Will the Pope Change Our Minds About the Environment?

francisThe first time I heard the hymn All Creatures of Our God and King was at a small Southern Baptist church when I was fairly young. I do not remember my first time hearing most songs, but this one struck me because of its focus on nature and especially its verse that addresses “Mother Earth.”

Dear Mother Earth, who day by day

Unfoldest blessings on our way.

O praise Him! Alleluia!

The flowers and the fruits that in thee grow,

Let them His glory also show.

All Creatures of Our God and King was not sung often in the circles in which I was raised. The hymn is based on a poem written by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1225, originally called Cantico di fratre sole. This is translated Canticle of the Sun and is derived from Psalm 148.

Conservative Christianity at the end of the 20th century was quite averse to placing too much glory on the nature. This was the period when Captain Planet was telling us to stop polluting the earth, Fern Gully was trying to teach us to preserve the rain-forests, and Leonard Nimoy wanted us to save the whales (Star Trek IV). Much of Western Christianity responded negatively (following the lead of the Republican Party) to this emerging emphasis on conservation, recycling, and climate change. Efforts to save the rain-forest, curb pollution, and clean up waterways were often characterized as, at best, a waste of time, and, at worst, idolatrous and pagan worship of the earth. In a Sunday morning sermon in 2007 Jerry Falwell said, “If I decide here as the pastor and our deacons decide that we’re going to get caught up in the global warming thing, we’re not going to be able to reach the masses of souls for Christ, because our attention will be elsewhere.”

So when I heard St. Francis speak of Mother Earth, Brother Sun, and Sister Moon, I could not help but assume that this song was promoting erroneous theology. My understanding was that those who spoke of Mother Earth did so in order to deny the existence of Creator God. I assumed that the Christian’s responsibility was to rescue people from this dying world so they could one day spend eternity in heaven. This type of Christian worldview says the earth is temporary, therefore, attempting to preserve it is a waste of our time and effort that would be better spent saving people from this fallen world.

A recent project by Josh Rosenau, of the National Center for Science Eduation, and a study soon to be published in Social Science Quarterly reveal that this perspective still dominates much of religion in America. Rosenau used the information from the 2007 Pew study on religion in America and charted an indisputable correlation between conservative religious belief and a lack of concern for the environment. You can see his article here.

The results of a more detailed academic study, by Matthew Arbuckle and David Konisky, have been published in May 2015 as “The Role of Religion in Environmental Attitudes.” The findings of the study are very similar to that of Josh Rosenau: more religiously conservative Americans are less concerned about the environment.

For those of us who have been involved with conservative churches these findings are not revelatory. Whether it is is because of ideas about subduing the earth (taken from the book of Genesis), apocalyptic end-times theology (taken from the book of Revelation), or its marriage to conservative politics, much of the religious culture in America has actively opposed care for the environment.

We remember Saint Francis of Assisi as one who saw God in nature and cared very much for all of creation. He is often portrayed surrounded by animals. Francis’ poem Canticle of the Sun contains much more metaphorical language than is included in All Creatures of Our God and King. The poem shows humanity’s connections to creation by speaking of of Brother Wind, Sister Water, and Brother Fire. Francis is not deifying nature. He is encouraging us to see God in nature, and to serve God as we interact with creation. The phrase “Laudato Sii” is used over and over in Francis’ song. This means “be praised” and is used as Francis implores all creation to praise God just as the psalmist does in Psalm 148.

Praise him, sun and moon;

praise him, all you shining stars!

Praise him, you highest heavens,

and you waters above the heavens

The phrase Laudato Sii is now being borrowed from St. Francis by Pope Francis as the title of his encyclical letter on environmental issues. An encyclical letter is one of a pope’s most important teachings. Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment is highly anticipated and is expected to be released in the middle of June. This document will likely affect the attitudes of both Catholics and Protestants regarding environmental issues. Because of Pope Francis’ record regarding issues of science, the environment, and justice, it is expected that he will endorse addressing global, environmental issues including climate change.

While Protestant Christians are not subject to the authority of the Pope, many Protestants have come to have great admiration and respect for Pope Francis. He seems to truly be an example of Christ. Perhaps a little push from Pope Francis is what religious people need to begin to care more about God’s creation. Perhaps we will, as Francis Schaeffer did in 1970, become people who advocate for defending all creation.

The Christian is a man who has a reason for dealing with each created thing on a high level of respect.                –Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man

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