Q — I hear Pope Francis will be issuing an encyclical on the environment. What is the theological lineage of church teaching on such matters?

A — This is a very fine question. In terms of papal encyclicals there is no substantive lineage for a theology of the environment. However, a theology of the environment, broadly construed, goes back to the very beginnings of our Judeo-Christian tradition. For a start, the Book of Genesis in the first two chapters offers a theological narrative of creation. Each narrative is slightly different but both insist on this: that God is the source of everything that is, that is to say, the source of material creation. In those wonderful words of Genesis 1, “God saw that it was good.” And so, creation, the environment, all that is is connected to the reality of God as Source and Sustainer. Phrased somewhat differently, God has put something of himself, as it were, into his creation, into the environment. That means, in the words of Msgr. Kevin Irwin, professor of liturgical theology at the Catholic University of America, that “things matter and that matter is not just a thing. Things in this world reveal God with us; matter is never divorced or separated from the God who made all things” (Kevin H. Irwin, “Models of the Eucharist” New York-Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005, 39-66). Notice especially Irwin’s words “reveal God with us.”

For traditional Christianity, in the words of the late Catholic theologian John Carmody who has written explicitly on theology and ecology: “Nature is not brute stuff, the haphazard spill of a cosmic dumpster. Nature shows God’s serious play, God’s love of profusion, God’s desire to hurl the divine Is to the outermost galaxies” (John Carmody, “Ecology and Religion: Towards a New Christian Theology of Nature,” New York-Ramsey: Paulist Press, 1983, 120).

Mainstream Christianity has always refused any “Gnostic” anti-creation position. The Gnostics of the second century (and indeed, of every century!) stood for a position in which God had nothing to do with matter/the material world/the environment. Against such positions traditional Christianity, and especially Catholicism, has insisted on the goodness of matter and, therefore, on our human responsibility for the environment. I would imagine that Pope Francis in this anticipated encyclical will echo some of these traditional sentiments about creation/the environment.