"Sister Earth Cries Out": Did Pope Francis Just Proclaim an Eco-Feminist Theology?

06/18/2015 11:50 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

Pope Francis begins his much anticipated encyclical on climate change, Laudato si' with the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, Praising God and our "Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us."

Using feminine pronouns and images for the earth does not signal an eco-feminist theological influence; in fact, it can signal the reverse. Yet, Pope Francis goes on to explicitly reject theologies that authorize "dominion" by human beings over the earth. This is a start.

Many eco-feminist theologians, and particularly Rosemary Radford Ruether, herself a Catholic, have repeatedly said a theology of domination over a feminized earth is one of the ways eco-catastrophe has been facilitated. Ruether has said, "Domination of women has provided a key link, both socially and symbolically, to the domination of earth, hence the tendency in patriarchal cultures to link women with earth, matter, and nature, while identifying males with sky, intellect, and transcendent spirit."

That insight by Ruether, therefore, highlights the importance of what comes immediately after the "Sister, Mother Earth" language in Laudato si'. The Pope rejects the idea that human beings are entitled to dominate the earth as its "lords and masters". "This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will." And this domination, the Pope argues, has resulted in widespread environmental degradation, the "sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life."

Now, it must be emphasized that feminizing of the earth as "sister" as well as "mother" has often been the legacy of the spirit/matter dualism Western culture inherited from the Greeks, where nature is feminine and spirit is masculine, as Ruether has often pointed out. More than forty years ago (1975) in ‪New Woman, New Earth‬: ‪Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation‬, Ruether made explicit connections between ecological destruction and hierarchical dominion in religion and culture. The earth and women are identified in this tradition, and, along with race and economic hierarchies, subordinated to patriarchal control that manifests itself in domination and exploitation.

It is therefore important, I think, that Pope Francis, while not abandoning the feminine language, specifically highlights this tradition of domination of a passive earth, saying it has been a big part of how we got to a place where the earth is being laid waste.

The Pope clearly knows this "dominion theology" is at the heart of the ecological crisis, and that Christian theology needs "to respond to the charge that Judeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man "dominion" over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature." The Pope says "this is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church." Actually, it has been a frequent way Christians the churches, including the Catholic Church, has interpreted this text, and actually the Pope realizes that: "nowadays 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."

It is helpful that the Pope explicitly calls for the rejection of dominionism when it comes to the relationship of human beings and the earth.

The Pope, therefore, does not adopt the theology of Creation Care as formulated in Evangelical Protestant theology. Larry Rasmussen, a leading Lutheran environmental ethicist, points out the profound dualism of humanity vis à vis nature in a "care" or "stewardship" framing. Rasmussen notes, "Is not this relationship the modern version of a master-slave ethic? And is not this the default position that clicks in when we say 'stewardship'? The ownership/control mentality is what has to change, according to Rasmussen, as environmental crisis at this point cannot be stopped and civilizational crisis is upon us. It is civilization that has to change.

Rasmussen's perspective is not far from that of Pope Francis in the Pope's identification of the "Globalization of the Technocratic Paradigm" that has wreaked so much destruction, including a "consumerist vision of human beings."

There are thus important changes in the relationship of Christianity and environmental theology that are called for in Laudate Si'. Yet, the deeper implications of rejecting dominionism in religion are unrealized.

In order to go further in rejecting dominion, Pope Francis would have to explicitly break with the idea that inequality (rendered in gendered terms) is built into the very fabric of creation. This he does not do, as his remarks on fundamental gender differences as he strongly affirmed heterosexual marriage in the same week as this encyclical was released illustrate.

Laudato si' is clearly an important document in placing the Catholic Church squarely on the side of the human causes for accelerating climate catastrophe, and recognizing this as a crisis for all humanity and a threat to our "common home."

But the encyclical also illustrates how incredibly deep dominionism runs in Western religion and culture.

Equality of gender and sexual orientation, along with economic and cultural equality, is absolutely crucial to actually making the kinds of changes in community that will heal our relationship to one another and the planet.

The Pope acknowledges that there is a need for other "wisdom" to confront accelerating climate catastrophe. The wisdom of gender and sexual equality is essential to save our common home.