From the beginning of human history, the beauty and awesomeness of creation has inspired people to think of God. Whether it was the power of a storm or the beauty of a sunset, humans have experienced creation as revelatory of greatness of a creator God. Even without Hebrew or Christian revelation, many peoples saw the divine working through nature. For early humans the world was alive with spirits and the divine.
The Bible is filled with reflections on the relationship between God and nature, and the role of humans in this world. Pope Francis in the second chapter of Laudato Si’ reflects on God, creation, and the role of humanity in the divine plan in order to “show how faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters.”
First off, he wants to make clear that he rejects the “dominion” theory that gives man total domination over creation. This theological view, based on Genesis 1:28, was interpreted during the 19th century to promote the industrial revolution and its desire to use the earth as malleable clay that man could pound and shape into whatever he wants.
Francis sees this interpretation as distorted. It “has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him [man] as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.” Today, “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
Instead, Pope Francis does an exegesis of Genesis 2:15 telling Adam to till and tend the garden of the world. “’Tilling,’” writes Francis, “refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.” As a result, “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
He notes that the Sabbath was a day of rest not only for humans but also for “your ox and your donkey” (Exodus 23:12). “Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.” In fact, the psalms tell us that creatures by their very existence bless and give glory to God. God loves the work of his hands and saw that it was good even before man and woman were created.
Francis’ reflection on Genesis leads him to see that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” These relationships are ruptured by sin, “by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.”
Francis affirms that the world did not result from chaos or chance but “as the result of a decision … a free choice” based on love. “Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it a place in the world,” and “God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things.” As a result, “every act of cruelty toward any creature is contrary to human dignity.”
The biblical answer to the injustice of domineering earthly powers or the destruction of the earth is to “speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world.”
Yet God created “a world in need of development,” and “counts on our cooperation.” As a result, “many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator.”
Francis continues to see each human person possessing a uniqueness that cannot be fully explained by evolution. “Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology.”
But despite the specialness of humanity, “The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of all things.” Our role is to “lead all creatures back to their Creator.”
It is clear that while the pope stresses that creation has its own value apart from humanity, he does not put all living beings on the same level. Rather, human beings with their unique worth also have tremendous responsibilities. He does not support a “divinization of the earth” or a denial of the preeminence of the human person. “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”
Everything is connected, he argues. He cites the Dominican bishops who said, “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism.” He goes on to write, “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.”
Central to Francis’ biblical reflection is seeing the earth as a gift “with its fruits belonging to everyone.” Those who farmed the land “were obliged to share its fruits, especially with the poor, with widows, orphans and foreigners in their midst” (Leviticus 19:9-10).
Perhaps Francis’ most challenging theological reflection for U.S. Catholics is his seeing the earth as “essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.” We are called to be faithful to our God who “created the world for everyone.”
This requires a revolution in our perspective on the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. It requires that private property be subordinate to “the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use.” He calls this “the golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.”
He asserts that “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” He concludes that “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others.”
Francis cites the New Zealand bishops who asked “what the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ means when 20 percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.”
Francis reminds us that “In the Christian understanding of the world, the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, present from the beginning: ‘All things have been created though him and for him’ (Col 1:16).”
At the end of time, the Son will deliver all things to the Father, so that God may be everything to everyone. “Thus,” he writes, “the creatures of this world no longer appear to us under merely natural guise because the risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end. The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence.”
The theological vision of Pope Francis in chapter 2 of Laudato Si’ is more practical than theoretical. His principal aim is to show that humans must care for creation as well as share its fruits with one another. He leaves to theologians the job of developing a more sophisticated cosmological vision.
This is the second of a series of columns on the chapters of Laudato Si’. The first chapter was examined in “Pope Francis: 'Facts are more important than ideas.'”
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]Learn more about our eBook collection of Thomas Reese's writings on the encyclical: Caring for Our Common Home: A Readers’ Guide and Commentary on Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment.