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Nature and Creation in Laudato Si’: The Autonomy of Earthly Affairs Rightly Understood

In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis proposes that we ought to look at the natural world in two distinct but complementary ways: as “nature” and as “creation.” As “nature,” we see the world “as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled.” As “creation,” we see it as “a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion” (no. 76). Of course, these do not refer to two parts of the natural world, but rather to two ways of seeing the same reality. And, in Pope Francis’s view, both are necessary for a proper understanding of and relationship with the natural world.

That being said, one of the major themes of Laudato Si’ is that contemporary humankind has come to see the natural world primarily as “nature” while neglecting its reality as “creation.” We have come to see the natural world primarily as an object of scientific investigation and economic exploitation while ignoring the inherent value of the natural world as part of God’s creation, a cosmic system of which we ourselves are a part. This one-sided view of the natural world is at the root of what Francis calls the technocratic paradigm, an “undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm” focused on the manipulation and control of the world. This represents a departure from a relationship with the natural world focused on “being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves,” i.e. the things of nature (no. 106).

Again, this is not to suggest that Francis is opposed to science or technology. For example, Francis cites Pope John Paul II to assert that science and technology are evidence of “the nobility of the human vocation” to use our intellects and participate in “God’s creative action” (no. 131). Indeed, Francis claims that the Jewish and Christian religions contributed to the “demythologization” of nature, the rejection of any confusion between the natural and the divine, the creature and the Creator (no. 78). He therefore suggests that far from being hostile to faith, properly understood the scientific mindset is deeply compatible with it.

In her book Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis, Christiana Z. Peppard offers a powerful example of these themes from Francis’s encyclical. She explains how the Jordan River has for centuries had religious significance for Jews and Christians stemming from its role as the boundary of the Promised Land in the Hebrew Bible and as the site of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Even today Christians and Jews flock to the river on religious pilgrimage. Peppard also notes that many contemporary Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians have a personal relationship with the river as it is woven into their personal memories and lived experience. At the same time, the water of the Jordan River has been depleted to source the irrigation projects that water Israeli farms and polluted by factories along its banks. The Jordan River exists as both creation and nature, the two juxtaposed in contradiction rather than integrated in the way Francis proposes.

Francis’s distinction between “nature” and “creation” is a vivid illustration of a key theme from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. Gaudium et Spes asserts that “all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order,” what it calls “the autonomy of earthly affairs.” The council therefore calls for the “methodical investigation within every branch of learning . . . carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms” as consistent with the Christian vocation. It affirms that growing respect for this autonomy of earthly affairs “harmonizes . . . with the will of the Creator” (no. 36). This last point echoes Francis’s claim that the demythologization of nature does not contradict Christianity, but rather is closely linked to it.

Gaudium et Spes, however, goes on to say that “if the expression, the independence of temporal affairs, is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is” (no. 36). Therefore, with one hand the council seems to affirm the secularization process, but with the other it affirms that both the natural world and social life must always be understood in relation to God. By affirming secularization, the council rejects any attempt to restore or recreate the sacred order of pre-modern Christian societies, but at the same time it seeks a new kind of integration of faith with life in secular society. This tension is an important key for interpreting post-conciliar Catholic theology.

Pope Francis’s treatment of “nature” and “creation” illustrates one example of how this tension can be resolved. He affirms that the natural world can be understood as an object of study and technological manipulation as long as it takes place with respect for the larger context, that the natural world is part of a cosmos of which we are a part and whose source and fulfillment is found in God. For Francis, the danger comes not from asserting the autonomy of earthly affairs rightly understood, but from the loss of the sense that this rightful autonomy itself is grounded in the more fundamental truth that God is the source and Creator of the world.

Without denying the proper role of science and technology, we are called to live with the sense that the natural world is infused with God’s presence. These two ways of seeing the natural world, “nature” and “creation,” should not sit in uneasy juxtaposition as with the contemporary Jordan River, but rather be fully integrated. We can use our sources of water, for example, for agriculture and industry, but must treat them in a way that is consistent with their sacredness, maintaining a relationship between humankind and creation that Francis describes as “extend[ing] a friendly hand to one another” (no. 106). We must see the natural world as not only a source of discovery and natural resources, but also as a source of wonder intertwined with our personal memory and experience.

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.

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