Copies of the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ at its launch in 2015. Credit: Demotix/Daniele Cataldi. All rights reserved.
Usually, letters written by a pope to all members of the Catholic Church seldom interest the broader community. But Pope Francis has been making headline news throughout his papacy as a result of his encyclicals, especially Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to you”), his letter on ecological issues that was released on June 18th 2015.
Greeted with affirmation by those already in the process of ‘ecological conversion’—a radical turning towards the importance of all creation—and vilified by those who disagree with the Pope on climate change and other issues, this encyclical has much of value to say to the whole human community.
Yet there is something missing from Laudato Si’ that undermines both the Pope’s position on ecology and the likelihood that his call to action will be heeded by the broader public: the position of women, and the inter-relationships between gender and the environment.
Pope Francis has called for more women to have leadership positions in society and the Catholic Church, and in 2014 he named five women to the International Theological Commission which advises the Vatican on doctrinal issues. But lamentably he called them “strawberries on the cake.” He has not yet appointed women to major leadership positions because women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church.
More broadly, the Catholic Church’s position on equality, sexuality and women’s rights is often seen as the Achilles heel of a meaningful commitment to social and environmental justice: only when ecology is integrated with feminism can this commitment be realized in practice. This is what ecofeminism aims to do.
“Ecofeminism”—a word first coined as ecofeminisme by the French feminist Francois d’Eaubonne in 1974—recognizes that “anthropocentrism” (placing humanity at the center) and “androcentrism” (seeing male human beings as the norm) have led to an ecological crisis by encouraging widespread relationships of domination and exploitation. Ecofeminists argue that the resulting oppressions of women and of nature are deeply inter-twined, because in the Christian tradition, the text of the Book of Genesis has been interpreted in patriarchal terms.
Patriarchy is based on the double oppression of women as those who are ‘created second’ in the language of Genesis, and of nature which is to be ‘dominated by man.’ It’s crucial to understand the power of this double oppression in underpinning gender inequality and environmental degradation. Thus, progress in solving ecological problems can only be made if they include an ecofeminist perspective. The goal of ecofeminism is the radical transformation of consciousness—of how we as human beings view ourselves, our relationships with others, and the earth itself.
The edition of Laudato Si’ which I use does include an index, but only two women are listed: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and St Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th century French Carmelite nun. There is no mention at all of “ecofeminism,” “gender” or even “women.” But the encyclical is friendly to many ecofeminist concerns. For example, it emphasises the unity of all creation a number of times, and states emphatically that “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.”
The document’s guiding perspective is the “common good” of all of humanity, which “is the unifying principle of social ethics.” This principle includes solidarity and a “preferential option for the poor,” which has become a notable theme of Pope Francis’s ministry. The climate itself is seen as a common good “belonging to all and meant for all.” All of creation is united because we have a “common home” which is in grave danger. The daily extinction of species is the result of human action, and therefore “thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
Everything in this critique echoes ecofeminism, which criticizes the lethal effects of hierarchical dualism—of man over nature—in even stronger terms. Nature can never be seen simply as an instrumental ‘other.’ And in fact Laudato Si’ does critique anthropocentrism and the “dominion” language in Genesis, suggesting that this oppressive understanding be replaced by the language of “responsible stewardship.”
Ecofeminism speaks to various dimensions of spirituality: the sacredness of creation which evokes respect for all living things; images such as the ‘web of life;’ and a non-dualistic interpretation of matter and spirit, body and mind, human beings and nature. The perspective of the sacredness of all of creation is echoed in the Pope’s affirmation that nature itself is a locus of divine presence, since the Spirit of God “dwells in every living creature and invites us to enter into relationship with him.” But by naming God as “him”, the text continues to symbolise God as male, when in fact God as spirit has no gender.
The encyclical also recognizes that Christian spirituality hasn’t always affirmed that “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us.” Laudato Si’ includes Pope Benedict XVI’s statement “that the external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” These ideas are also congruent with ecofeminist concerns about the ‘personal and the political.’
Both represent a call to “ecological conversion,” a radical turning away from a human-centered life to a vision of how humanity and all of creation are intimately linked together. Therefore, a concern for the earth as our only home, and action to protect it, is “not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” We only have one home, and if we don’t change our relationship with the world around us, the earth will be home to no one and nothing.
Conversion means turning away from something and turning towards something new. Ecological conversion includes new ways of being with ourselves, others and nature. These new ways of being include gratitude for the world as “God’s living gift,” recognition that “we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures but joined in a splendid universal communion,” and accepting that all creatures reflect something of God—so “how can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?” Both ecofeminism and ecological conversion call people to adopt profound life-style changes for the sake of each other and the earth.
Hence, Laudato Si’ contains much to gladden the ecofeminist heart, but it also has some serious lacunae. The first is that there is no discussion of the relationship between women and nature in Christian theology. According to Rosemary Radford Ruether, an important ecofeminist theologian, the idea that women have a special, ‘caring’ connection to nature because of their gender is deep-rooted in Western religion, but it’s also a social ideology that’s constructed by patriarchal culture to justify male domination over the environment. That’s why ecofeminism contains such transformative potential.
The encyclical does use gendered language to refer to the earth who is ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ to us. For example, it states that the “earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and mistreated of our poor.” All through the ages, Christian theology has been influenced by neo-Platonic dualism which ranks the supposedly male world of the spirit over the supposedly female world of matter. But it’s unclear whether Pope Francis is continuing this dualistic framework in his encyclical through this language or using it to recognize a deeper interconnection between gender and nature.
Secondly however, and on a much more practical level, Laudato Si’ says not a word about how women, especially poor women, experience ecological degradation on a daily basis: the collapse of eco-systems, the spread of polluted water sources, and the lack of sustainable means of cooking that force women and girl children in Africa, Asia and Latin America to walk increasing distances to find water and firewood for their families.
In both the practical and theological senses therefore, Laudato Si’ ignores the gendered dimensions of the ecological crisis. Why?One answer is that Pope Francis and his theological advisers don’t seem to read the work of women theologians, since the encyclical’s footnotes refer almost exclusively to official church documents. The voices of leading ecofeminists like Radford Reuther, Ivone Gebara from Brazil, Heather Eaton from Canada, and Elizabeth Johnson from the USA are completely missing. If the Church doesn’t study the writings of women theologians from all parts of the world, their theological reflections will always be incomplete.
The same exclusion applies to ecofeminist activists like Wangari Maathai, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her establishment of the Green Belt Movement in the 1970s. Focused on helping women to repair the damaged ecology of Kenya through tree-planting, the Green Belt Movement has helped to revolutionize attitudes towards environmental conservation, but along with other similar movements it is ignored in an encyclical that’s focused on exactly this subject.
Thoughtful readers of Laudato Si’ will notice and lament that a key document of the Catholic Church that wants to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” seems to have forgotten or marginalized the rights and voices of half of the world’s population. The Pope’s latest letter is an excellent ecological document in many ways, but it could have been so much better.