Pope Francis and Integral Ecology

The new encyclical by Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On the Care of our Common Home, contains many references to “integral ecology,” including an entire chapter by that title.

It’s relatively clear that Francis is working with the integral ecology proposed by the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, who draws on the general ecology of Félix Guattari and the integral ecology proposed by the cultural historian Thomas Berry. Regarding Boff’s influence, consider the Pope’s allusion to Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor“Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (# 49). The Pope’s sense of integral ecology is also clearly influenced by the ecological sensibility of St. Francis of Assisi, whose phrase “Laudato Si'” (from his Canticle of the Creatures) provides the title and opening line for the encyclical.

The following are the selections from the encyclical that explicitly mention integral ecology. There are also many other references to integral and integrative approaches, including integral development, progress, and education. Moreover, the Pope does not intend integral ecology to be an exclusively or primarily Catholic endeavor. The encyclical is addressed toevery person living on this planet” (#3).

“I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. […] Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.” (#10-11)

“We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment.” (#141)

Any approach to an integral ecology, which by definition does not exclude human beings, needs to take account of the value of labour. (#124)

“An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us….” (#225)

“An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.” (#230)

“Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us. The Portuguese bishops have called upon us to acknowledge this obligation of justice: “The environment is part of a logic of receptivity. It is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next”. An integral ecology is marked by this broader vision.” (#159)

Liberation in the 21st Century

Last month, from July 8-12, the first conference on African and African Diasporan Women in Religion and Theology was held in Legon, Ghana at Trinity Theological Seminary’s Talitha Qumi Institute of African Women in Religion and Culture, founded and directed by Mercy Amba Oduyoye.  Rosetta Ross has written a helpful summary of the event.

The event was brimming with diversity while also aiming to forge commonalities and build upon shared African heritages, although conference organizers are hoping for an even more diverse representation of women from African and in the diaspora at future conferences.  Along with inspiring integrations of indigenous, Christian, and Islamic traditions, one of the interesting things about this conference is that it is carrying forward the legacy of liberation theology.

After emerging in the mid-twentieth century, liberation theology spread out of its initial patriarchal contexts as women scholars and activists sought liberation not only from classism and poverty (i.e., the preferential option for the poor) but also from sexism and racism, thus birthing feminist and womanist liberation movements as well as black liberation theology.  However, liberation theology has since become rather passé.  Its rhetoric needs updating if it is going to exist in the twenty-first century.

The furor that emerged during the 2008 US presidential campaign over black liberation theology and the recent echo of that uproar during the current campaign only highlights the unlikeliness of a convening of a meeting rooted in mid-twentieth century ideals.

The good news is that those outdated ideals are changing.  As this conference in Ghana shows, young scholars and activists are taking up the task of renewing and rejuvenating liberation theology, articulating tactics and concepts that can facilitate liberation in the complex contexts of our emerging planetary civilization.

The participation of the youth is “a source of possibility for the future of a liberationist agenda in religious practices and discourses. Although the mid-twentieth century spirit of social solidarity seems nearly passé, hope exists in efforts that seek to take up ideals of a better future for everyone.”  In other words, hope exists for what Leonardo Boff calls “integral liberation,” a transversal approach to liberation that attends to personal, social, and environmental struggles as they are situated in a globalized world.

Integral Ecologist as Spiritual Guide

Thomas Berry began speaking of an “integral ecology” in the mid-1990s.  For the most part, his understanding of integral ecology was expressed in lectures and conversations, not published texts.  One exception to this is his essay on “An Ecologically Sensitive Spirituality” (1996).  Here’s a very fragmented excerpt from the essay, which was finally published a few years ago in a wonderful collection, The Sacred Universe (Columbia UP, 2009).

We need an ecological spirituality with an integral ecologist as spiritual guide. […]  The integral ecologist can now be considered a normative guide for our times.  The integral ecologist would understand the numinous aspect of a universe emergent from the beginning. […]  The integral ecologist is the spokesperson for the planet in both its numinous and its physical meaning […].  In the integral ecologist, our scientific understanding of the universe becomes a wisdom tradition. [pp. 135-135].

Also in the mid-90s, the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff began speaking and writing about integral ecology, seemingly independently of Berry.  Like Berry, Boff emphasizes the cosmological breadth and spiritual depth of integral ecology.  This cosmological and spiritual focus is also found in Ken Wilber, who developed his “all-quadrant all-level” (AQAL) model of Integral theory in the mid-90s and began applying it to ecology and environmental ethics, setting the stage for Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman to write their gigantic AQAL-based work, Integral Ecology (2009).

This doesn’t mean that integral ecology is a synonym for eco-spirituality.  Rather, integral ecology can refer to any approach to ecology that integrates spirituality (whatever “spirituality” is) with scientific knowledge of the universe.  Such integration can go in a lot of directions, from new age holism to new feminist materialism…and everything in between.