The cry of the earth, some thoughts on the gospel of creation

Introduction

The topic of the cry of the Earth is very interesting from a theological point of view. It is a means to help Christians to be aware of the ecological crisis crossed by the planet in order to make them feel more responsible of their vocation for the care of creation. Attention is thus given to creation as a being and even a subject being concerned, in so far as it is a subject, by ecological crisis and not only because it concerns the jeopardy of the wellbeing and welfare of humanity. This discovery is plainly a part and a chapter of what Pope Francis calls the Good news of creation and the Gospel of creation. The role of this chapter of Laudato si’ is the shedding of the light of Christian Revelation on our ecological behaviors and more widely on our very sense of inhabitation of our common Home. This light is most important to see because it is the basis for a conversion to Integral ecology.

So, I propose to study the topic of the cry of the earth from this angle. First seing how it is connected to scripture, and mostly Ro 8,19-22, then what are the two human means of hearing such a cry: ecological science and poetry, for ending with Franciscan theological inputs on this

Crying sister and mother.

  1. The cry of the earth
  2. The voice of Science
  3. The voice of the people
  4. Sister mother Earth

Pope Francis is not the first pope to refer to Ro 8,19-22, speaking of the ecological crisis from a theological point of view. As soon as 1982 Saint John Paul II did it for the anniversary of Saint Francis of Assisi:

The example of Francis in this area again demonstrates this forcefully: creatures and the elements will only be protected from any unjust and harmful violation to the extent that, in the light of the biblical teaching on Creation and Redemption, we will consider them as beings towards whom man is bound by duties and on whom he has not allowed him to act as he pleases, as creatures who, with him await and desire "their liberation from slavery of corruption to share in the glorious freedom of the children of God[1]”(Ro 8,21).

John Paul II saw very early that the relationship with nature as a resource had harmful consequences on the environment. This conception of nature is out of order with respect to the initial creative project in which God wants to associate the human being. In his 1990 message for peace, John Paul II wrote: “When man turns his back on the Creator's plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order[2]According to the author, this appropriately comments on Hos 4,3 where Hosea announces the fruit of a state of conflict between the people and God:Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.”

There is a strong connection in the Bible between respect for the order of creation and its negative reaction in the form of an ecological crisis. John Paull II adds in Centesimus Annus that when he behaves in this way, “instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him[3]”.

Pope Francis’ proposal is situated in the same stream of interpretation of Ro 8. Analysing the current and past relationship of humanity with its common home, he refers to Rom 8, 20-22 to draw our attention to the fact that Earth is a sister, a suffering sister crying out her pain.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

The problem is, it is human action that is causing this suffering. However, the ecological crisis makes people realize that the earth belongs to the category of the poor: “This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22)”. The earth, through its moans produces a clamor, which cries in our ears its thirst for liberation! But the earth is also us, humans. The cry of the earth and the cry of humans is ultimately the one and the same.

Is God attentive to this clamor? It seems so, insofar as creation has been entrusted to the human creature for its care and flourishing according to Gn 1-2. And there is a clear lack of care from our part. In this sense, the clamor or cry of the earth is by contrast the affirmation of this vocation of the human being, by creation to be that good warden of the common home which is part of the gospel of creation.

God is aware. But what about us humans, how can we be aware of that clamor. For Pope Francis, there is a means to hear and listen to the voice of the Earth quite extensively in the context of the ecological crisis, it is to be aware of and integrate the scientific discourse used by ecologists to describe the manifestation, causes and evolutions of that same ecological crisis. The voice of the earth is quite an anthropomorphism. Saint Paul refers to creation as to a person being able to voice its suffering and its eager longing for salvation. But there is no actual human-like voice to be heard. Therefore the suffering and the clamor must be translated into words and discourse that human reason and heart can receive and interpret as cries: the climate change, the decrease of biodiversity and the extinction of species, the suffering of animals, the desertification due to recurring droughts, the recurring floods and typhoons devastating human conditions of inhabitations on coastlands, the pollution due to diverse sources of wastes.

There is a theological point to mention here. Pope Francis thus declares his deep trust in the capacity of modern science to describe reality. It goes even further. Science is also brought into discussion for the elaboration of the paradigm of Integral ecology especially with the concept of connectedness.” Everything is connected repeats pope Francis in Laudato si’, there is an ontological principle that come from the reception of the very scientific definition of ecology. It is the science that studies the relationships between the beings themselves and their place of inhabiation.

For Pope Francis that too belongs to the gospel of creation because, this interconnectedness belongs to the state of creature. Created being are done so, being connected to one another. This is even the signal and signature of the author of creation A Trinitarian creator God.

The clamor of people is then intimately connected to that of the earth. This unity of clamor can be deciphered thank to another field of human culture which is poetry.

This aspect of Francis's thinking hardly appears in Laudato si’ and is embedded in the larger theme of the importance of traditional cultures. It is truly in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia published in 2020 that this theme unfolds in a manifest, explicit and effective way in this beautiful text. For the Holy Father, "poetry helps to express a painful feeling that many today share" (QA 47). The key to understanding is this. Poetry is a product of culture, yet culture develops in a civilization which is constituted in close relation with its natural environment. Francis is keen to show the strength of this reality with regard to the Amazonian territory. Let's take a closer look at the text in QA 31:

Each of the peoples that has survived in the Amazon region possesses its own cultural identity and unique richness in our multicultural universe, thanks to the close relationship established by the inhabitants with their surroundings in a non-deterministic symbiosis which is hard to conceive using mental categories imported from without: “Once there was a countryside, with its river, its animals, its clouds and its trees. But sometimes, when the countryside, with its river and trees, was nowhere to be seen, those things had to spring up in the mind of a child”.

In the poetry of the Amazonian area, the Amazon is expressed through the experience of those who inhabit it and what they do with it. So when this area is threatened by the predation of an economy that is disrespectful of people and their environment, poetry can also be the voice of the suffering of populations, but also of the mistreatment of the territory itself. See for example QA 36: “The ethnic groups that, in interaction with nature, developed a cultural treasure marked by a strong sense of community, readily notice our darker aspects, which we do not recognize in the midst of our alleged progress."

And more precisely the Pope insists on a fact: "If the ancestral cultures of the original peoples arose and developed in intimate contact with the natural environment, then it will be hard for them to remain unaffected once that environment is damaged." (QA 40.) Nature and culture are intrinsically linked, which goes against the modern perception of this relationship in which culture is built by emancipation from the state of nature… Francis was already making mention of his main idea present in Laudato si' by affirming an analogy between the disappearance of species, the erosion of biodiversity and the disappearance of traditional cultures. In Querida Amazonia this idea is applied in a concrete way with regard to the Amazonian forest ecosystems: “Just as there are potentialities in nature that can be lost forever, the same can happen with cultures that bear a message not yet heard, cultures more threatened than ever today” (QA 28).

Here again there is a theological point to be made. This is an expression of the theology of people born in Argentina in the late 1970’s. The principle is rooted on the very old Christian conviction that the wisdom of the native people has been created by the same divine Word of God. It is thus important, through hearing the clamor of the people to be attentive to that same Word expressed in the culture of a people or in its clamor when it is oppressed. This takes a further depth when we realize that this wisdom is connected to ecological life. The needs of the people and the needs of the earth are one and the same, because of the unity of the expression of the Divine Creator Word. In a sense, this clamor of the poor and of the earth belongs to the Gospel of creation.

Saint Francis of Assisi, who is given to us by Pope Francis as a model for integral ecology, considers the earth as a mother. So begins the encyclical Laudato si’:

“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

The first paragraph invites us to consider the earth as sister and mother. At first glance, one might be surprised that a pope insists so much on a theme that seems to belong to paganism. Mother earth is a figure that appears in the so-called primordial wisdom traditions - of first and native peoples - such as the American Indians. The Argentinian origin of our Pope tends to tip the scales for the South American culture in which the earth is presented as a being personified in the guise of the “Pachamama”, the mother and nourishing earth on which we all depend, to which we all belong and which cannot belong to anyone. Likewise, we can also be surprised to see the use of this theme which was picked up by the New Age stream, in which we find the idea that the planet behaves like a large organism of which all the parts are interdependent. The author of this theory, James Lovelock - along with Lynn Margulis - named this superorganism, "Gaia", the goddess of the earth for ancient Greece. Would the Holy Father contribute to the neo-paganism of radical ecology streams?

It's not the first time he's been talking about it. The first evocation of this idea is in a speech given in 2014. “All peoples of the earth, all men and women of good will – all of us must raise our voices in defense of these two precious gifts: peace and nature or “Sister Mother Earth” as Saint Francis of Assisi called her”. Likewise, this theme was already germinating in Evangelii Gaudium 183: "The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters”. Here the seemingly theological trick of Pope Francis is not unrelated to the greater Christian Tradition. He thus practices a form of inculturation of Revelation by showing how certain human aspirations are found fulfilled in our faith in Christ and above all with the synod on of bishops of Amazonia, how the wisdoms of the people are preparation for the rooting of Christian Revelation. It can be compared to what early christian did with greek philosophy looking for the “seminae Verbi”, the seeds of the divine Word.

In this case, here, this image of our mother earth is always associated with that of common home. The root of the word ecology is the word oikos which means house. Ecology is indeed the science of habitat. In Greek "common house" is said "oikoumenè", so ecumenism is also the concern of the common home.

How can this link between the land and the image of the common home be established theologically? The prophet Isaiah gives us the answer: "For this is what the Lord says, he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited[4]”. That creation is our common home follows directly from the teaching of the Bible. And if we are invited by God to live there, it is because, through creation, he wants to take care of us, like a mother cares for her children in her house. There is no doubt that the Christian, with Brother Francis, can without shame join in the prayer of the earth which is sister and mother of all men and women. With Francis there is also no shame in recognizing our solidarity as a creature with the earth because we are drawn from the same material. To be dust is not a degradation, it is on the contrary to remember what connects us with all the other creatures according to the spirit of Gen 2, 19: "Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky”.

Thank to Franciscan tradition on creation, we can receive that the earth is a sister and a mother to all, being in the same time this common home to be taken care of. We can above all receive that fact as an element of the Gospel of creation, that good news flowing from the stream of Christian Revelation. So that, when earth raises her voice, to make clear that there is a problem, then who, if not the Christian should react and answe


[1] Jean-Paul II,Lettre apostolique pour le 8ème centenaire de la naissance de François d’Assise,le 15 août 1982.

[2] Jean Paul II,Message pour la célébration de la journée mondiale de la paix, le 1er janvier 1990, 5.

[3]Jean Paul II, CA, 37.

[4] Is 45,18.