How Pope Francis’s climate encyclical is liberating the world

June 24, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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In my life there are two things that have the effect of at least somewhat isolating me from others. The first is being a writer on climate change, peak oil, and the economic crises bound up with those modern predicaments.

The other is being a Christian environmentalist.

In the first case, my essays, as well as my social media presence, fairly well run counter to the whole of my society and culture, even when a few outliers add concurring thoughts to the mix.

But in the end, by writing a write a blog about what people shouldn’t do, about the things we should give up and forsake for a concept of the greater good, about the ways our habits imperil the world and especially our children and future generations, I can kind of come off like a scold even in my most mild iteration.

Even when I offer plenty of practical advice for alternatives to modern consumption the message still risks making my audience feel, “Why don’t you work harder, have less, and be more inconvenienced.” It’s a judgmental-seeming stance not exactly in line with the American “you can have it all,” ethos.

And forget about those times when I’ve lost all patience with the excuses and indifference to our shared world — then I’m sure I can be a real jerk.

By contrast, my friends who write blogs on the 40th new way to redecorate your home, the best new destination to jet off to, and the greatest products to try as a mommy blogger, are infinitely more popular and beloved than me!

I end up feeling like I stand alone, or at best with a small group of similarly-minded, possible loonies, who together are spitting into a hot and rancid wind.


As an eco-conscious Christian, my experience is not dissimilar.

While I love Christ unreservedly, and without wavering, and that relationship is the most meaningful and important in my life, still, in my life with fellow Christians and with the Church, I have found little immediate commonality on the issue of creation care.

Worse, it’s apparent to me that at some point modern Christianity made its peace with capitalism.

While the church may do myriad things to alleviate the suffering of the poor, or to intervene and counsel in countless beautiful and remarkable ways through a shared walk in faith, mainline American churches and denominations ultimately have chosen to avoid a meaningful confrontation with the inequities and abuses inimical to capitalism, including how the economy both healthfully draws from and abuses creation.

In the end, at church I may enjoy a sermon for what it is, delight in shared worship, be moved by Holy Communion, and be buoyed by the liturgical year. But the heart of what moves me as a Christian — love — is diminished in a context where the perversions of capitalism and all its fallout remain almost wholly unchallenged by church leadership both locally and on a national scale.

I also am saddened to see well-intentioned things like mission trips to far-flung locales which, simply in their airline flights, help to worsen a climate crisis for the very folks the trip purports to serve. Or church picnics whose tables groan under stacks of bottled water, paper plates, and plastic utensils.

And what about churchyard after churchyard with manicured lawns courtesy of power mowers and leaf blowers and chemical weed killers derived from petroleum?

I don’t expect the church to be perfect, and I know that the Christian family and local congregations are strengthened by the participation of all their members, myself included. But I’ve felt unwelcome in a church where compassion is overwhelmingly tipped to handing canned food out at the pantry or offering the youth group a fellowship-inspired pool party while not extending its daily mission to a broader and deeper care for God’s creation, which is so gravely threatened today.

Part of the problem is leadership.

In the past, the church was willing to differ from secular society and even to criticize it when necessary. Of course, the church wasn’t always right — anyone who values science can’t forget that. But at least the church offered leadership. Today, the church too often seems too enmeshed in the larger culture to offer much critique of capitalism for fear of endangering the building fund, as Christian ecologist Wendell Berry has pointed out.

This is not to say that churches do nothing. But in spite of amazing organizations like Interfaith Power and Light, one would be hard pressed to say that vibrant, active creation care is at the center of church life today.

Outside of the church, since we live in a more broadly secular and desacralized America, culturally speaking, it’s also not easy to start yapping about creation care to your humanist buddies, your secular pals, or even your lefty treehugger cohorts, most of whom don’t welcome a “Wanna rap about God’s creation?” opener.

In that context, even unashamed of the gospel, and willing to use terms like “creation care” openly, a believer who’s also an ecologist often opens herself to being dismissed by secular greens as a superstitious religious nut who wants to impose religion on nature, a subject that to them has plenty of science on its side and doesn’t need any help from faith, thank you very much.

All that is why I find myself so lonely these days, even while loving both God and the earth.

An affirmation

Thus, for me, it’s difficult to overstate the significance of Pope Francis’s highly anticipated encyclical letter Laudato si’:  On Care for our Common Home, which was released in mid-June.

I’m not a Catholic with a big “C.” But even as a Methodist, I have looked to all of the popes for guidance and especially for deeply contemplative theological writings, the depth of which I am drawn to for spiritual nourishment.

This encyclical, like many before it, has inspired a range of emotions and a stirring of heart. These are not likely to be diminished anytime soon as I plumb the depths of these writings wearing hats of both science and faith — as a peak oil and climate writer on the one hand, and as a Christian on the other, and uniting the two as well.

Though I am only halfway through the encyclical (and have also quickly scanned the rest of it), I feel in its words the marked power of societal, spiritual, and intellectual liberation. I agree with many commentators that the pope’s letter will be a game-changer in the global, national, and even local conversations on climate, consumption, and lifestyle.

Because the pope’s encyclical is driven above all things by one unmistakable force — love — and the reconciliation of that love in a vastly complex context that includes the whole of creation, even when he is noting the failings of human love to act in accord with what that love will really demand of us, he opens the climate and consumption conversation to something that it has at least somewhat lacked in the past, namely the reassertion of morality.

Without a doubt, writers have pointed out the very impacts that the worst of climate change and energy shortages will overwhelmingly have on the poor, people of color, the differently-abled, children, women, tribal populations, and even the LGBT community. That concern is naturally given greater urgency when the leader of the Catholic church, indeed a world leader to all people from the Christian faith, and a venerable figure to other religions and non-believers as well, affirms that concern and seats it as God’s concern, with God, in the Christian and Catholic traditions encountered as love.

Though each of us may live in a world of love in our families, with friends, and within our faith communities, the American culture as a whole cannot possibly be depicted as one wherein love is at the center of the broader cultural experience or expectation. Perhaps it’s because we’re just too big of a country, with too many different subcultures, but we are neither taught as citizens to dwell in a state of agape — unconditional love for all — nor do we expect to be received in that state by the American tribe. This is the double-edged sword of freedom of religion, which is freedom for religion and freedom from religion.

In fact, quite the opposite of love can legitimately be said to be true in our times: that competition, a scarcity mentality, anonymity, atomization, aggressive individualism (as opposed to the natural and spiritual individuality spoken of in Laudato si’), industrialism, a consumption imperative, and the objectification of nature, people, and property stand against the social whole of humanity and the structural whole of humanity within creation.

None of this is to say anything about all the little acts of kindness, even by strangers, that happen every day. These are worthy and uplifting. But they are not an American cultural fact in the broadest sense. Rather these things happen in spite of the harder edges, self-centeredness, relentless money-chase, and sense of consumptive entitlement which are more readily apparent in American culture.

With Pope Francis reintroducing love, and its partner in morality, to a conversation about how we live and move in relation to “our shared home,” in everything we use, make, consume; in how and why we work; in what we produce and its effects, he has created space for a radical resacralization of our earthly home, a resanctification of earth through the “prayer” of the “word,” of this encyclical. Indeed it is an invitation to re-ensoul creation and so see all creation in its fullness.

I realize that such talk can prove cumbersome for nonbelievers. The place for reconciliation there, in my view, is that eco-believers and secular environmentalists want the same things — for the earth and her creatures, including us, to be treated with dignity, care, balance, devotion, and yes, even love. Getting religious people to that table, Christians especially, after many years where a hidden capitulation to capitalism, or at least it’s unchallenged state, has dominated culture, is in itself a liberating move, a sign of progress, and the freshest wind yet for a vastly troubled planet and her people.

At the same time, introducing an ensouled and shared love to a conversation too often driven by an utterly demystified science and technology requires movement on the part of the climate activists and analysts. Pope Francis’s encyclical is not just cause for those factions to fist pump and claim victory that the pope is “on the side of science,” alone. What he is offering, and what the deep reconciliation alluded to in his writing requires, is nothing less than viewing our times and our shared conditions with a vastly deeper lens than mere winners and losers, who’s up and who’ll get shown up.

This is new territory for the world today and must be allowed to realize its fullness.

Living into Laudato si’

It’s even new territory for me because with creation care and love for the earth being at the center of my own life’s purpose, I feel at least somewhat validated to know that one of the most important Christian leaders of our times agrees. It’s like, beyond what the voice of Christ affirms to me from within, that from without, in the broader world, the voice of the church is saying to me not only that maybe I’m not actually crazy for caring about this, but that caring about it — in both word and in deed — it is exactly what we’re all supposed to be doing.

Thank you Pope Francis!

Over the coming weeks and perhaps months, I’ll be writing on this encyclical piece-by-piece to illumine in my own way what I’m finding in it, especially for me the liberating feeling of being able to more openly address creation care (or earth care if you prefer), through my lens as a Christian.

I’ve needed to be freed of mental and cultural shackles which, through the triumph of a scientistic world view, have essentially disallowed a place for God, the divine, the mysterious, the naturally sacred, in these conversations. I admit that I’ve been intimidated to speak up in the spiritual context because of the implicit devaluing of the sacred in contemporary American culture. This has caused me to miss one of the most powerful avenues for exploring, uplifting, and deepening the conversation on how we steward our shared home.

Feeling that liberation now, a gift from Pope Francis’s powerful words, I delight and relish in the opportunity to analyze and comment on this document and to bring to it my two hats, one as an established climate and energy blogger, and the other in my deep devotion to Christ and my overflowing love for God’s creation.

I hope you’ll follow me on this journey, add your own comments, and share the pieces using #PopeEncyclicalSeries.

— Lindsay Curren

Lindsay Curren

Lindsay Curren is Editor-in-Chief of Transition Voice, the online magazine on peak oil. She also writes Lindsay's List, the women's conservation blog. She's the co-founder of Transition Staunton Augusta for which she leads a community garden. Lindsay is the mother of two daughters.

Tags: Christianity, Pope Francis