A Radical Pagan Pope?

Last week, Pope Francis’ much-anticipated environmental encyclical was published. As was expected, the Pope acknowledged the “human origins of the ecological crisis” (¶ 101), specifically that global warming is mostly due to the concentration of greenhouse gases which are released “mainly” as a result of human activity (¶ 23). And he called for the progressive replacement “without delay” of technologies that use fossil fuels. (¶ 165)

The Pope and small-p “paganism”

Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic
Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic

Even before Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical was published, critics were calling the Pope a “pagan”. This isn’t all that surprising given how the religious right has always accused environmentalists of “paganism”. And indeed there are some similarities between the Pope’s statement and contemporary Pagan discourse. For example, in the encyclical, the Pope personifies the earth, calling the the earth “Sister” (¶¶ 1, 2, 53) and “Mother” (¶¶ 1, 92). However, this language is drawn from a Christian, not a pagan, source: St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures”. And Pope Francis makes a point of saying that he is not “divinizing” the earth. (¶ 90) Instead, his intent is to emphasize the “fraternal” nature of our relationship with the earth and its inhabitants, both human and other-than, which he says have their own intrinsic value independent of their usefulness to us. (¶ 140)

Some of the language from the Pope’s statement resembled language in “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” For example, no less than 8 times throughout the encyclical, the Pope observes that “everything is interconnected” (¶¶ 16, 42, 70, 91, 111, 117, 138), a fact which, he says, “cannot be emphasized enough” (¶ 138). Similarly, the Pagan statement begins by recognizing our interconnectedness with the web of life:

“In recent decades, many contemporary Pagan religious traditions have stressed humanity’s interconnectivity with the rest of the natural world. Many of our ancestors realized what has now been supported by the scientific method and our expanding knowledge of the universe — that Earth’s biosphere may be understood as a single ecosystem and that all life on Earth is interconnected.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”

The Pope also observes that we are inherently part of the earth: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (¶ 139) The Pope introduces the encyclical with the observation that “our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” (¶ 2) This also resembles very closely language in the Pagan statement:

“We are earth, with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus making up our bodies one day, and incorporated into mountains the next. We are air, giving food to the trees and grasses when we exhale, and breathing in their gift of free oxygen with each breath. We are fire, burning the energy of the Sun, captured and given to us by plants. We are water, with the oceans flowing in our veins and the same water that nourished the dinosaurs within our cells.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.”

However, this does not make the Pope “pagan” (much less a “Pagan”). As Pagan Studies scholar Michael York explains, “even though such world religions as Christianity and Islam might cherish nature as a divine gift, they do not comprise nature religions. Instead, I argue that any religious perspective that honors the natural as the sacred itself made tangible, as immanent holiness, is pagan.” Rather, the Pope’s statements merely show how ubiquitous the idea of our interconnectedness with the earth has become. More than anything else, they are a reflection of the Pope’s acceptance of what has become scientific consensus.

Getting to the “root” of the matter: Anthropocentrism

A more interesting question than whether the Pope’s encyclical is “pagan” is the question whether the encyclical is as “radical” as some are claiming. No doubt, it is a radical challenge to capitalism (which will undoubtedly be a subject for future posts at G&R), but just how “radical” is the encyclical’s ecology? The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix or “roots”, so another way to ask that question is: Just how “deep” is the Pope’s ecology?

A truly deep ecology is one that challenges the anthropocentric paradigm which places humans hierarchically “above” other living species and above inanimate matter, which is seen to exist in some sense “for” humans. The Pope states that the encyclical is an “attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes.” (¶ 15) But while the Pope comes to many right conclusions about anthropogenic climate change and the limits of capitalism, the encyclical is nevertheless plagued by a lingering anthropocentrism which he never manages to root out.

At first glance, it appears that the Pope is critical of anthropocentrism, but a closer look reveals that he always qualifies the word “anthropocentrism” when he uses it. For instance, he criticizes “distorted” or “excessive” or “tyrannical” anthropocentrism (¶¶ 68, 69, 116), but never just plain anthropocentrism. This implies that there is such a thing as an “undistorted” anthropocentrism or a “right amount” of anthropocentrism. And this becomes clear when the Pope insists on humanity’s “pre-eminence” (¶ 90) and “superiority” (¶ 220), and when he eschews “biocentrism” (¶ 118) and declines to “put all living beings on the same level” (¶ 90).

The Pope’s justification for a qualified anthropocentrism is flawed. He argues that, in the absence of a belief in our superiority, human beings will not feel responsible for the planet. (¶ 118) It is true that human beings are “unique” in many ways among the world’s fauna, but only in so far that other forms or life are also unique in their own ways. And while it is reasonable to argue that humans have special responsibilities to the earth, due to our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs (especially considering the messes we have made with our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs), the notion that a feeling of superiority is a necessary condition for a feeling of responsibility is specious. In fact, a belief in humanity’s “superiority” can actually weaken people’s sense of ecological responsibility, just as a heightened sense of responsibility can grow out of the loss of that belief.

Papal paternalism: the Great Chain of Being

A related problem with the encyclical is the Pope’s repeated characterization of the earth or nature as “fragile.” (¶ 16, 56, 78, 90) If by “fragility” he is referring to the fact that all of our actions affect the environment or that the ecosystem is sensitive to change, then that is true. But the earth itself is not fragile. It is we — and other species — that occupy a fragile place in the ecosystem. The ecosystem itself is resilient. As “Mother Nature” says in a video from Conservation International:

“I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years
Twenty-two thousand five hundred times longer than you
I don’t really need people but people need me

… I’ve been here for aeons
I have fed species greater than you, and
I have starved species greater than you
My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests,
they all can take you or leave you
How you chose to live each day whether you regard or
disregard me doesn’t really matter to me
One way or the other your actions will determine your fate not mine
I am nature
I will go on
I am prepared to evolve

Are you?”

While he speaks of an environmental “crisis” and “irreversible damage” to the ecosystem, there is no sense in the Pope’s encyclical that human beings are facing an existential threat (in contrast to the his earlier statement in May that “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”).

The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being
The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being

This insistence on the “fragility” of nature and humankind’s “superiority” is a symptom of an implicit paternalism running throughout the encyclical. This paternalism is premised on a vision of nature as the Aristotelian “Great Chain of Being”, with God at the top, angels and humans in the middle, and (other) animals, plants, and the earth at the bottom. This arrangement places humans in same relation to the earth as God is in relation to humans — that of a powerful father to a weak child. This is why the Pope rejects “a divinization of the earth” (¶ 90), as it would effectively break the order of the Great Chain.

The Pope also repeatedly refers to the earth as God’s “gift” to humanity (¶¶ 71, 76, 93, 115, 146, 159, 220, 227), an idea which the foundation of a stewardship model of environmentalism. The idea that the earth is God’s gift to humanity first of all implies that the earth is “property” which can be gifted, which undermines the Pope’s earlier talk about humans being part of nature (¶ 2). It also perpetuates the hierarchical vision of the cosmos and implies that our responsibility to the earth derives not directly and horizontally from our “fraternity” with nature, but indirectly and vertically through our filial duty to a paternal deity. While the introductory paragraphs of the encyclical do speak of interconnectedness and fraternal responsibility (see above), ultimately the Pope never breaks out of the stewardship model of environmentalism (¶ 116), a model which has been thus far insufficiently radical to effect the “deep change” (¶ 215) which is necessary to revolutionize our collective relationship with the earth.

The same old story: Hierarchy

In 1967, professor of history Lynn White published an article in the periodical Science, entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. The article examined the influence of Christianity on humankind’s relationship with nature. White argued that the environmental decline was, at its “root”, a Christian problem. For White, the belief that the earth was a resource for human consumption could be traced back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism, and even further back to the Biblical injunction to man to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over every living thing. Medieval Christianity, according to White, elevated humankind, who was made in God’s image, and denigrated the rest of creation, which was believed to have no soul.

In his encyclical, the Pope attempts to answer White’s charge, and he makes a valiant attempt to reinterpret the Genesis “dominion” language. He rejects the notion that being created in God’s image and being given “dominion” over the earth justifies “absolute domination” over other creatures. (¶ 67) Instead, he says, a correct reading of Genesis understands that language in the context of the corresponding commands to “till and keep”, the latter word meaning “caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving”. This, he says, “implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.” (¶ 67)

In spite of this, the Pope’s qualification of the word “domination” with the word “absolute” implies again that a limited domination is justified. “We are not God,” he says. Citing scripture, the Pope says that the earth and everything in it belongs to God, and has been given to us. (¶ 67) Thus, it is not humankind’s domination of the earth that concerns the Pope, so much as humankind’s usurpation of God’s domination over everything.

This is the same old Christian story we know well, with its Great Chain of Being and the upstart human beings who don’t know their place: “a little lower than the angels” and with all the creatures of the earth “under their feet”. (Psalm 8:5-8) While arguably the Pope’s encyclical is more “theocentric” than “anthropocentric”, this turns out to be a distinction without a difference because humans are still placed above above all other forms of life (other than God and angels) in the cosmic hierarchy. Ultimately, the Pope fails to truly get to “root” of the ecological crisis, and his environmental encyclical never rises (or should we say “descends”) to the level of a truly “radical” — much less “pagan” — declaration.