Reflection: Pope Francis and St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures

David Couturier, OFM Cap. Features

Less than a week after Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, a Capuchin friar working at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., shares his thoughts on the pope’s “holistic” approach to climate change. This reflection is being republished with permission from St. Bonaventure University and will be included in Bonaventure magazine. It has been edited for style.

The publication of “Laudato Si’,” the Pope’s encyclical on the environment, unites two holy men separated by 800 years but who share a name (Francis) and a common vision of a world built on communion, not competition, and a planet protected in beauty and sustained in abundance for generations to come.

By framing his thoughts on the environment in St. Francis’ spirituality, Pope Francis attempts a revolution of contemporary attitudes back to seeing nature as creation and not just as “matter” and “stuff.” (I have written recently on millennials and a “Franciscan Theology of Stuff.”)

We, in the modern world, live with a prejudice for seeing the world around us solely or largely in material terms. Nature, after the Enlightenment, quickly became just another commodity on the open market to be used and abused, bought and sold, depleted for as much profit as we can extract from it, without regard for its deeper meaning and purposes.

Pope Francis is recognizing the scientific debates about climate change, but he is speaking about so much more. He is getting behind those debates and asking questions about our fundamental relationship to the earth and, in fact, to one another and to God as Creator. He is providing a holistic approach to the questions of climate change and the care of the planet.

It is a question that St. Francis addressed 800 years ago. He lived in a time of incredible greed and amazing violence. People in his time were being sacrificed in bloody, never-ending battles for economic supremacy. St. Francis knew this scheme because he and his father were very much part and parcel of this economic venture that sacrificed people for profit. After his conversion, however, St. Francis introduced people to a new relationship to the environment. He began to build a fraternal relationship with all of creation.

When St. Francis looked up into the heavens, he didn’t see matter and stuff. He didn’t see profit centers and cash cows. He saw “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” creation as a gift of God, signs and signals of a God who loved men and women, whom God endowed with gifts that nourished, sustained and bonded them to one another. In the Catholic tradition, we speak of God speaking in two books: the book of Scriptures and the book of Creation. We hear the voice of a good, loving, sustaining God coming through loudly in the amazing diversity that is God’s good creation.

It has always been the Franciscan tradition not to “dominate” creation, to do whatever we want to created things, but to “care for creation” because it is creation that cares for us.

For many years, I was on the board of directors and then president of Franciscans International, an NGO (non-governmental organization) at the United Nations that works for peacemaking, the protection of the poor and the care of creation. We were part of worldwide discussions of the issue of sustainable development, the doable option of creating an economic agenda that addresses extreme poverty in the world in such a way that doesn’t deplete and sacrifice the planet in the process. Too often we hear that we can’t do both. We need to ruin the planet to lift up the poor. That is simply not the case.

It’s a mindset thing that both Pope Francis and St. Francis are getting at. Since the enlightenment, we have been taught by a secular imagination that God is fundamentally stingy and we are competitors against one another for the scarce resources that come from a stingy God. In a Franciscan mindset, nothing could be further from the truth, God is not stingy at all. In fact, St. Bonaventure (another Franciscan saint) describes our Creator as a “fons plenitudo,” an overflowing fountain of generosity, creativity, and ingenuity spilling out and spilling over with goodness, kindness, and opportunity from one generation to the next. The Creator offers us a world amazing in abundance and diversity.

But, we have to tend the planet, having a “dominion of care” for what we have received so generously from God. Pope Francis is suggesting that we have to develop an “integral ecology,” that is, we need to develop an attitude and strategy that doesn’t pit human interests against or above the planet’s capacities. We need to jettison the mindset that sees creation as our “enemy.”

A fraternal relationship allows us to work cooperatively with one another, in a holy reverence for God’s deeper purposes and meaning, and with creation itself in building a sustainable economy and lifestyle for all. Immediate profit cannot be the sole or overriding reason for everything we do. Pope Francis considers that mindset part of the “dangerous desires” of our time that can only lead to greater polarization and increased levels of violence.

Fr. David Couturier, OFM, is dean of the School of Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y.

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