We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” (Laudato Si, 34).
We have now had a couple weeks to breathe, and to begin to accustom ourselves to what can only be called a brand new reality. Never has a pope spoken out so clearly on the environment. The profound urgency of Laudato Si strikes the reader on every page of the encyclical. “Doomsday predictions,” we are warned, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain” (161). We continue to live in one of the most “irresponsible” times in history (165). The time has come for clear and decisive action.
Yet one of the ironies of all this is that, many of the same people who are celebrating this encyclical for its condemnation of overconsumption and environmental degradation are also celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on behalf of same-sex marriage. Many aligned on the left will see both of these as “making history,” finally striking a prophetic blow against the tyrannies of heteronormativity, discrimination, and the abuse of mother earth. Pope Francis is, after all, the pope who famously said, “Who am I to judge?” Many will see an alliance between the SCOTUS ruling and this encyclical.
And yet they would be wrong. Pope Francis is indeed making history, but his call for an “integral ecology” comes down on a rather different side than many rejoicing over the SCOTUS decision. And the warnings issued in his encyclical might include in their scope the legal endorsement of the marriage of two men or two women.
What could gay marriage possibly have to do with Laudato Si and the environment? “Everything is connected” becomes a mantra that works its way throughout Pope Francis’s new encyclical. “When we speak of the ‘environment,’” Francis explains, “what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it” (139). We are dealing with “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” The rapid and widespread acceptance of gay marriage in American society is a crucial but only partial aspect of this “one complex crisis” that goes to the heart of the problem to which Francis speaks. The root is the manipulation of nature and culture, the delusion of thinking “that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” (34). To quote the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in Binsey Poplars:
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her, we end her . . .
Francis points to the destruction of species and entire ecosystems as examples of a “cheerful recklessness” (59) that characterizes modern financial and industrial culture.
“Cheerful recklessness”: Perhaps these words best describe what has happened in Washington over the past week. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote with dismay: “Who do we think we are?” Clearly the link between an authentic human ecology and environmental ecology has been lost. Francis has done his part to try to repair that link, but most likely this crucial aspect of his encyclical will be ignored. Many will focus either entirely on the “anti-global warming” Francis or on the “pro-family” Francis and miss the “seamless garment of God’s creation” (9) upon which he meditates and the “new synthesis” which he hopes to promote (121).
One of Francis’s primary concerns is a “tyrannical anthropocentrism” (68) that treats nature as something to manipulate at will rather than live with in harmony and respect. This “tyrannical anthropocentrism” manifests itself in two major areas: the environmental and the social. Francis brings these two overarching threads together in Chapter 4 of Laudato Si, “Integral Ecology,” where he attempts a synthesis of these two destructive patterns.
In particular, within the purview of the social, he points to the importance of “cultural ecology.” Culture, a “living, dynamic, participatory present reality” (143), like an ecosystem, is fragile. Like a delicate ecosystem, it takes millennia to develop but only decades to destroy. Can we not see this in the brief two decades in which the tide of opinion in American culture turned towards same-sex marriage? As Pope Francis warns: “The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal” (145). And so a serious question now faces the United States: Does the new SCOTUS ruling put us down a new path of human ecological degradation? Will it open up new avenues for the technological production and consumption of human embryos, another concern to which the encyclical speaks (117, 120, 136)? Having decisively placed procreation outside of the definition of marriage, will it now place reproduction completely under the influence of market forces? Will it further contribute to the destruction of a marital ecology that is so fragile and has taken so many millennia to develop?
Francis speaks to this authentic human ecology against which the same-sex marriage ruling strikes. It is an ecology of the difference between men and women that is simultaneously safeguarded and challenged within the context of sacramental marriage. He explains:
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’ (155).
This is the vision the Catholic Church seeks to promote. It is an ecology of difference, a difference instituted by the Creator that is transcended only in the union of one flesh open to the procreation of new life. Without such a fundamental sexual ecology there can be no adequate anthropology, and without an adequate anthropology there can be no true environmental ecology. The relationship that we share with the environment can never be separated from the relationships that we share with one another. Such a reality would be “nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence” (119). Sadly, the Supreme Court has now locked us into this “stifling immanence,” contrary to the rich vision promoted by Francis. The Catholic Church will be accused of a “particular prejudice” in its opposition to same-sex marriage (to quote from Pope Francis’ previous encyclical Evangelii Gaudium), even as American culture as a whole in regard to this question continues to show a “remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment” (64).
So how could such a vision come from the pope who said, “Who am I to judge?” Those words so famously spoken touched on the dignity that the pope perceives in every human being experiencing same-sex attraction. He spoke those words precisely because this pope would never exclude a rich human ecology from gay men and women, a human ecology of friendship. As he said in his famous interview “A Big Heart Open to God”: “We must always consider the person.” And as a “close collaborator” said of his work as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires:
He wanted to defend marriage but without wounding anybody’s dignity or reinforcing their exclusion. He favored the greatest possible legal inclusion of gay people and their human rights expressed in law, but would never compromise the uniqueness of marriage as being between a man and a woman (Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer, 312).
Eve Tushnet has written beautifully on a vision of friendship for gay Catholics, encouraging them to recover a fundamental aspect of the Catholic tradition of human ecology that has been missing in modern times. She warns us that “our refusal to honor or even imagine important vocations other than marriage causes a huge amount of pain, loneliness, and sense of worthlessness” (Gay and Catholic, 168). Her challenge is for the Catholic Church to develop a much richer description of what the celibate gay vocation might look like—including celibate gay unions. And she is right to level this challenge. So far, so little has been said on this topic. As she explains: “Vocation is always a positive act of love, not a refraining-from-action. So celibacy, in and of itself, isn’t a vocation in this sense” (75).
A Catholic gay ecology: This is a profound challenge offered to the Church in our times. An ecology that respects the Church’s teaching on an integral sexual ecology but that is not satisfied with reducing the gay vocation to a life of celibate singlehood. But—to quote again—to think, “that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” borders not only on hubris but on the kind of dominating exploitation of nature about which Francis is so concerned. Same-sex marriage is not the answer.
Speaking eloquently about the need to protect endangered species, Francis mounts this impassioned plea: “The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right” (33). Nor do we have a right to alter so significantly the sexual ecology of our own species that God has inscribed within our nature. The time has come to confront the “cheerful recklessness” of our throwaway culture. It is time to promote persuasively a richer vision of authentic human ecology, not exclusive of gay Catholics. I pray that we as a Church have the courage and vision to do so.
Nathan W. O'Halloran is a Jesuit priest and is an incoming Ph.D student in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame.