The root of “conservative” is “conserve,” which means “to keep, safeguard, look after, to protect.” So conservatives can gladly welcome Pope Francis’s words on creation care.
“If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us!” Francis declared last month to a throng of thousands crowded into St. Peter’s Square. “Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few. Creation is a gift, a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we can care for it and use it for the benefit of all.”
The pope’s comments come ahead of the first papal encyclical devoted to matters of creation care and conservation, Laudato Si (Praised Be), which will be officially released Thursday. Papal encyclicals have long been used as teaching tools to educate bishops and, by extension, the Church. But rarely has a papal encyclical garnered the ubiquitous attention that Laudato Si has.
The Guardian newspaper has called it an “explosive intervention” by Francis that “will transform climate change debate.” Scientists anticipate he will be a “key player” on climate change. Christiana Figueres, the head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, anticipates that “the encyclical is going to have a major impact.”
In a twist of etymologic irony, it’s conserv-atives who have voiced the loudest opposition to the encyclical, roundly criticizing the pope and accusing him of making a theological and moral issue of a political one.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a climate-change denier, warned, “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours.” Steve Moore, chief economist of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, stated, “Pope Francis … has allied himself with the far left and embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free.”
And former senator Rick Santorum, a Catholic and long-shot contender for the Republican presidential nomination, commented, “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”
According to a study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, most Americans (68 percent) believe climate change is an environmental issue, while 21 percent view it as a moral issue and 6 percent, a religious issue. The ambitious aim of Laudato Si is to change those numbers, illustrating why ecological responsibility is a profoundly theological issue and a cause behind which religious conservatives can enthusiastically rally.
1) Genesis 1:28 prescribes a specific way in which humans are to relate to the Earth: “Fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion …”
The clash between the two sides on how the Earth ought to be treated boil down to two words: subdue and dominion. The Hebrew words kabash, rendered “subdue” means to “trample, tread down,” and radah, translated “dominion” means “to rule,” which might lend credence to the view that the Earth’s resources are ours to plunder according to our appetites.
Yet, these words are most often used in the Old Testament in regards to military enemies, and since the Earth is not an enemy, a proper understanding of “radah” in this case isn’t “to use at your will” but, rather, “to steward.” Stewardship uses power to promote the well-being of that which is cared for — in this case, the environment. It does not grant license to exploit the Earth and its resources for commercial enterprises.
And in Genesis 2:15, we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it.” The word translated “cultivate” is abad, which means “to serve, to dress, cultivate, or tend”, while the word translated “keep” is shamar, meaning “bodyguard, watch, preserve.” According to the Scriptures, we are the guardians of the Earth.
2) Commercial exploitation of the environment directly affects the world’s poorest.
In the Peruvian Amazon, for instance, bites from mosquitoes carrying malaria are 300 times as likely in the deforested areas as opposed to areas where the forest has been left intact.
While developed countries have the resources to combat the ill effects of environmental pollution, such as death and disability, poorer countries have no safeguards against such ills. So important is advocacy for the poor that the Scriptures equate it to knowing God: “He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?”
3) Ecological responsibility is a theological issue because it is, fundamentally, an issue of character.
Have we oriented ourselves to be other-centered, to self-sacrificially lay down our desires so that others, in the future, will have clean air and fresh ground to till? Can we learn to rein in our appetites, taking only what we need, so that others will have more? Can we be mindful of the enormous issue of food waste in Western culture (35 million tons of food is tossed in the United States alone, and a full third of produce is wasted because it doesn’t meet “beauty standards”).
Francis is not the first religious leader to make the case that ecological responsibility is a theological issue, but he’s the one with the loudest, largest pulpit.
Evangelicals for Social Action, founded by Ron Sider, has long advocated for environmental stewardship. The Evangelical Environmental Network has lobbied U.S. Congress about environmental responsibility and produced biblical materials for churches.
You don’t have to believe in global warming to understand that certain measures need to be taken to ensure the health of the planet and the poor.
You don’t have to believe in climate change to understand that we ought to tread softly, treat the Earth kindly — not because the environment is better than we are, but because we are the keepers, the guardians.
Halee Gray Scott lives in Littleton, Colo., with her husband and two daughters and tweets @hgscott.