The Feast of St. Francis: Avoiding ‘Birdbath Franciscanism’ Through Environmental Advocacy

Catholic Social Ethics

Today, Catholics celebrate the feast of one of the church’s most beloved saints, Francis of Assisi. Francis had both a special concern for the poor and a deep appreciation for God’s presence in all creation, and in recognition of this unique charism Blessed Pope John Paul II declared Francis patron saint of “those who promote ecology” in 1979. That declaration has caused Francis to be associated in the minds of many Catholics with the church’s commitment to environmental stewardship.

by Daniel R. DiLeo

Today, Catholics celebrate the feast of one of the church’s most beloved saints, Francis of Assisi. Francis had both a special concern for the poor and a deep appreciation for God’s presence in all creation, and in recognition of this unique charism Blessed Pope John Paul II declared Francis patron saint of “those who promote ecology” in 1979. That declaration has caused Francis to be associated in the minds of many Catholics with the church’s commitment to environmental stewardship, and this fact is perhaps best evidenced by the frequency with which St. Francis garden statues are displayed on the landscapes and in the gardens of Catholic parishes and families.

I must admit that I am always torn when I see statues of St. Francis displayed on parish grounds or family lawns. On the one hand, these statues can serve as a reminder of the intrinsic goodness of creation and the Christian vocation to steward God’s good gifts which together constitute the common good. At the same time, however, these displays can foster an overly romantic understanding of creation that obfuscates both the social consequences of environmental degradation and the policy responses that the fullness of Catholic Social Teaching may require Catholics to consider.

The danger of St. Francis’ legacy leading to a quixotic understanding of Christian stewardship was first brought to my attention by Brother Keith Warner, OFM, Ph.D. Brother Warner refers to such a prosaic notion of creation care as “Birdbath Franciscanism,” and this tendency is especially perilous in view of the Church’s recognition of the need to address climate change. Fortunately, however, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) provides several germane tools with which to develop a more mature understanding of the Church’s commitment to environmental stewardship. Among these is the principle of subsidiarity which, in light of St. Francis’ ethic of environmental stewardship, can help Catholics to develop public policies needed to protect the common good, of which creation is a part.

Creation Care, Climate Change, and Subsidiarity

As noted, the Catholic Church recognizes that Christians are called to “cultivate and care for” (Genesis 2:15) God’s good gift of creation out of reverence for the intrinsic goodness instilled in it by the Creator. At the same time, the Church recognizes the natural environment as part of the common good which Christians are called to protect (cf. Renewing the Earth, III. C.; Gaudium et Spes, no. 69). In addition, the Church also recognizes that the adverse effects of environmental degradation threaten to compromise other aspects of its social tradition, especially the commitments to protect and defend human life and dignity and exercise a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. This is especially true with respect to the issue of anthropogenic climate change, which the Church has explicitly and repeatedly recognized to be a moral issue for people of faith and goodwill.

In order to discern the most appropriate means by which to address anthropogenic climate change, the Catholic Church has applied the principle of subsidiarity to the issue.  The principle of subsidiarity calls for the lowest possible—but highest necessary—level of state intervention in situations within which the common good is being compromised (cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 185-8). With respect to climate change, subsidiarity thus dictates that efforts to mitigate climate change begin with voluntary efforts and progress as necessary up to the level of coordinated international policy.

In 2002, President George W. Bush advocated for voluntary climate change mitigation. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows, however, national CO2- equivalent (CO2e) GHG emissions rose an average of 954 teragrams per year over the subsequent years of the Bush Administration. In response to the failure of these voluntary climate change mitigation efforts, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) created a voluntary cap-and-trade program among ten New England states starting in 2005. Although GHG emissions have declined since the program’s inception, some argue that these reductions are due more to the national economic recession and declining price of natural gas than to the RGGI. In addition, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie withdrew his state from the RGGI in 2011, calling the program “gimmicky” and “a failure.”

Given this inability of voluntary and more local initiatives to effectively and definitively address anthropogenic climate change, the Church has used the principle of subsidiarity to discern the need for coordinated national and international climate policies. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has recognized the need for national climate change policies in the U.S., and articulated the moral criteria they believe should inform any such legislation. Additionally, the Vatican has repeatedly advocated for an international climate change treaty through the United Nations—a move that highlights both the global nature of climate change as well as the United States’ lack of international leadership due largely to its own domestic climate policy failures and partisan politics.

St. Francis and Environmental Advocacy

As we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis today, it is clear that Francis’ environmental ethic, which is firmly situated in the fullness of Church teaching, requires that Catholics consider both personal and political/systemic ways to care for God’s good gift of creation. One example of how Francis’ environmental ethic might be holistically applied to modern environmental degradation and climate change is the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor from the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change. The St. Francis Pledge is a covenant through which individuals, families, parishes, schools, and diocese commit to:

  • PRAY and reflect on the duty to care for God’s Creation and protect the poor and vulnerable.
  • LEARN about and educate others on the causes and moral dimensions of climate change.
  • ASSESS how we-as individuals and in our families, parishes and other affiliations-contribute to climate change by our own energy use, consumption, waste, etc.
  • ACT to change our choices and behaviors to reduce the ways we contribute to climate change.
  • ADVOCATE for Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact those who are poor and vulnerable.

Catholics are encouraged to register their Pledge commitments online on the Coalition’s website, and to connect with the Coalition on social media by Liking them on Facebook and following them on Twitter @CatholicClimate.

Regardless of whether Catholics choose to live their faith using the framework and resources provided by St. Francis Pledge, political advocacy remains an inexorable aspect of living the fullness of Catholic faith in the modern world. St. Francis may remain in our gardens, but we must also bring Francis’ ethic into the public square in order to inform policy conversations and so best “cultivate and care for” (Genesis 2:15) God’s good gift of creation.

2 thoughts on “The Feast of St. Francis: Avoiding ‘Birdbath Franciscanism’ Through Environmental Advocacy

  1. Would you please provide references for the proof used to speak with authority within the Church of the documentable evidence of climate change vs. cyclical changes on the earth over time? Also, I would like to respectfully suggest that you may reach more readers with vocabulary that is less lofty, which as it is to some may seem threatening/unreachable.

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