nature and human freedom is not original with Francis, however. People too often forget the passages in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus where he makes the connection between the “ecological question” and “consumerism,” at the root of both of which, declares John Paul, is a fundamental “anthropological error.” The “ecological question,” writes John Paul “accompanies the problem of consumerism” and is “closely connected to it.”

In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-give purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.

Pope John Paul II is echoing C.S. Lewis: Man conquers nature only to end up enslaved to its allures and temptations. We use the world to foster our power, and we end up becoming the ones used and enslaved, to our possessions and to our own greed.

But note in the next paragraph what Pope John Paul does with this notion of respect for the environment; consider carefully the direction he takes:

In addition to the irrational destruction of the natural environment, we must also mention the more serious destruction of the human environment, something which is by no means receiving the attention it deserves. Although people are rightly worried…about preserving the natural habitats of the various animal species…too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic “human ecology.”

Concern for “the environment” in this context means concern for the human environment: specifically safeguarding the moral conditions for authentic communal human flourishing. Man is called upon, writes Pope John Paul, to “respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed.”

Remember when certain Catholic university administrators were defending their tacit support of abortion and overt support of gay lifestyles as in accord with the new priorities of Pope Francis? The new “Pope Francis Church” is downplaying those issues, we were told, in favor of social justice and environmental concerns. The proper response to this bit of sophistry, to my mind, would be: “You people aren’t showing sufficient concern for environmental issues. You haven’t done anything to reduce the root causes of consumerism in society. (It is quite the opposite, in fact, at most top colleges and universities in the country.) And you are engaged in an irresponsible destruction of the human environment, one which will continue to foster in young people the tragic tendency to imagine that they “create themselves,” that they are the “final word,” and to fail to recognize that man is not only “spirit and will, but also nature.” Do these Catholic colleges and universities recognize and make clear to their students that “the defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions”?

I call for more Pope Francis-type Catholic universities: institutions that teach, as Pope Francis does, that

the common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic. This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature.

Conservatives in this country tend to like the Church’s teachings on personal morals, including its opposition to the “sexual revolution,” while bemoaning or simply ignoring altogether what they take to be the Church’s “absurd” and “unrealistic” teachings on other social justice issues. Liberals in this country, on the other hand, tend to be enthralled to the Church’s teaching on certain “social justice” issues, while excoriating it for its “absurd” and “unrealistic” teachings on sex, contraception, same-sex sexual activity, and divorce. The problem for both sides is that it is the same theology of nature and human nature that undergirds both teachings. The even bigger problem for the Church is that this is a view of nature and man’s freedom which is very much at odds with modernity’s idea that holds, as one of C.S. Lewis’s colleagues bragged: “Man has Nature wacked.” He certainly does. The only problem with that assertion, and the reality behind it, is that, as Pope Francis points out, man is himself part of nature.

Until we get Catholic institutions ready and willing to teach this respect for nature, human nature, and the natural law, we won’t really have “Pope Francis-type” Catholic colleges and universities. 

What’s in your environment? Abortion-providers? Pornography? Consumerism? An education directed at corporate success rather than love for neighbor? A culture based on “self-creation” where “we ourselves have the final word,” that “no longer recognizes any instance above ourselves, seeing nothing else but ourselves”? If so, it’s a bad educational environment, and bad education for the environment.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, in a recent address to the U.S. bishops at their fall general assembly in Baltimore communicated Pope Francis’s wish that Catholic colleges and universities should “continue to offer unambiguous testimony of their foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts to dilute that indispensable witness.” “The course must always be set by Christ and his Church,” said the archbishop, “never allowing influence or wealth to dictate what might be an improper orientation for a Catholic school or a university.” If we are to “preserve the moral order of our society,” then “we cannot fall prey to the enticement and allurement of a secularized and increasingly pagan civilization.”

It’s time to get with the program, you Catholic schools. This is a new pope for a new age. If you’re still stuck in the paradigm that set Nature and human freedom at odds—a paradigm begun in the 16th century by men like Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes—then you’re still stuck in the “Dark Ages” of humanity’s thinking about Nature. It’s time to move on; time to become more “environmentally aware.” This isn’t a matter of pretty-sounding words—what the Pope amusingly calls a “declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences”—or of an essentially meaningless “green washing” of corporate structures; it’s a question of changing an entire approach to nature and human nature. You don’t want to be “left behind” by history, do you? It’s time to lead rather than follow the American capitalist, corporatist cultural consensus—time to put “the environment” in all its Franciscan dimensions (natural, human, and moral) before your never-assuaged quest for more money, influence, and prestige.


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 24 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.