I was amazed at how much I enjoyed reading Pope Francis’ statement on environmental protection that was released by the Vatican last summer. After reading it, I couldn’t help but indulging in a fantasy of sitting down with the Pope at a coffee shop for a snack and a chat. Over scones and black coffee, we could talk about global policy, how to shift the larger cultural understanding of nature, and the intersections between social class and environmental degradation. As an eco-feminist, I would offer him a perspective based in non-speciesist, anti-oppressive, coalitional politics. I imagine he would talk to me about the Earth as God’s creation, and thus deserving the utmost love and respect. Bringing the Pope and an ecofeminist together? This unexpected pairing, I think, would make for an enlightening conversation.
The Pope deemed the topic of his encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” to be of such importance, that it was addressed to “every person living on this planet.” In it, the Pope addressed a wide range of environmental problems, including pollution, water scarcity, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. He connected these to issues of poverty, resource inequality, political apathy, and materialistic lifestyles—in a more nuanced way than many American environmental groups have done. Pope Francis is deeply invested in the connection between care for the natural world and justice in the human world. His writing uncovers his desperate passion for the Earth, which is both daringly vulnerable and points to his ability for great leadership.
His declaration interjects into a long conversation within the Christian tradition over the relationship between humans and the natural world. The terms of this debate has influenced not only Christians, but American cultural more broadly. Unconsciously, maybe, we have come to believe in our rightful dominion over the Earth. American Christians have often highlighted one line of scripture to argue for God’s prescribed relationship between humans and the Earth. In Genesis (1:26), God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Many have interpreted this to mean that humans are intrinsically, hierarchically above non-human animals, and by extension, the earth (for non-human animals and the earth are seen as similar resources in their bountiful yet passive states). The notion of God-given dominion over the Earth has been the underlying logic to justify exploitation and general disinterest in the wellbeing of the Earth. Explicitly, dominion has been used as an excuse and even a blessing for violence against the natural world.
Pope Francis asks for not only a rejection of the hegemonic conception of our relationship to nature, but also an acceptance of an inverse understanding of nature itself.
Pope Francis argues this need not be so! Throughout the encyclical, he aggressively contests and asks Christians to “forcefully reject” ideas of dominion. He argues, instead, for a less anthropomorphic, more empathetic perspective on our relationship with the Earth. He focuses on the Biblical quote asking us to “till and keep the garden of the world.” (Gen 2:15) He further explains, “‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.” Thus, he asks for not only a rejection of the hegemonic conception of our relationship to nature, but also an acceptance of an inverse understanding of nature itself. He place nature in the position of a subject capable of having responsibility and deserving care.
This quest to reimagine the conventional relationship between humans and nature is not limited to the Papal Encyclical. It is also one of the underlying principals of ecofeminist thought and literature. While framed differently, ecofeminism is dedicated to addressing the connection between the abuse of human and non-human life, and the physical and social structures that perpetuate those abuses.
Ecofeminism is the belief that there are parallel systems of oppression and exploitation between the Earth, women, and (I would add) all oppressed people. There is a shared framework at use to position these groups as objects to disregard, which works on ideas of ownership, objectification, and naturalized hierarchy. This exploitative mindset necessitates naturalized hierarchy—man/woman, human/nature, and so on—to create fixed delineations of powerful/powerless, so as to more easily objectify and exploit. To understand that these forcibly naturalized definitions are based in socially constructed categories—would be to recognize our past and present exploitations as unjustified, and inhumane. In place of these oppressive systems, ecofeminists advocate for a total reimagining of power, an uprooting of patriarchy and anthropocentrism, to be replaced with a system of universal care. Ecofeminists argue that we are all animals and the wide range in physical and cognitive skills within the animal world, is simply the diversity of life. We are bereft of any measure of superiority; however, we deem ourselves King, because with this assumption, we can justify the exploitation of others. Thus, a critique of dominion is at the heart of eco-feminist thought. Defined as the outcome of oppressive imbalanced power structures, dominion becomes the singular structure that ecofeminists seek to abolish.
With this in mind, it seems the Pope is an ally to ecofeminist thought. But he is an ally who does much more than vaguely understanding a misrepresentation of the underlying thought of ecofeminism but rather actively works for the cause. I would argue that, in fact, the Pope presents a true interjection in ecofeminist thought. Though it may be imperfect, his encylical works to create a more just and eco-feminist world.
To start, his consistent use of the word dominion puts humans and the earth into conversation with one another, in a way that undermines exploitation as a unilateral phenomenon. Instead, it provides a way to easily hold these two groups, humans and non-humans, in one’s mind simultaneously, and more easily see their connection through a singular structure. Further, this word is necessary for these two entities are so disentangled in the American consciousness—thus opening the opportunity to accept these parallel structures, simply through its linguistic duality. The Pope uses it very liberally, and thus, the subject, and the word, is cited again and again in popular media as a main aspect of the Papal Encyclical.
While class is importantly referenced several times, neither gender nor race is ever mentioned. One cannot have a robust ecofeminist or environmental justice analysis without critically engaging race.
The reach of the Pope’s public is the stuff of ecofeminist dreams. Though it doesn’t have the ecofeminist name on it, nor is it their exact content—having human and environmental exploitation be publicly decried, in a way that weaves them together, is some of the best publicity the movement could ask for. This particular Pope has been enormously visible, in his decision to pardon gays and women who have had abortions; his statements are circulated widely, and this statement was not an exception. Ecofeminist literature gains little traction outside of ecofeminist circles, but the Pope has the ear of the world. In his section on Environmental, Economic, and Social Ecology, he says, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” Simply to have this line in the public consciousness is a victory for ecofeminists.
This is not to say that his statement was perfect or even closely aligned with the nuances of ecofeminist thought. While he questions anthropocentrism, he still holds to nature’s inferiority. He notes that there is a large gap between God and non-humans, and that forgetting this “would not be doing the creatures themselves any good either, for we would be failing to acknowledge their right and proper place. We would end up unduly demanding of them something which they, in their smallness, cannot give us.” Though this sentiment is not repeated often throughout his statement, it still relies on naturalized and God-given hierarchies, and belittles the importance and power of the non-human. Following these logics, he never questions the killing and eating of animals or animal byproducts. Further, he never mentions women outside the context of “men and women.” Patriarchy is never addressed. While class is importantly referenced several times, neither gender nor race is ever mentioned. One cannot have a robust ecofeminist or environmental justice analysis without critically engaging race, and much of ecofeminist is contingent upon a gendered analysis. Thus, I would not call the Pope, himself, an ecofeminist.
However, a person who is not explicitly part of this movement can still do work that helps ecofeminism. While I would never advocate for blindly accepting incomplete or detrimental arguments for the bigger picture, the problems of the encyclical do not discredit its important contributions to global environmental and social justice dialogue. The Pope has introduced a fundamental logic of ecofeminism—that environmental and human dominion are connected—into the modern psyche. Especially when one considers that so much of the current environmental subordination rhetoric was born from Christian thought, there is real power in someone in high regard in the Church questioning this line of thinking. I do not deny that his statement is riddled with problems, but I think his critique of dominion is one of the more widely spread ecofeminist arguments there has been and may ever be. I believe he deserves our thanks.
I imagine leaving my coffee shop date with the Pope on an ambiguous note. What an honor and privilege to have met and spoken with him! But also I believe I would be left with quietly uncomfortable feeling of having found alliance with a surprising peer, and though I would disagree with how he came to our shared opinion, I appreciate and respect his advocacy on its behalf. Though imperfect, there is beauty in the Pope having and publicizing ecofeminist thought, and we can only imagine how this action with flower with time and care.
Meredith Glaubach is a junior at Rice University, majoring in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and minoring in Environmental Studies.
Image from Flickr via Kim Seng.