I’ve finally had a chance to dig into Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment that came out while I was on retreat. Others have already written much on the document and provided helpful distillations of the major points (e.g., here), so I will not offer any major summary here, but limit myself to a single observation.
The account of creation in the Book of Genesis (written, as Francis observes in “symbolic and narrative language”) speaks of humans being granted “dominion” over the earth. Some have always misinterpreted that language as justifying “unbridled exploitation of nature.” In the encyclical, Francis
forcefully reject[s] the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world…”Tilling: refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.
The earth is not ours to do with as we will. We are stewards of an earth that belongs to God.
There is much having to do with care of the environment we can argue over – what are the best means go address pollution or climate change, and so forth. Much that is in the realm of prudential judgment.
But what is not open to debate is our obligation to till and keep – to “protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” And that is an obligation imposed on us collectively and on each of us individually.