Feminism and the Politics of “Our Common Home” (Greg Williams)

Catholic Social Ethics

“[A] feminist perspective on the commons is important because it begins with the realization that, as the primary subjects of reproductive work, historically and in our time, women have depended on access to communal natural resources more than men and have been most penalized by their privatization and most committed to their defense.”
– Silvia Federici, “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons”

“If Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, cannot be an option for Gays and Lesbians, then he cannot be an option.”
– M. Shawn Copeland, “Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being”

If my Facebook wall is any indication, both the Christian Left and the environmental movement are practically glowing with enthusiasm for Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. Quotes from it are ubiquitous, faith leaders are instructing their followers to read it, and even secular environmentalists are convinced that it is one of the most important documents in recent memory. 350.org celebrated the encyclical, saying that it “reinforces the tectonic shift that is happening, we simply cannot continue to treat the Earth as a tool for exploitation.” Even the significantly more left-wing official page of Javier Sethness-Castro’s book Imperiled Life: Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe has been posting excerpts.

Not all of this praise is unwarranted; after all, there is much in Laudato Si’ that acknowledges what environmental justice advocates have been saying for a long time. Instead of viewing climate change as a “single issue” and suggesting a set of policy approaches, Francis acknowledges that “neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself” (#117), and that “every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged” (#93). In short, the encyclical embraces the perspective that environmental justice lies at the intersection of colonialism – the extractive relationship that exists between organized money and stolen land – and capitalism – the exploitative relationship that exists between organized money and stolen labor, and that any meaningful solution to the changing climate will involve changing these social and economic systems. “Today,” writes Francis, “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).

In spite of this, I must confess to being somewhat taken aback by the uncritical endorsement that self-identified radicals and progressives have given Laudato Si’. For starters, none of the rave reviews that I have seen even attempt to grapple with the hardline anti-abortion stance that the pope takes in the encyclical:

 Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other valuable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulty? (#120)

It is altogether quite shocking that this passage, which reaffirms the papacy’s staunch opposition to women’s right to reproductive choice, should go completely unmentioned by environmentalists like those at 350.org who claim to be part of the Left, and therefore implicitly committed to women’s rights as human rights.

Equally inconsistent are progressive reviewers’ silence on Francis’ record on LGBTQ issues throughout his papacy and particularly in the months prior to the release of the encyclical. While it was initially thought that Francis might soften the Vatican’s stance on these issues, he has in fact strengthened it. He has not only openly opposed marriage equality, but took extraordinary steps to reject France’s appointment of an openly gay ambassador to the Vatican. Perhaps most shockingly, he has compared the very existence of the trans community to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, claiming that both “disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation.”

When I have brought these concerns to my colleagues in the environmental movement, I have often heard some version of an effort to separate the pope’s environmentalism from his views on LGBTQ issues. “I may not agree with the pope on everything, but he’s an ally on the environment,” or “this is a step in the right direction” are both common refrains. What I find to be missing is any recognition that heteropatriarchy is just as much a locus of environmental injustice as colonialism or capitalism, or that conversely, sexual and gender liberation ought to be foundational premises of environmental activism.

In my efforts to make these missing connections, I have found it helpful to draw on the work of the materialist feminist writer Silvia Federici. Her two books Caliban and the Witch and Revolution at Point Zero collectively make a powerful argument that it is impossible to separate colonial-capitalist control over land and labor from heteropatriarchal control over bodies and sexuality.

Federici’s work rests on the concept of social reproduction. In Revolution, she debunks the common tendency to think about capitalism solely in terms of the production and circulation of commodities. Capitalism is that which turns people into workers who make things and into consumers who buy things. But, Federici points out, in order to function, capitalism needs human beings to turn into workers and consumers. It needs life, and so it exploits the work of reproducing life, work into which it violently pressgangs women. In Caliban, Federici documents how the rise of capitalism involved (and how its contemporary expansion and maintenance always continues to involve) an enormous surge in violence against women to “put them in their place.”

Crucially, Federici points out that this violent effort to pressgang women’s reproductive capacities into supplying capital with labor-power is intimately connected with the violent effort to pressgang land into serving a similar function. Both land and women’s bodies are transformed by capital into private property and treated as “natural resources” from which value can be extracted, principally the value of creating the conditions under which production for profit can occur. Thus, at the same time that the first European capitalists were burning witches and expelling women from the craft guilds, they were enclosing the commons and conquering the Americas.

Of course, social reproduction is neither uniquely modern nor uniquely capitalist. Capitalism, according to Federici, did not create women’s reproductive labor (indeed, it does not create anything, but rather leaches off of existing loci of value) but rather captured and disciplined it. The Great European Witch Hunt did not make women mothers. It did drive them out of the craft guilds and confine them to the modern heteropatriachal home and dictate whether they had children and how many they had, according to the needs of the labor market rather than their own choices. The wave of violence against women that accompanied and continues to accompany the primitive accumulation of capital specifically gave rise to modern preoccupations with stigmatizing abortion, same-sex sexual relationships, and gender nonconformity – precisely the social mores that Francis’ papacy has so aggressively upheld.

Heteropatriarchal sexual norms – the very same norms that rob women of control over their own bodies and require the definition of LGBTQ people as social deviants and even “threats to creation” – are thus inseparable from the instrumentalization of land as private property and natural resource, where Laudato Si correctly locates the ultimate cause of our current environmental crisis. However appealing it may be to theological conservatives who fancy themselves social and environmental populists, this position is self-contradictory and, ultimately, counterproductive. Francis’ particular ire towards abortion and towards transgender lives makes more sense if one assumes that he is an agent of colonial-capitalist morality rather than its opponent.

I am fundamentally unworried by the reactionary character of Laudato Si itself, because neither this encyclical nor any other represents the full extent of the churches’ commitment to the revolutionary transformation of all existing social conditions. What does worry me, however, is the way that Laudato Si has been received and affirmed by many in the environmental and Christian Left. When 350.org and prominent Catholic Workers endorse the pope as the herald of a new political era, one wonders just what kind of movement they think they are building, or whether they know or care that in endorsing Laudato Si so uncritically they are throwing women and LGBTQ comrades under the bus. As a cisgender white man, I see these endorsements coming from a lot of people who look like me, and feel a very strong need to call this out.

I have a hunch that what may lie at the root of this epidemic of Laudato Si endorsements is not the appeal of Francis’ theology itself, nor ignorance of his stance on women’s and LGBTQ issues. It is the fact that he is a person with power and influence who is endorsing (some of) the aims and means of a movement that has been ignored and derided for decades. Finally, we must be thinking to ourselves, someone with an ounce of power gets it. Here, however, we forget the word of the One who casts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble and weak. We forget that every ditch and valley shall be raised up and every hill and mountain shall be made low. We forget, in short, that it is in our alliances with one another, and not with the powerful, that true power lies.

Pope Francis is right. Everything is interconnected. That is precisely why those of us in the environmental and Christian Left movements cannot settle for his encyclical. We cannot settle for a commitment to environmental justice without a commitment to sexuality and gender justice, or for a movement that is not feminist, queer positive, and trans inclusive from its foundation. We cannot settle, in short, for anything less than total freedom, anything less than the complete abolition of every system of domination, and the establishment of God’s reign of love on earth. Amen, come Lord Jesus!

Greg Williams is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and an incoming ThD student at Duke Divinity School, who writes out of his experience doing grassroots community organizing and nonviolent direct action from an anti-colonial/anti-capitalist perspective on the non-statist democratic left. He has been particularly active in anti-globalization, anti-poverty, labor, migrant justice, prison abolitionist, LGBTQ and indigenous and Palestinian solidarity work.  He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the environmental group Rising Tide North America. He is an Ashkenazi Jew, a radical reformed Christian, and an Anarcho-Communist.

One thought on “Feminism and the Politics of “Our Common Home” (Greg Williams)

  1. Give me a break. This ‘reading’ or leveraging of Laudato Si – to be more precise – is tendentious and ideologically driven by the very forces that Francis has ably critiqued. Laudato Si is purposefully woven into a vision of human ecology that is consistent with Catholic teaching. Pope Francis is, after all, a Catholic. Here would be a much more accurate read on the link between Laudato Si and the meaning of sex: http://www.foryourmarriage.org/reading-laudato-si-in-light-of-sexuality-marriage-and-family-life/

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