This next person mentioned in Pope Francis encyclical on the environment certainly comes as no surprise, and that is the person who he named his papacy after; Saint Francis of Assisi. Certainly he is the Saint most associated with nature, Saint Francis also is the patron saint of ecology. The patron of ecologists is important as ecology is not a word typically associated with the Church or Theology.
“What is ecology?” might be a good way to begin a discussion on these paragraphs of the encyclical. Ecology and environmentalism are not interchangeable terms. Ecology is a well-defined field of Biology, environmentalism is more of a political movement. Ecology is involved with the study of the relationship of an organism with its environment. It can be the relationship between an organism and its physical environment , or the relationships between organisms. One example might be a study of plant species and temperature, another might be the relationship between Lynx and Snowshoe Hare populations. The tools of the ecologist often come from other disciplines such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and economics. Ecology and Environmentalism are often confused.
Francis also was an ecologist of sorts, though his approach was not limited to either sciences, or the relationships between animals, plants and animals, or plants, animals, and the physical environment. Francis’s approach included Theology. His study was the relations of God, man, and Gods creation. It is God, man, and environment. It is not man and environment, or simply environment. God enters into the equation of ecology with Francis! He supplemented the tools of Science with those of Scripture and prayer. His view of the environment and mans relationship to that environmental was largely spiritual. For a Catholic discussion on the environment, there must be an inclusion of this saint.
Francis was an ecologist of sorts, and also an environmentalist. Note that I used the phrase “of sorts.” I would not confuse Francis with the environmental scientist, but he certainly has relevance to the modern environmentalist! If I think back on all of the secular news articles and political discussions that have taken place during the environmentalist movement, how many times is Saint Francis mentioned? How many reporters brig up his philosophy on the environment. How often is it preached. It seems natural that Pope Francis would include this saint when discussing the environment, but isn’t it odd that St. Francis is so often left out of the popular discussions of the day? It seems Catholics are left out of at least some discussions on the environment that take place in the political arena. I wonder how many environmental activists read this encyclical and noticed names such as Thoreau , Rachel Carson , and John Muir were absent ? Those are some of the names associated with a secular environmentalist. There has been one environmental movement that has been going on for a long time. In that movement there is that book by Rachel Carson, and that Ecologist Flag used by the early environmentalists of the 1970’s.Saint Francis’s version of ecology and environmentalism started centuries earlier and still operates under the Papal Flag.
Though the contemporary ecologist, environmentalist, nature-lover from both the secular and Franciscan movements might seem similar , and lines might be blurred; these are two very distinct movements. Francis’s movement is Catholic, the other is a very liberal agenda often hostile to Saint Francis’s Church. A study of the ecological relationships these two might make for fascinating reading. I suspect though that the Catholic-ecologist might face enormous pressure from the well-funded politically correct secularists. To this reader of the encyclical, maintaining the identity of a Catholic scholar of the environment is essential.
The final part of the popes discussion that caught my eye was that Saint Francis requested that a plot of land be left wild at each friary, a natural garden. Of such importance was Gods creation to the Saint. What a reminder of the splendor of Gods creation, what a reminder to simply be observant and appreciative of Gods beauty.