The two Francises model climate justice

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The Catholic Week for the Environment draws together movements that are not always seen as natural mates: the environmental movement and the Catholic Church. This week both are preaching the same message.

Pope Francis delivers a blessing from the central balcony overlooking St Peter's Square in April 2018. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)They share, too, the same challenge: to persuade people to take their message sufficiently seriously that they will demand and secure change. Both have a strong message about the crisis facing the world through global warming. The message, however, is not accepted urgently and broadly enough to lead to decisive action.

Churches have from their beginning struggled to communicate their message about salvation effectively to hearers weary of it. Their experience may also be pertinent to the challenges of addressing the environmental crisis. The approach of Pope Francis is of particular interest. He has insisted that the urgent need to care for the natural world of which we are part is not a disputed question but a Christian duty. He has appealed to the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, whose name he took when he became Pope. That link with a saint of the 13th century is worth pondering.

Francis of Assisi is popularly known best for his love of nature. It is embodied in early stories of his preaching to birds and winning over wild animals, and in the Canticle to the Sun in which delight in the beauty of the natural world is linked to his Christian faith.

His ecstatic wonder at the created world, however, was part of a broader and sharper-edged spiritual vision, expressed in his call to follow Jesus in a life of radical poverty. It led him to gather followers who shared his vision. They lived and travelled without possessions among ordinary people and so by their lifestyle commended the faith by which they lived. They spread their message primarily by a dedicated and radical communal life and only then through words.

Many Church authorities of the time saw Francis as no more than a romantic and potentially anarchic force. But Innocent III, the hard nut Pope of the time, saw in his movement possibilities of reaching the often disaffected rural poor whom the ordinary structures of the church failed to touch. The Gospel came alive when it was the Gospel for the poor and embodied in a way of living and acting.

Pope Francis has certainly embodied respect for the environment and respect for people who endure great poverty. He lives simply and reaches out to people who are poor and disadvantaged, including people who seek protection, are imprisoned, suffer from mental and physical illness, and are in great poverty. He insists that these are the first people to be affected by climate change. His advocacy is centrally though symbolic gestures that draw their power from his authenticity.

 

"The danger both in the Catholic Church and in environmental movements is that they will ask only 'how' questions, without asking the deeper questions about what matters and who matters."

 

This Franciscan style is certainly pertinent to the challenges facing the Catholic Church today and perhaps also to environmental movements. One of the questions for discussion in the Plenary Council asks how God is calling Catholics to be a Christ-centred Church in Australia that is missionary and evangelising. Or, in simpler terms, how to share the faith they own.

The danger both in the Catholic Church and in environmental movements is that, in considering the communication of their message, they will ask only 'how' questions, without asking the deeper questions about what matters and who matters. They will then focus on the training of communicators, technologies of communication, distribution of resources and assessment of institutional priorities.

The people with whom they try to communicate will then be seen, not as faces of people with their own distinctive lives, gifts and longings, but as faceless audiences, categories and objects.

The alternative way, that of the two Francises, is to focus on the people who matter and to go out to them empty-handed as fellow human beings who matter and to trust that the unspoken power of one's message will communicate itself through the joy it gives us. In the Catholic Church that means reaching out to accompany people who are disrespected, disadvantaged and despised — people who seek protection, suffer from mental illness, are imprisoned and are unemployed, for example. These are the people to whom Jesus came and must be the Church's people too if preaching and teaching are to have any credibility.

This may have some pertinence for the environmental movement, too. When asking how to persuade people of the message they might first return to ask what matters and who matters. The answer is surely that the future of the world matters, and that all human beings matter, particularly the poorest who are the most at risk. The task will be to go out to accompany them so that their voice is heard.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, climate change, Covering Climate Now

 

 

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Existing comments

I don't want to make too much of a fuss of your writing, Andy. However, there's a gentleness to your writing that conveys great strength. The two Francis' are powerful models of humility and this does unsettle institutionalised power. In pondering the nature of salvation, reflection about Jesus' mission to reach all people who stood in such need should lead us to the premise that the outsiders, the disengaged and disadvantaged were naturally drawn to this promise, thus showing the way to the more socially 'acceptable' and significant people in the community. A great model for church and the environmental movement.
Pam | 18 September 2019


I think climate change and poverty are the greatest challenges the world faces today, and they are interlinked. The world's poor have done the least to cause climate change and they will be those most adversely affected. Pope Francis sets a great example on both these issues. Some Catholics, clerical and lay, follow this example well, but sadly many do not. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see the truth!
Grant Allen | 19 September 2019


Pope Francis might have to step carefully in St Francis of Assisi's footsteps in today's world. To emulate the Saint he would be living in isolation, existing on an inadequate diet and talking to the local flora and fauna for social interaction. Such could well find him in the care of social services concerned with his homelessness, physical emaciation and potential psychiatric infirmity.
john frawley | 19 September 2019


Bullseye, John Frawley! - an idea succinctly explored in Ray Bradbury's short story, "The Pedestrian."
John RD | 20 September 2019


I think of Pope Francis and his papal jet winging here and there in the romantic hope of some kind of evangelical trickle down effect. But as John Frawley intimates, it's not the time for romanticism. With or without the pope people on the ground have to continue to read the signs of their times and identify with some kind of project that touches at least some of those whose humanity is denied in any way. "Si vis magnus, incipe a minimo", if you wish to achieve begin by chipping away in your immediate context. I am more and more convinced of the wisdom of the Gospel's image of 2s and 3s gathering in Jesus' name. In an irreversible entropic world small is beautifully practical, to nuance Schumacher.
Noel McMaster | 20 September 2019


A well articulated challenge to all who seek to respond to the Gospel call - well put, Andy, and thank you: 'The alternative way, that of the two Francises, is to focus on the people who matter and to go out to them empty-handed as fellow human beings who matter and to trust that the unspoken power of one's message will communicate itself through the joy it gives us. In the Catholic Church that means reaching out to accompany people who are disrespected, disadvantaged and despised — people who seek protection, suffer from mental illness, are imprisoned and are unemployed, for example. These are the people to whom Jesus came and must be the Church's people too if preaching and teaching are to have any credibility.'
Denis Fitzgerald | 20 September 2019


Thank you Andy for a thoughtful essay. I believe that Pope Francis is genuine in his desire to help the disadvantaged, however the Church has a lot of historical baggage to jettison. In past times earthly life was seen as simply a painful journey to the eternal bliss of heaven, particularly for the majority of humankind who were poor and powerless. Meanwhile the wealthy lived it up, including many of the princes of the church, bishops, cardinals etc. With the revolutionary changes in society, many people, at least in the West, today live a very comfortable existence at the expense of the natural environment which we pillage and exploit. Where does the Church stand today? What does it teach us about "Stewardship of God's Creation"? I have to say with the exception of Francis, very silent. I attended the Rally for Climate Change in Canberra yesterday . I was very moved by the passion of the young speakers and the elegance of their speeches. However the theme seemed to be more about loss of the good life than the death of the Planet. Did they think of the consequences for the poor of the world, who will be overwhelmingly affected. It did not seem evident.
Gavin A O'Brien | 21 September 2019


"This may have some pertinence for the environmental movement, too. When asking how to persuade people of the message they might first return to ask what matters and who matters. The answer is surely that the future of the world matters, and that all human beings matter, particularly the poorest who are the most at risk. The task will be to go out to accompany them so that their voice is heard." I have been an environmentalist for about twice as long as I was a church-goer. So I respond to the above quote as a committed environmentalist who knows the church from the inside. I am astounded beyond belief that you think, as a churchman, you have something to say to environmentalists that we have not always known and to which we have not always been committed. "...The answer is surely that the future of the world matters, and that all human beings matter..." Only because this is Eureka Street and not Medium, I refrain from inserting the three capital letters of an oft used phrase at this point. Excuse me for putting it this way, but where were you people when we were chaining ourselves to bulldozers at Terania Creek?
Paul Smith | 24 September 2019


The "you people" to whom you refer, Paul Smith, were probably dealing with their fellow human beings through nursing and caring for the sick, feeding and clothing the homeless and the poor, and championing the downtrodden in their battles with bureaucracy - all immediately demanding and requiring immediate action. Their works were essential. Your work/protest was also necessary but probably not as important as the immediacy of action required by the "you people".
john frawley | 25 September 2019


Well, Mr Smith knows more about the environment than the rest of us, so there's nothing we christians can contribute. Except that, from a spiritual perspective, there is something more to the environment than the matter of the universe. We believe that the universe and all that is, is the incarnation of God's Self. So we do add a little more weight to the notion of our duty in respecting our environment.
Patrick Mahony | 25 September 2019


Paul Smith, personally I'm very grateful for Christian poets' like Gerard Manley Hopkins's writings that enhance our awareness and appreciation of God's creation and our environment ("God's Grandeur", "Pied Beauty", for instance) - and especially for the hopeful mood they engender.
John RD | 26 September 2019


Pope Francis exhorts us to respect the environment. To damage it is a sin. A noble sentiment. Francis of Assissi wrote the canticle of Brother Sun and Sister moon. Its underlying theme is thanks for the generosity of God in the physical abundance of nature's gifts our planet provides. Whether Francis message will get through to our politicians though is a moot point. We can propose many practical solutions to CO2 emissions and water collection, global warming, rising sea levels, drought, bore drilling, but if none these are implemented by our political masters then are we wasting our time? As for poverty and the homeless, Scomo puts the brakes on Newstart and rushes to give $150 m to the USA space program for Mars seemingly oblivious to the concept that charity begins at home. The Vatican bank controls $8 billion in assets. The catholic church controls $30 billion in assets in Australia. There is always the question of the haves and the have nots. Whilst Rome has yet to clean up its own abuse scandal the very victims of the perpetrators become the most disadvantaged suffering from the ills described in Denis Fitzgerald's comment. Meanwhile Commensoli buys a fine summerhouse.
francis Armstrong | 27 September 2019


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