Patricia Appelbaum: Pope Francis and the 1967 Theologians

appelbaum_stFrancisWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Patricia Appelbaum, author of St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America’s Most Popular Saint. How did a thirteenth-century Italian friar become one of the best-loved saints in America? Around the nation today, St. Francis of Assisi is embraced as the patron saint of animals, beneficently presiding over hundreds of Blessing of the Animals services on October 4, St. Francis’s Catholic feast day. Not only Catholics, however, but Protestants and other Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and nonreligious Americans commonly name him as one of their favorite spiritual figures. Drawing on a dazzling array of art, music, drama, film, hymns, and prayers, Appelbaum explains what happened to make St. Francis so familiar and meaningful to so many Americans.

In today’s post, Appelbaum discusses Pope Francis’s climate change encyclical, placing it within a larger conversation by theologians of the 1960s Christian ecology movement.


This past summer, Pope Francis released his very welcome encyclical on climate change. Supporters and opponents have both noted his attention to science. What I find more interesting is his attention to theology and religion.

In those areas, the encyclical is thoughtful and thorough. Pope Francis considers the interconnectedness of all things—in ecosystems and in social and spiritual life. He insists that creation belongs to God, not to us. He advocates human humility. He says that humans are part of a web of life and that every creature has value. He points out that the Bible has far more to say about the created world than the one famous commandment in Genesis—“have dominion over the earth and subdue it.” He challenges the idea that Christianity encourages environmental destruction. He attends to the economic and political systems that make such destruction possible. He describes the effects of pollution and climate change on the poor. He says that we need both individual transformation and collective public action. In all of this he invokes his namesake, Francis of Assisi.

I don’t know whether he knows it, but Pope Francis is reiterating religious themes that surfaced with the first “ecology” movement in the 1960s. Christian theological discussions began around the time that Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, in 1962. Roman Catholics took note of Carson, and some younger Protestant theologians formed a study group. No one was talking about climate change yet, but these theologians were concerned with humanity’s relationship to nature and with what the Bible and the church had to say about it.

The issue took on a much higher profile after 1967. Early in that year, the historian Lynn White published a widely read essay about “the historical roots of our ecologic crisis.” White was among the first to argue that Christian civilization lay at the root of the crisis. He pointed to the commandment about dominion, of course. But he also argued that Christianity separated humanity from nature and placed us above it. (Judaism shares those tendencies, of course, but has generally been less powerful.)

As an alternative model for Christians, White suggested St. Francis. He particularly emphasized the idea of humility, claiming that Francis rejected dominance and recognized the equality of all creatures. Francis, he thought, could be “a patron saint for ecologists.” In this way White linked Francis inextricably with the ecology movement.

White’s essay caused a lot of excitement in the already reform-minded mainline churches. One participant in the 1967 conference of the theologians’ group hoped that the church could be an “effective agent of social change” on environmental issues, just as it had been (he thought) on race relations. Another, a clergyman from Montana, affirmed that human beings were part of the “whole web of life that makes up existence on earth.” Many of the early discussions referred to Francis, though not always in much depth: “Whom else can we point to?” asked one theologian.

By 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, the discussion about religion and ecology was widespread. Ian Barbour, who went on to be a distinguished scholar of science and religion, proposed an ecological ethic based on the “interdependence of all creatures.” The conservative magazine Christianity Today reminded readers that “the earth is the Lord’s,” adding that abuse of the earth would issue in “impoverished lives and hungry bodies.” Pope Paul VI made several important statements. Biblical scholars challenged White’s claims. A young theologian produced a groundbreaking ecological theology that invoked Francis in its very title, Brother Earth. With Francis, he emphasized God’s dominion and criticized excessive wealth.

Much of this ferment dwindled away during the 1980s and 90s. The churches focused on other issues, the ecology movement diversified, political opposition solidified. There were exceptions, of course, but religious thought about ecology became mostly a minority concern.

And now Pope Francis seems to be starting fresh. It is not clear how much Francis knows about Lynn White or the Protestant theologians, although the encyclical certainly reaches out to non-Catholics. In an official Roman Catholic teaching document, the Pope must of course rely on Catholic sources.

Still, I’d like this encyclical to be received as reinforcing and not only as original. It is a powerful message for our historical moment, but it belongs to a long line of other messages, not all by itself. As for St. Francis, he of course left us no direct comment about ecology or climate change. But I think the emphases on interconnectedness and on human humility—from the Pope and all his predecessors—are entirely appropriate. I hope the world listens this time.

Patricia Appelbaum, an independent scholar of religion and American culture, is author of St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America’s Most Popular Saint and Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture between World War I and the Vietnam Era. To keep up with the author’s encounters with St. Francis of America, follow her website St. Francis Sightings.