Call me crazy, but if I were a world religious leader writing a major document about ecology today — one which stresses that it is addressing every member of the human community — and if I chose to use the word "sister" fourteen times in that major document, I'd find some way, I think, to include the voices of the sisters of my own faith community in what I had to say. Say, Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich, who have a wealth of significant things to tell us about our relationship to the cosmos and the spiritual implications of that relationship . . . .
Or Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, both profoundly important spiritual theologians . . . . Or leading sister theologians and sister thinkers today who have written critically important works about these very matters, from Elizabeth Johnson to Rosemary Radford Ruether to Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza to Mary Hunt, Ivone Gebara, Teresa Forcades and on and on . . . .
Instead, Pope Francis's ground-breaking encyclical Laudato Si' is interlarded throughout with citations of one male religious authority figure after another, including Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, Saint John XXIII, Pope Benedict XVI, Saint Francis of Assisi and Blessed Charles de Foucauld, one bishops' conference after another (all men, as far as I know), theologians including Saint Basil the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Teilhard de Chardin, Romano Guardini, etc.
Laudato Si' is full of valuable reminders that the earth is sister to all of us, and that we all originate from the womb of primal Mater, who gives birth to the mater-ial world. But nowhere in the encyclical does one really hear the voice of the many sisters and mothers who, throughout the course of Catholic history and today, have fostered these significant insights, made them shine in the discourse of the church, and reminded us that we forget these insights to the peril of all of creation.
How is it possible, I ask myself, for us to hear the voice of Sister Earth, when we refuse to hear the voices of our own human sisters and our sisters in faith?
Gender, and so, implicitly, questions about gender, are everywhere in Laudato Si', as the document speaks constantly about sister-mother earth, but any questions about gender and how dynamics of power and privilege are grounded in how we view gender are addressed in this document in only the most tenuous way possible. They're addressed directly and very disappointingly in ¶ 155, the section of the encyclical that deals with the topic of "human ecology," and which offers us the stale, warmed-over analysis we heard from Francis's predecessor Benedict (and here, here, and here) when he addressed this same theme.
Here's Francis in Laudato Si' (¶ 155):
The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek "to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it" (citing Catechesis [15 April 2015]: L’Osservatore Romano, 16 April 2015, p. 8.)
This is the usual Vatican polemic against "gender ideologies" that the leaders of the Catholic church choose to misconstrue as attacks on the notion that males and females are created biologically different. It's the usual — and now very tired and increasingly unconvincing — polemic which pretends to think that, in seeking to fulfill their humanity by transcending gender roles that the men ruling the church want them to see as set in stone, women are rebelling against their bodies and against humanity. And gay people and transgender people are doing the same when they affirm their God-given nature. Not fulfilling their humanity: rebelling against it . . . .
As if throughout history, all sorts of oppressive determinations about what various bodies mean (black bodies are designed for hard manual labor and servitude, white bodies to run things) have not been imposed on those bodies by ruling elites citing nature and divine revelation as they issue their diktats about lesser, subjugated bodies . . . .
What's so deeply disappointing about Francis's analysis here, and his total silence about questions of gender and how unequal distribution of power in the world are premised on the very "natural" roles he wants to reinforce by his teaching about "human ecology," is that this analysis and the silence about gender issues undercut the very significant points that the encyclical wants to make regarding violence to the earth — and which the world community sorely needs to hear today.
From the outset, Laudato Si' is grounded in the story of Francis's namesake Francis of Assisi. We're asked as the encyclical opens to hear Brother Francis singing ecstatically about how the entire created world exists in a kinship relationship to human beings.
What the encyclical never does, but I think is critically necessary to do, is to note Francis's choice to renounce the way set before him by his father, a business leader of his community who wanted his strange son to follow in his vocational footsteps. In a dramatic public act that began his life as a mendicant and founder of a religious community, Francis stood before his father, disrobed himself, and set his clothes at the feet of his father and then went his own way.
It's clear to me, and I suspect to many others who read accounts of the life of Francis of Assisi, that what Francis was renouncing in that aboriginal act of religious vocation was more than a secular vocation, a vocational path determined for him by his father. He was quite specifically refusing the father-as-model. He was repudiating a patriarchal male way of being in the world. Francis quite deliberately chose to reject a way of being in the world that would have afforded him power and privilege as a man of consequence like his father, as someone whose consequence was grounded first and foremost in male power and privilege.
In becoming "little," a role against which men routinely rebel, in becoming the poverello, Francis opened himself up to a mystical-ecstatic communion with nature that would have been denied to him as a man of consequence. There is a very direct connection between Francis's choice to put behind him a patriachal male role model for his life, and his ability to experience the sisterhood and motherhood of the created world.
From its outset, from its opening reference to Francis of Assisi, Laudato Si' launches forth on an investigation of how the lust for power over others has damaged the world, which is curiously divorced from any analysis at all of the gender roles and relationships that Pope Francis wants us to take for granted as "nature," as the basis of healthy "human ecology" – against which we rebel at our peril.
And so as the encyclical inveighs powerfully against the human tendency to see ourselves vis-a-vis Sister Nature "as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will" (¶ 2), it never notes the glaringly obvious fact that anyone attuned to the subtext of gender in this document will want to note: someone —someone who is gendered, who presupposes gender roles grounded in the pope's notion of what is "natural" — is doing this to Sister Earth.
Who is that someone? Does he (or she) have a face? For that matter, is it possible to ask: are men or women more inclined to do violence to Sister Earth? What does the historical record have to say about this?
Who is it who sees himself (or herself) as having "the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone" (¶ 6)? Does that person have a face? Where in human history does the notion that Sister Earth is there for me to exploit, to treat violently, to rape, originate? Who pioneered this way of relating to Sister Earth? For whose benefit? And for what reasons?
Does gender, do gender roles, have nothing to do with any of this?
The idea that some people are made to be "masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs" (¶ 11) — where does that idea originate in human history? With whom does it originate? Whose interests has this idea commonly served over the course of human history? And whose interests has it ignored? Whom has it exploited?
Do these ideas of ruthless mastery and the right to exploit have faces? Are they in any way at all gendered?
Who owns the companies that produce the pollution that is threatening the existence of life on this planet? Who benefits economically from these companies? Who sits in government bodies that make the laws that protect these masters and rulers? Do these owners and lawmakers have faces? Are they gendered? Who invented the technologies that exploit the world? Who designed the exploitation, for whose benefit (¶ 21-2)?
It seems undeniably true that, as Francis tells us, "many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms" (¶ 26), but a critically important question to be asked here is, once again, who, in particular, is engaged in denialism — whose interests are being protected by climate change denial? Who works for the think-tanks spinning myths and disseminating lies about climate change? Who funds these think tanks?
Do these denialists have faces? How do these denialists vote on other issues — say, on living wages for single mothers or rights for LGBT people? With whose political interests do these denialists ally themselves on issues relating to gender and sexual orientation as well as ecological issues?
In what way is their approach to the environment rooted in what they presuppose about gender and sexual orientation and what is "natural" in those areas?
Who designed capitalism? For whose benefit? Who are the captains of industry, historically?
And how, for Pete's sake, are we going to have "a conversation [about the environment] which includes everyone" (¶ 14), when half of the human community is not even represented at the conversation table — in this encyclical itself, in the authorities it cites? And in the world at large, when authority figures almost universally have for so long ruled that the "girls" are so chained to their emotions and so constantly in danger of interrupting serious conversations by breaking into hormone-driven tears that it's useless to invite them to the table?
I agree wholeheartedly with Pope Francis when he asserts that "we require a new and universal solidarity" (¶ 14) if we're going to solve the serious problems facing the human community. But precisely how is that solidarity constructed by Catholic pastoral leaders who inform every LGBT human being in the world that his or her aspirations to live a full human life according to the nature with which God has gifted him or her is a rebellion against nature that spells disaster for human ecology and threatens the whole planet?
If "every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment" (¶ 142) and if "the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, [and] we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships" (¶ 119), how is this possible when the topic of gender roles and gender disparities is simply not on the table?
Since all sorts of violations of solidarity and all sorts of sickness in fundamental human relationships flow from the assumption of men that they have a divine right to rule women, and of heterosexual human beings that they are superior to homosexual ones . . . .
The lack of attention to gender matters — the outright refusal to discuss these as in any way connected to ecological matters — in this encyclical issues in a strangely disembodied understanding of poverty in the human community, which never once recognizes that, around the world, women are disproportionately poor. Where mastery and ruling and exploiting seem often to wear a male face, poverty wears a female face.
The poor are disproportionately women. Nowhere does the encyclical say this, despite a compelling body of evidence that this is the case. And so its sketch of "centers of power" that exploit the rest of the planet (e.g., ¶ 49) implies that the primary culpit when environmental (and economic) exploitation are under discussion is wealth — but completely ignores the faces, the gendered faces, of exploiter and exploited.
Imagine how powerful the following passage might be, if its analysis linked to discussions of gender, gender roles, and the unequal distribution of power and privilege premised on gender:
The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage ( ¶ 123).
To put the point forcefully: imagine how people around the world might perk up their ears and listen to Catholic pastoral leaders if the men running the Catholic show stopped nattering about secularism and the "culture of relativism," and started talking about the injustice of male exploitation of females, and of heterosexual cruelty towards homosexuals.
The inability to come to terms with these questions of gender is rooted in theological analysis which ignores the critically important insights and contributions of feminist biblical scholarship and feminist theology regarding ecological issues. For instance, when Pope Francis notes that "we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures" (¶ 67), he fails to note that this assertion is rooted in a significant body of feminist biblical scholarship and theological analysis — and that questions about gender and gender roles are at the very heart of the discussion of this biblical passage.
When Laudato Si' declares that "Jesus took up the biblical faith in God the Creator, emphasizing a fundamental truth: God is Father" (¶ 96), it fails to remind us that the same Jesus speaks of his desire to fold Jerusalem under his wings as a hen gathers her chicks to herself (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34)— echoing a biblical image of creation that is actually the very first image of God we encounter in Jewish scripture, in the narratives about the creation of the world.
Such citations surely ought to make us wonder about the assertion that it was absolutely central to Jesus's work as redeemer to reval that God is father. And they might also make us wonder why, if the creation narratives see the created world coming forth from a God who broods over the unformed void as a mother bird broods over her nest, the encyclical speaks of the divine creator in exclusively (and overweening) male terms (¶ 73). And why, when it reminds us that the "entire material universe speaks of God’s love" (¶ 73), it seems oblivious to the fact that the words "matter" and "material" are etymologically rooted in the word mater . . . .
Please don't misunderstand what I've written here. I welcome Laudato Si' and think it's a crucially important document. I intend to defend it, especially against the many folks (I can see their faces in my mind's eye right now: those faces have gender) who intend to lambast it for decrying the exploitation of the environment and the unbridled greed that drives this exploitation — the greed of the few pitted against the lives of the many.
But valuing a statement by a church leader, and intending to defend it, are not the same thing as pretending that said statement is flawless. If I understand the Catholic faith correctly, Catholics are called to listen in a critical, dialogic, responsive way to our church leaders — and we're called to speak back, when we think such speech is necessary, for the good of the church and its proclamation of the gospel.
That's what I'm doing here, and after only the most cursory reading of a lengthy document that I intend to read more carefully, at which time, I may have some more notes to share besides these top-of-head initial responses to Laudato Si'.
In conclusion, when Pope Francis speaks (¶ 10) of how his encyclical is grounded in the life and thought of Francis of Assisi, who embraced outcasts and moved by preference among the dregs of society, and who sang with mystical insight about his love for all of creation, I ask myself what these ideas mean for me today. Who would Francis be today? Whom would he embrace?
It's hard for me to imagine he'd do anything other than Franciscan Mychal Judge did when he responded to the question of a man dying of AIDS about whether God hated him by kissing that man, folding him in his arms, and rocking him. Francis "shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace," Laudato Si' notes.
But as the demonstrations this past week in the pope's home country of Argentina against violence towards women remind us, all of these issues cannot be adequately discussed in the world today without discussing issues of gender, of male entitlement and female subordination, and of the constantly repeated insinuation, from the leaders of the Catholic church itself, that LGBT people simply don't exist and don't count when things like poverty and injustice are discussed.
Unfortunately, Laudato Si' never gets around to such discussion — though I'm pretty sure Francis of Assisi would, if he were among us today.