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Strap on your sandals, Catholics, during this Holy Week journey into Jerusalem. Pope Francis is guiding the global church towards two major right-to-life issues: poverty and the environment. Take heed: it’s not just about prophylaxis.
First, poverty. Francis has called for a “poor church, a church for the poor.” Certainly, the Bible is rife with injunctions to care for the poor, and Catholic social teaching insists on the theological and ethical imperative known as the “preferential option for the poor.” But has any pope ever talked the talk while walking the walk? Enter Francis, who has decided to not live in the papal apartment (he will live in the Vatican guesthouse), who has eschewed highly filigreed garments, and who has constantly spoken of humility and poverty. Might this papacy be less about pontifical pomp and theological rhetoric than about attention to concrete circumstance? That would be theology as praxis: where the word of God hits the ground, and keeps walking.
Second, the environment (or, in theological terms, “creation”). During his installation homily, Pope Francis invoked those words ten times. Granted, his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was—in the parlance of our times—something of a tree-hugger who chatted with birds and wolves, and a popular prayer about God’s ebullient creation (the “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon”) is attributed to him. Furthermore, in 1979 St. Francis was named the patron saint of ecologists. So it’s not enormously surprising that at his first press conference, Pope Francis mused, “These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?”
No, we don’t—neither as an economically-driven global society, nor as a Catholic institution. Sure, Vatican City pledged to become the first carbon-neutral country; but first-world folks in pews, especially in the United States, are unused to heeding this message.
Yet Francis inherits a legacy of Catholic social teaching that links economic globalization, environmental degradation, and poverty. Even the recondite Benedict XVI wrote about environmental degradation and its deleterious impacts on the lives of the poor. Along with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he considered access to clean air and fresh water as “right-to-life issues.” Moreover, he insisted that commodification of such essential “goods of creation” is unjust. Here’s the upshot: In the 21st century, papal pro-creation involves the preferential option for the poor and a critique of excessive pursuit of profit. There is a strong set of Catholic teaching in which the rhetoric of pro-creation is not reducible to the prohibition of prophylaxis.
As it turns out, these social and economic teachings have existed since the 1960s, though they are often minimized or referred to as the church’s best-kept secrets—especially in the United States. Think about it: When was the last time you heard a Catholic invoke the “right to life”—and proceed to expound on the importance of clean, fresh water? (Well, never.)
Hopefully, that’s about to change. In his Palm Sunday homily, Francis lamented the preponderance of “Greed for money, power, corruption, divisions, crimes against human life and against creation!” These exclamations nestle theology squarely into the thorny nexus of economic globalization, environmental degradation, and global poverty.
To be sure, the new pontiff is no Marxist radical. But neither is he a pawn in the pursuit of corporate profit; indeed, he would have harsh words for the likes of Milton Friedman, who thought that the only social responsibility of business was to increase its profits. As the new pope remarked in his installation homily: “I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”
In sum: The Franciscan rhetoric of the past two weeks pivots on concern for the poor and for the environment. Pro-creation, for this pope, goes far beyond prophylaxis. If this right-to-life trend continues, it could be more than quirky, or radical, or humble, or even profound. It would be both practical and revolutionary.
Christiana Z. Peppard, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology, Science & Ethics at Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York.