In a month or so we should all be reading Francis’s first encyclical, which will be about the environment. Already quite a few people are getting excited about this matter. Will the Pope “endorse” the concept of anthropogenic global warming? Will this mean some sort of back-door entry to the idea that population control is a good thing? Will the encyclical, his first, become hugely dated very quickly, and provide us all with another Galileo moment?
It is somewhat unusual that the Pope’s first encyclical should be on the environment, and the subject is not without problems, as I have noted before. That the Holy Father should address ecological matters before all others seems to feed in to the narrative that the environment is our number one priority, given that if we no longer have a planet, all our other problems will be irrelevant.
In fact, that sort of assertion does not seem reasonable. There is no overwhelming proof that the planet is facing ecological Armageddon. But at the same time, ecological concerns are real, and given that they have never been addressed in an encyclical, it seems reasonable to do so now.
Moreover, the encyclical will deal with a wide range of ecological matters, not just climate change. It is surely a mistake to reduce environmental concerns to climate change alone. Nor is it the case that caring for the environment necessarily implies a belief in global population reduction.
What needs to be reduced is not the population as such, but the way a small section of the world’s population is addicted to over-consumption. There are plenty of resources to go round on the planet – as long as they are shared out fairly and reasonably, and as long as we can give up our reliance on various commodities that represent a poor return for the damage their extraction or cultivation does to the environment.
My hope for the encyclical is a very simple one: that it is in continuity with the teaching of all the popes before this one, and all the saints as well. I reckon there will be something in it on St Francis and the correct love of nature that should move us all: we need to remember that St Francis’s approach to nature was rather different to that of Wordsworth and the Romantics.
Moreover, a proper love of Creation is firmly rooted in the Bible, in the Psalms and in the Book of Genesis, in particular. It is also to be found in the Gospels. But it goes deeper than that: the proper love of nature consists in a proper relationship between God, human beings and the created environment. You cannot exalt the environment at the expense of God and humanity. That is why to promote human ecology is also to promote the proper dignity of nature.
It is correct to speak these days of the “rape of the environment”, but this only comes about through human malignancy. And the rape of the environment goes hand in hand with the rape of human beings and the annihilation of their rights. Conversely, a world in which people are valued and where their God-given rights are held sacred will be a world in which nature too is treasured, as humanity’s proper setting, and something beautiful in itself. If you look at the world’s least environmentally friendly countries today, you will discover that they are by and large the countries where human rights are most commonly violated.
Quite a few self-proclaimed Greens may be looking forward to this encyclical, seeing it as the Pope coming out on their side. I think, however, they are destined to get more than they bargained for.