Pope Francis is about to release an encyclical on climate change and the anticipation has been mixed: some foresee an environmental rallying cry to Catholics everywhere. Others find it a reprehensible caving to politics and theories. But church history makes one thing clear: if he uses language that calls for a reconsideration of the human-environment relationship, he will be standing in a long tradition of "creation care."
Take Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and now a poster-boy for Catholicism and climate change. His hymn to "brother sun" and "sister moon," "brother wind" and "sister, mother earth" speak to medieval understandings of the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world somewhat lost in a modern era.
We might also look to a more distant antecedent and one that comes from the most inhospitable of environments--namely, the Christian desert monastic tradition in late antiquity, 300-700 CE. It is in the desert literature about Christian saints that we find stories of ravens who feed the saints, saints who understand environmental sounds as voices of the divine and demonic worlds, saints who befriend lions and lions who befriend them back, and stories of the winds, waters, and earthquakes that just might have something to teach us. Take the charming story of Saint George of Choziba monastery in Wadi Qilt, located along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho: legend has it that when George was about to set out on business one day, a lion who "quietly roared" stood in his way; far from deterred, George spoke to the lion, who then opened its mouth, so that George could feel its loose teeth. A humorous story, perhaps, but one that is full of telling nuance: humans and animals can communicate through words and actions, can co-exist alongside one another in a kind of harmony, and can serve to teach one another about patience, obedience, and purpose.
We might go back even further to that most widely cited of books--Genesis and other books from the biblical corpus. Here the desert is a place of revelation and purification, temptation and testing, silence and cacophony, and a region of the human imagination and lived experience. The divine voice, after all, can speak as thunder or crashing waters, a gentle breeze or still quietness.
The passage that most often gets quoted, and misrepresented, in the climate change furor is Genesis 1:28: "God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'"
One wonders why this passage, more than any others, implicates and condemns Catholics (and by extension often Christians more broadly as well as Jews) in the area of environmental preservation and protection. How is it that this passage is singled out--in widely-cited academic essays and the popular media--as evidence of a western disregard for the environment and, by extension, the climate change? Such claims apparently ignore both how biblical interpretation works--as a never-ending process of reinvention--and the history of hundreds of years of diverse positions about the environment.
Surely it is time for a more nuanced understanding of the historical evidence for a human-animal interconnectedness and a human-animal-environmental interdependency. Pope Francis might just give it to us when he releases his encyclical in June. But we also should be cautious: neither a single individual, a single passage, nor even a single religious tradition should be regarded as the source or solution for climate change.