Pope Francis recently released a much-anticipated papal encyclical on the subject of climate change. The encyclical, Laudato Sii (Praise Be Unto You) is catching an enormous amount of attention for its Francis of Assisi-inspired theology of creation, ecology and human responsibility. With a background in chemistry, the current Catholic pontiff has forged his own way that picks up from the emphasis on the coherence of faith and reason that marked the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Like other aspects of Francis’ papacy, this encyclical is sure to draw attention to ways in which Christians cooperate on the basis of their shared understanding of creation. The Catholic-evangelical dialogue has special potential here.
Twenty years ago, a group of distinguished scholars and church leaders formulated a statement titled ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ (ECT), a document that highlights the common mission of Christians who are Catholic, evangelical or—possibly—both of these things. Despite some criticism emanating from certain quarters, ECT is a project that has continued with subsequent meetings and coordinated campaigns on such issues as the promotion of unborn human life and immigration.
To be sure, evangelical–Catholic relations have not been uniformly easy or sure-footed. In 2006, a philosopher at Wheaton College, Joshua Hochschild, had his position terminated due to his conversion to Catholicism. This was preceded several decades before at Gordon College by the firing of Thomas Howard for identical reasons. What made these incidents irksome was the fact that they took place not at seminaries but in Christian liberal arts colleges. Such institutions might otherwise have been expected to tolerate the odd ‘born-again’ Catholic in their ranks. On the Catholic side, a persistent sneering attitude toward what are referred to as ‘sects’ still creates barriers toward an understanding of the genuine gospel impetus behind the mission of evangelical churches. Evangelical colleges are, however, increasingly receptive toward Catholics in general, and likewise, Catholic theologians are more likely to identify common ground with evangelical colleagues in ways that would have been extremely unlikely only 40 years ago. While past difficulties still hover over these respective traditions, a warming climate for evangelical-Catholic co-operation is unmistakably underway.
The thrust of the message of ECT is mission and evangelization of the world. Its credibility has been strengthened on both sides of the denominational divide by deep theological shifts. One of these is a return among evangelical scholars to the sources of Christian tradition—the Church Fathers of the first seven centuries of church history. For example, Thomas Oden, whose theology is referred to as ‘paleo-orthodoxy,’ is one example of this turn. Oden has called for a re-set of ecumenical relations to include an explicit reference to doctrinal, Nicene Christianity in place of the standard model of ecumenical relations based on the social mission of the church. Many Evangelicals admired the depth and seriousness of Pope John Paul II’s efforts to buttress the Christian faith, which resulted in the defeat of communism, beginning in Catholic Poland. On the Catholic side, there has been a surge broadening movement of charismatic renewal and an appreciation for authentic forms of prayer and worship. Lately, in part due to his own personal experience with Evangelicals, Pope Francis has been explicit about the benefits for Catholics of paying attention to evangelical faith witness.
Now, the ECT statement makes no reference to the doctrine of creation or any of its cognate beliefs, though it affirms the common claim that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” The statement references sticking points between Evangelicals and Catholics, such as justification by grace through faith because of Christ, the nature of sacraments, biblical authority, the role of Mary and other problems. Yet these issues are set in the context of bedrock shared commitments such as the Trinity, ecclesial discipleship and—interestingly enough—a renewed appreciation for western culture and economic freedom. In moving rapidly to shared commitments on matters of social ethics and public policy, however, the statement appears to give the impression that creation is either too mundane to mention or too contentious to broach. Which is it? Probably both!
I believe that the ECT initiative would benefit the rapprochement between Catholics and Evangelicals enormously if it dealt with the relationship between a theology of creation and science. In order to forge a strong united witness in favour of a coherent interpretation of creation, Evangelicals and Catholics need to recognize the complementary gifts that each tradition has to offer the other. The precise analysis of the Bible by Evangelicals is a resource that Catholics need to reflect upon in a more thorough way. In turn, the development of a natural law tradition of philosophy and natural theology is a treasure trove for Evangelicals to explore as they make way for the Bible and the theory of evolution to be reconciled.
One focal point of recent evangelical and Catholic thought regards Genesis 1:28, where God announces to Adam and Eve that they are to exercise “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” This biblical focus on human stewardship of nature is what motivated Pope Benedict XVI to attend to the Vatican’s environmental impacts. In fact, Catholic interest in the natural environment is a storied one, with the Vatican opening an astronomical observatory as early as the 1770s. Both the church’s scientific and theological interest in nature stem from its teaching that “To human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence…” as the catechism states. Human freedom is rooted in a robust theology of the imago Dei, a doctrine that is elaborated on the basis of the preceding verses in Genesis 1:26-27. But in the case of Catholic thought, insufficient attention has been paid to the specifically biblical reasons why God did not imply that human dominion should lead to domination. Catholics are infamously inattentive to the scriptural text to their detriment. Yet, Catholic natural law tradition has provided an expansive account of human nature and the range of virtues that cultivate our human nature and make it ready to receive God’s grace.
The notion of dominion is a troubling idea for those whose understanding of human beings is restricted to being a complex, skilled mammalian species. What troubles them is the association between the character of human dominion and the dominance that industrial civilization exercises over nature. The wanton destruction and the scale of human interference in functioning ecosystems means that many people have projected their skepticism toward economic systems onto Christian theology, improperly assuming that it lies behind the current crises. The most famous attempt to connect environmental destruction to Christian thought was a 1967 essay titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” by Lynn White. This essay has made its way into the curricula of many liberal arts, history, and general science courses since its publication. And its broad circulation and positive reception means that the most forceful opposition to the Christian notion of imago Dei comes not from clumsy anti-evolutionists but from otherwise reasonable people whose environmental sensitivity should be naturally consistent with Christian dominion theology but ends up being hostile to it.
In fact, White’s skepticism is unwarranted, since he does not take into proper account that the history of interpretation of Genesis 1:28 is also a history of its misinterpretation. And it is on this issue that evangelical scholars in particular have helped bring context and a sense of proper meaning to bear on its interpretation. As biblical scholar J. Richard Middleton claims, the best reading of Genesis 1 and 2 yields a picture of human beings serving as the divine presence on earth. This is the meaning of the term ‘co-creator’ in reference to human beings.
The real sticking point is the character of the hierarchy that a theology of human dominion presupposes. One popular reading of Genesis 1 and 2 suggests a transcendent God who has power over humans who, in turn, exercise power over the rest of creation. A better reading of this hierarchy is one that stresses a complex, stratified creation of different entities exercising specific sets of capacities and functions that fit within the whole. This picture of hierarchy does not fixate on power but rather upon the authority of God’s Word made manifest in creation and the authority vested by God in human responsibility to recognize the meaning of God’s ultimate authority that is expressed in the beautiful kingdoms of species that make up creation’s splendor. Catholic thought, for its part, has expressed hierarchy as a both a natural and social structure of relations that stresses God’s authority in a metaphysical language.
On a contextual reading, the reader sees clearly that human beings ought to exercise their authority as God does—benevolently. Our status – as made in the image of God – is declared not once but twice in the preceding verses 26 and 27 of Genesis 1. Human dominion is thus creation care not warfare. Also, as biblical scholars have noted, the creation narrative of Genesis 2 provides a canonical context for a proper understanding of Genesis 1. In Genesis 2, the human one (adam) is made from the dust of the earth (adamah). And so, in response to critics of the Christian understanding of human beings, the biblical texts do indeed warrant the closest relationship between humanity, the material elements that make up our bodies, and the earthly realm in which we have our abode. We are both our bodies and more than our bodies: Catholic thought has expressed this matter of philosophical anthropology with a nod to Aristotelian hylomorphism: the soul is the form of the body, it is not opposed to it. The soul emerges in human evolution from ancestor species and materiality in general. This is metaphysics of course, not biblical exegesis, it is a distinctly Catholic contribution to a many-sided understanding.
Such is the shape of what Evangelicals and Catholics can do together: change culture and foster a shared Christian identity. Each tradition must bring its strengths to bear on an integral, Christian understanding of human nature. Evangelicals bear the good news with regards to the scriptural message of hierarchy as a dominion of peaceful authority and divine involvement with each individual person. Catholics bear the good news with regard to a tradition that affirms the philosophical and moral languages that complement scripture. Let us hope and pray that this complementarity between evangelicals and Catholics begins to bear more fruit. Their overlapping strengths could serve future efforts that struggle to promote created human nature and protect nature itself from exploitation.