Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 11, No. 11, November 2015
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The Pope, Patriarchy, and Saving the World

Linda Gordon

Originally published in
The Empire Files, 7 October 2015

People who care about preserving our world and ending violence need to keep demanding that the Catholic Church align itself with sex equality.

I’ve not very religious in any religion and never spent much time thinking about papal leadership. Like millions of others, I was outraged by the extent of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, and disgusted by the Church hierarchy’s protection of the abusers – thereby, essentially, sentencing many children to torture. (The discovery a few days ago that U.S. army officers instructed men to ignore the rape of boys by Afghan soldiers and elders shows that it is not only churchmen who are capable of such behavior.)

But Francis soon captured my respect. The issues he is fighting for are, simply, the most important world problems. First, we won’t even have a world unless leaders and influencers of public opinion act radically and quickly to reduce fossil fuel usage. As former Irish President Mary Robinson put it, climate change is the leading human rights issue. Second, we won’t have a world worth living in unless leaders and influencers of public opinion shed their obedience to capitalist profiteers and allow workers, people of color, and all women to share in the world’s wealth. Third, Francis’s insistence on welcoming and, more importantly, respecting refugees and migrants. Fourth, his warning against “every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind,” as he put it in his speech to the U.S. Congress.

The message comes not only from Francis’s words, but also from his actions. He tries to set an example by rejecting luxury and living simply. He honors ordinary people, poor people, people of color. That he does these things has given him enormous popularity in a short time. He has raised hopes.

So I was dismayed to read about feminist groups demonstrating against him. organized a “Procession of Unrepentant Women” (because Francis would “allow” women who’ve had abortions to repent) in New York. Ukrainian Femen activists demonstrated for gay rights – topless – in St. Peters Square. In Washington, DC, he was picketed by demonstrators calling for women priests.

Then I noticed that the strongest criticism of the Pope’s intransigence on sex and gender issues comes from Catholics. Especially nuns, who have openly defied Vatican teachings and been harshly punished for it. As Catholic spokeswoman Miriam Duignan wrote, his “words echo a brand of sexism where motherhood is presented as the only worthwhile role for women.” Above all, Catholic critics point out that people cannot, and frequently do not, actually live by his teachings. Couples want to enjoy sex, and only the 1 percent can afford unlimited children. Most women worldwide have to bring in money to support their families, and often can’t do it without controlling their reproduction. Francis ought to examine more closely the actual lives of men and women, not the view from Latin texts.

Catholic criticism does not come only from women. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, points out that after Francis’s instruction to the Extraordinary General Assembly of Bishops in 2014 – “No one must say `This can’t be said’” – the meeting of 227 men and 25 women nevertheless clung to the ban on birth control and homosexuality. Asked if this was misogynist, the Pope replied, “The fact is woman was taken from a rib.”

These patriarchal assumptions are not only anti-woman but anti-sexual. The Pope “avoids referring to Mary … as a loving wife,” Miriam Duignan points out, because to do so “would suggest a sexual relationship that is outside the express purposes of reproduction and would prevent women from remaining chaste.” So he cannot accept equality for gays and lesbians, for they cannot be “chaste” in his understanding. Nor equality for transgender people, because he sees humanity itself as a binary, in which men go out into the world, women nurture at home.

Furthermore, this sex-and-gender conservatism undermines Francis’s own goals. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals just adopted by the U.N., which closely resemble the Pope’s views, cite gender equality not only as a principle of justice but as essential for the other goals to be realized. The Church is part of the related problems of inequality and climate change, through its ban on birth control. By excluding women, the Church remains controlled by an all-male curia dedicated to retaining their power and privilege. I’m not saying that women are immune from such motives. But as women and men are currently socialized, women would not have tolerated, let alone practiced sexual abuse. Women would, on the whole, be less militaristic and more diplomatic in resolving conflict. U.S. polls now show that women are typically about 20 percent more favorable to reversing climate change, helping refugees, reducing inequality and fighting against racism.

So while I’m not going to demonstrate against Pope Francis, I respect the feelings of those who do. People who care about preserving our world and ending violence need to keep demanding that the Catholic Church align itself with sex equality and a positive view of human sexuality in all its forms.

When my daughter was born, the seven-year-old son of a close friend – a boy well indoctrinated by his feminist mother – sent her a drawing. Printed in his child-like letters at the top was “GIRLS CAN BE ANYTHING THEY WANT TO BE.” Below, four occupations were illustrated by rough drawings, including one of a person in robes, labeled “Pope.” My husband and I laughed, loved it, framed it, and hung it on the wall. We laughed partly because the young boy didn’t realize that you had to be Catholic to be a pope, and we aren’t; I don’t know if he knew that the very idea of a woman pope was also funny. Maybe someday it won’t be funny.


Linda Gordon is a professor of history and a University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. Her early books focused on the historical roots of social policy issues, particularly as they concern gender and family issues. More recently, she has explored other ways of presenting history to a broad audience, publishing the microhistory The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard University Press, 1999) and the biography Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits (W.W. Norton, 2009), both of which won the Bancroft Prize. She is one of only three historians to have won this award twice.

'Be Joyful, Though You Have Considered the Facts'

Avi Lewis

This article was originally published in
Common Dreams, 16 October 2015
under a Creative Commons License

Ahead of nationwide release of new documentary film, some thoughts on climate, capitalism, and the need for stories that regenerate to battle those that destroy.


[Common Dreams' Editor's note: Several weeks ago, ahead of the U.S. premiere of his new film, This Changes Everything, journalist and filmmaker Avi Lewis spoke with Common Dreams via phone to discuss the documentary inspired by the book of the same name, written by his wife Naomi Klein. Some of that discussion was presented in an article published on October 1. Now, as the film makes its West Coast premiere Friday evening in Los Angeles  and ahead of community screenings and its nationwide theatrical release next Tuesday, CD thought today would be as good an opportunity as there would ever be to publish some extended excerpts from that conversation. Only slightly edited for clarity, what follows covers a range of topics – from the importance of narratives and the inadequacy of despair to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and the Leap Manifesto in Canada. Overall, Lewis offers both an informed analysis and personal assessment of what's needed—and what's possible—when we realize what it means to "be joyful, though [we] have considered the facts."]

Man vs. Nature vs. Markets: On the Narratives That Bind

I think it's pretty clear that a view of the world in which Man dominates and exploits nature endlessly—and I use the gender pronoun very intentionally there, because historically that's been the case—is a very profitable one for the very few. And therefore we have a culture and a system which  reinforces that message at every turn. And its modern incarnation that the free market—this mysterious force—will solve all our problems for us as long as we ruthlessly pursue our self-interest.

"A view of the world in which Man dominates and exploits nature endlessly... is a very profitable one for the very few."
So for people who already have a lot these are incredibly convenient stories and it's not a surprise they are the dominant culture. It's either the people who control it—or, in the case of politicians, the people who serve it. But I think that you see growing unease in the population and I think there's been a really painful lesson for Americans.

The Rise of Obama and the Pitfalls of 'Hope'

I was in the United States for the year leading up to the 2008 election and my job actually was to produce half-hour documentaries for Al-Jazeera English to explain the underlying issues behind the U.S. election cycle. So not the horse-race, but the underlying stuff for a global audience. And so I followed Obama's rise very closely and it's been really heartbreaking for a lot of people on the left in the United States that Obama seemed like such a game-changer, and yet, in the years post-2008 corporate profits have continued to spiral and inequality has continued to deepen and the middle-class is more and more fractured and dissolving, and the downward trajectory for the majority of the people continues. In this, we see how the climate crisis seeds in terrifying ways.

"This is a lesson that many progressives already knew and allowed themselves to temporarily forget—that no one's gonna come and save us."
And I think the lesson from this is a lesson that many progressives already knew and allowed themselves to temporarily forget—that no one's gonna come and save us. In fact, we know, the way change happens is people in movements change politicians. In this country you have a huge, huge problem to get corporate money out of the political process so that you can actually have a democracy where votes count more than dollars. But, let's not forget, in Canada we have our own challenges.

'Rock Star Moments': From Pope Francis' Encyclical to the Sanders Surge

The Encyclical on the environment by Pope Francis—although I don't agree with everything in it—is a really beautiful and important historical document. When first released, however, it didn't get as much play in the U.S. as it should have. My understanding is that there are very conservative forces within the Catholic institutions here and they simply weren't advancing it despite it being the pope's missive on the most crucial issues of our time.

"Ask anyone on Earth if you can infinite growth on a finite planet and everyone is going to say, 'Of course not.' Yet our entire global economic system is premised on that crazy idea."
Now, the pope's position on climate change—which is resonating so deeply with people—is really getting the attention that it deserves here in this country and I think that's immensely gratifying, but I don't think it's that surprising.  And who else is going through a sort of unexpected 'rock star moment'? Bernie Sanders. They are both talking about inequality and climate change and making the links between the two—and bing!—they're resonating crazy across society. It's thrilling for Naomi and I, because those are the themes of our work. But it's also unsurprising because the fact is, people know. Ask anyone on Earth if you can infinite growth on a finite planet and everyone is going to say, 'Of course not.' It's common sense. And yet, our entire global economic system is premised on that crazy idea. 

People are ready for a deeper, much more systemic critique and much for grassroots radical solutions.

'We're Not Winning' But We Know What Winning Can Look Like

In the film—and it's only about a minute in the film, but it's one of the most important minute of the film to me—we look at what's happened in Germany.

By the way, Germany is not some tiny outlier, this is the most powerful industrial economy in Europe and one of the top economies in the world. And in the last fifteen years they've shifted their electricity system to 30 percent renewable; they've created 400,000 news jobs and—more importantly perhaps—created 900 energy cooperatives where they de-privatized electricity utilities across the country through referendum and a citizens' movement. And now renewable energy, in many cases, is run locally by communities who receive the economic benefit from selling that electricity to the grid. And they can use the revenue to pay for local services. And this didn't happen because politicians just decided it would be a good idea. It was the anti-nuclear movement in Germany that pushed for years for this. And once they turned the tide on nukes, they set their sights on renewables, and now that they've got the energy transition going on in a very satisfying way—imperfect, but in a very exciting way—they're moving to shut down the coal industry, which is the final missing piece in Germany.

"This didn't happen because politicians just decided it would be a good idea... It's this dynamic of people pushing from below."
So it's this dynamic of people pushing from below that's so vital. I mean, look, the one thing that politicians are really good at is figuring out what's popular and trying to be popular. So I think our job is to propose policies and build political power behind them until we can get the politicians to come to us. And I think that's what we're seeing in the climate justice movement globally.

And I'm not saying we're winning. We're not winning. But there's been an incredible string of victories that really need celebrating and I think point the way forward strategically.

Despair: The Luxury We Can't Afford

How do we reconcile the destruction we're witnessing with victories and solutions that often seem elusive? 

For me, it's the balance of cold-eyed realism—which shows us that we're on a truly catastrophic path and hurtling in the wrong direction as a global society—and the importance of choosing to be hopeful because people don't act out of despair. Or put it this way: despair breeds paralysis, while hope can lead to action.

"This is absolutely critical—if you're going to embrace hope, it has to be credible hope. It has to be hope that's actually based on something and it has to be hope that is mitigated by an acknowledgement of how bad things are."
And I actually believe, speaking for myself personally, that hope is a choice and that despair is an indulgence that we simply don't have time for. Yeah, I can make the case to you that we're fucked and we should just turn on the tv, take our drug of choice, and just tune it out. I can make that case for you and it would be completely convincing. But what on earth is the point of that? I think it's been a mistake for other similar initiatives—that come from a really good place—to try to shock people into action. That worked for Upton Sinclair in The Jungle and it was possible in the early muckraking decades to "prick the conscience" of people and lawmakers and for change just to happen by showing how horrible everything was. But that model has been broken for decades. Now we actually have to inspire people to action and we're not going to scare them into action.

But—and this is absolutely critical—if you're going to embrace hope, it has to be credible hope. It has to be hope that's actually based on something and it has to be hope that is mitigated by an acknowledgement of how bad things are. And that is the very fine balance that I tried to strike in the film. Everybody's who sees it will come to their own conclusion on that. I have no idea if I succeeded, but that's definitely what I was aiming for.

Landscapes of Destruction and the Titans of Struggle

We don't candy-coat things in the film. We don't pretend that the tar sands aren't a vast crime in progress against the earth. But on the other hand, there are people up there—like Crystal Laman of the Beaver Cree Nation—who are fighting the titanic struggle to fund a lawsuit against the Canadian government that makes the case that the cumulative impact of tar sands development is violating their constitutional guarantee to a traditional life. And there have been a string of incredible Supreme Court decisions in Canada that have advanced aboriginal land rights enormously—unlike anywhere else in the post-colonial world—that give that lawsuit a real chance, a real hope, of being a game-changer.

And there are people like Liam Hildenbrand, a boilermaker of the local 190 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, who I met up there and who started an organization called Iron & Earth to build support among tar sands workers for a renewable energy transition. And he's got lots and lots of people who are involved, a lot whom wouldn't speak to me on camera—because it's a very oppressive and conformist culture in the oil industry—but there are people in this vast landscape of destruction who are doing incredibly exciting and hopeful things. The film is conveying both.

What's the Leap?

'The Leap Manifesto' came out of a really organic process where we were connecting the dots, as Naomi says in the film, between the carbon in that air and the economic system that put it there.

"We put forward this policy proposal about the kind of country that we wanted to build—an exciting, ambitious, expansive set of demands that goes way beyond anything that's being introduced by the political class."
And as we were working on this project we were seeing movements working on all these different issues: migrant rights; Fight for $15 and the minimum wage struggles; Black Lives Matter and the struggle for racial justice; First Nations and indigenous struggles for land rights; environmental struggles to protect land, air, and water; and anti-capitalist struggles that try to attack the core logic of this system. And we felt that the only solution was to connect the dots among all these struggles and so we started trying to convene meetings across issues and using Naomi's convening power to bring people to together. 

And in Canada we had this extraordinary meeting in May, with 60 leaders from indigenous, labor, environmental, migrant rights, and anti-poverty organizations and we decided to spend some time on a difficult and fascinating conversation about the kind of Canada that we want. And Naomi had the idea to write a manifesto of actual policies—political demands that this huge range of groups could get behind. And then we decide to launch it during the election campaign in Canada and around the time of the film's launch at Toronto International Film Festival [in September]. And there was a staggering array of Canadian celebrities—from musicians like Leonard Cohen and Leslie Feist, and actors like Donald Sutherland and Ellen Page, and writers like Michael Andache and many others—who all wanted to sign it. And we put forward this policy proposal about the kind of country that we wanted to build—an exciting, ambitious, expansive set of demands that goes way beyond anything that's being introduced by the political class.

An Earth Screaming for 'Reciprocity and Regeneration'

Connecting of the dots across issues is utterly critical. There's no question that the Syrian conflict has been driven by the drought—linked to climate change—which preceded it. If not the cause of it, it's definitely an accelerating factor. Sadly, there are more and more people on the move on this planet every year and the climate crisis is fueling a tremendous amount of that and will even more in the future. And the question of how we in the "rich world" treat "the other," is one that goes back to the founding our countries—and the genocide against Indigenous people that founded your country and mine. And so these are questions that we cannot dodge any longer. And if we're looking for a way to face the existential crisis that faces us as humans, we need another story other than the one about endless domination of nature to extract profit that flows upwards like the emissions themselves, with the profits consolidating at the top—and the upper-stratosphere representing the so-called "one percent."

"We need another story other than the one about endless domination of nature to extract profit that flows upwards like the emissions themselves, with the profits consolidating at the top."

So there are those other narratives around—narratives of reciprocity and regeneration—and they've been around for thousands of generations and they've been kept alive by original people and they're still held by people who are closer to traditional society. And this is not about romanticizing the Indigenous, it's a question of how to understand those older narratives of connectedness in a post-modern world. But that traditional wisdom tells us, very clearly, that there has to be another way. The earth is screaming at us to get off this path.

A Better Side of Ourselves

When you make those connections across all of these issues—and fundamentally get at the economic logic that's driving our multiple, overlapping crises—you actually see the way towards multiple, overlapping solutions. And I think that's the place where people are getting really excited.

I believe that the momentum behind Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and the euphoria around Pope Francis and the extraordinary generosity of spirit that we've seen among populations around the world towards refugees in this moment, speaks to the better side of ourselves. And the ugly side is always there; it's still there—and it still holds the reigns of power—but I think these are moments that remind of us who we can be. That's why in the film Naomi says, "It's not about polar bears. It's about us." It's about whether we are going to give in to this message that we are selfish, greedy, self-interested people and that actually is "the best way to be," as Milton Freidman would have it. Or whether we're people who know how to take care of each other, and of the land—and whether that's the side of ourselves that we can live in, together.

On Fatherhood, Climate, and the Transformations of Grander Scale

First of all, discussing the role of becoming a parent in the context of climate change is something I don't particularly like talking about. But the reason I don't like talking about it is because I actually have an allergy to this notion that we're "doing it for the children" and that somehow becoming a parent gives you some magical insight into the future and makes you "care about stuff." There's so many dangers to that. First of all, it's so indefensibly exclusionary toward people who decide not have children, or who can't have children. So it becomes this club, which I hate.

But also, it kicks the can down the road. When Al Gore in 'Inconvenient Truth' offered that moment which was like 'Do it for your grandkids,'my response was like, 'No. It's happening now... to us.  Do it for us now, right?' So I think they are real dangers in that 'parenting' narrative.

"The notion of what transformational change can be like can unlock one's sense that transformational change is possible on a much grander scale in the world."

And yet, becoming a parent in the course of this long and extremely demanding five-year work of making this movie, actually did a number of things to me and for me, which I am happy to share. First of all, it was extremely humbling that we were able to bring life into the world and considerably less time than it took to make a book and film. And we didn't have particularly easy time with it, as Naomi writes about in the book. So that was humbling.

Another thing is that having a baby and then a toddler requires that you dwell in a completely silly and fun-filled land for a part of every day. And actually just be an idiot and being a child with my child has been a great antidote to this work which can be very depressing and very taxing.

But, and I think to be more serious, becoming a parent is the first time in your adult life—for many people, I mean there's lots of other experiences that can do this—but for me, it was the first time in my adult life when I all of a sudden assumed a new identity. And it kind of sneaks up on you, because you're so focused on the pregnancy and so focused on the birth and so focused on taking care of the child—and you realize along the way: 'Oh my god, I'm a dad.'  And that's the first sort of new identity that I've had to take on as an adult. And you have those moments like, 'Oh shit, I'm an adult. I actually have to take responsibility for this now.' And that's a process of profound personal change to take on a whole new identity. And if people who understand their gender differently over the course of their life or as people who move from one society to another, go from being a member of one culture to being an outsider in another, there are lots of experiences in life that can suddenly thrust upon you a whole new identity. Parenting has been that for me.

And so the notion of what transformational change can be like can unlock one's sense that transformational change is possible on a much grander scale in the world. And I do feel like something clicked in me when I realized that "everything was changing" anyway in our lives, that certainly resonated with the political part of our work.

"I'm Not a Quotes Person"

In fact, I'll confess impolitely that I kind of hate email signatures and the inspirational quote thing just doesn't do it for me, like viewers of the film will learn that polar bears don't do it for Naomi. However, I actually printed out a quote and taped it up over my desk for the years I've been working on this project and it's by the great poet, farmer, philosopher Wendell Berry, who said, "Be joyful, though you have considered the facts." 

And I hope in some way that that's the spirit of the film.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License


Avi Lewis is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who, alongside the book written by his wife Naomi Klein, is working on the feature-length film of their joint project, This Changes Everything.

Is Pope Francis an Ecofeminist?

Susan Rakoczy

This article was originally published in
Transformation, 21 October 2015
under a Creative Commons License

Integrating ecology with feminism is the only way to implement the Vatican’s newfound enthusiasm for environmental concerns.

Usually, letters written by a pope to all members of the Catholic Church seldom interest the broader community. But Pope Francis has been making headline news throughout his papacy as a result of his encyclicals, especially Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to you”), his letter on ecological issues that was released on June 18th 2015.

Greeted with affirmation by those already in the process of ‘ecological conversion’—a radical turning towards the importance of all creation—and vilified by those who disagree with the Pope on climate change and other issues, this encyclical has much of value to say to the whole human community.

Yet there is something missing from Laudato Si’ that undermines both the Pope’s position on ecology and the likelihood that his call to action will be heeded by the broader public: the position of women, and the inter-relationships between gender and the environment.

Pope Francis has called for more women to have leadership positions in society and the Catholic Church, and in 2014 he named five women to the International Theological Commission which advises the Vatican on doctrinal issues. But lamentably he called them “strawberries on the cake.” He has not yet appointed women to major leadership positions because women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church.

More broadly, the Catholic Church’s position on equality, sexuality and women’s rights is often seen as the Achilles heel of a meaningful commitment to social and environmental justice: only when ecology is integrated with feminism can this commitment be realized in practice. This is what ecofeminism aims to do.

Ecofeminism”—a word first coined as ecofeminisme by the French feminist Francois d’Eaubonne in 1974—recognizes that “anthropocentrism” (placing humanity at the center) and “androcentrism” (seeing male human beings as the norm) have led to an ecological crisis by encouraging widespread relationships of domination and exploitation. Ecofeminists argue that the resulting oppressions of women and of nature are deeply inter-twined, because in the Christian tradition, the text of the Book of Genesis has been interpreted in patriarchal terms.

Patriarchy is based on the double oppression of women as those who are ‘created second’ in the language of Genesis, and of nature which is to be ‘dominated by man.’ It’s crucial to understand the power of this double oppression in underpinning gender inequality and environmental degradation. Thus, progress in solving ecological problems can only be made if they include an ecofeminist perspective. The goal of ecofeminism is the radical transformation of consciousness—of how we as human beings view ourselves, our relationships with others, and the earth itself.

The edition of Laudato Si’ which I use does include an index, but only two women are listed: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and St Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th century French Carmelite nun. There is no mention at all of “ecofeminism,” “gender” or even “women.” But the encyclical is friendly to many ecofeminist concerns. For example, it emphasises the unity of all creation a number of times, and states emphatically that “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.”

The document’s guiding perspective is the “common good” of all of humanity, which “is the unifying principle of social ethics.” This principle includes solidarity and a “preferential option for the poor,” which has become a notable theme of Pope Francis’s ministry. The climate itself is seen as a common good “belonging to all and meant for all.” All of creation is united because we have a “common home” which is in grave danger. The daily extinction of species is the result of human action, and therefore “thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

Everything in this critique echoes ecofeminism, which criticizes the lethal effects of hierarchical dualism—of man over nature—in even stronger terms. Nature can never be seen simply as an instrumental ‘other.’ And in fact Laudato Si’ does critique anthropocentrism and the “dominion” language in Genesis, suggesting that this oppressive understanding be replaced by the language of “responsible stewardship.”

Ecofeminism speaks to various dimensions of spirituality: the sacredness of creation which evokes respect for all living things; images such as the ‘web of life;’ and a non-dualistic interpretation of matter and spirit, body and mind, human beings and nature. The perspective of the sacredness of all of creation is echoed in the Pope’s affirmation that nature itself is a locus of divine presence, since the Spirit of God “dwells in every living creature and invites us to enter into relationship with him.” But by naming God as “him”, the text continues to symbolise God as male, when in fact God as spirit has no gender.

The encyclical also recognizes that Christian spirituality hasn’t always affirmed that “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us.” Laudato Si’ includes Pope Benedict XVI’s statement “that the external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” These ideas are also congruent with ecofeminist concerns about the ‘personal and the political.’

Both represent a call to “ecological conversion,” a radical turning away from a human-centered life to a vision of how humanity and all of creation are intimately linked together. Therefore, a concern for the earth as our only home, and action to protect it, is “not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” We only have one home, and if we don’t change our relationship with the world around us, the earth will be home to no one and nothing.

Conversion means turning away from something and turning towards something new.  Ecological conversion includes new ways of being with ourselves, others and nature. These new ways of being include gratitude for the world as “God’s living gift,” recognition that “we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures but joined in a splendid universal communion,” and accepting that all creatures reflect something of God—so “how can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?” Both ecofeminism and ecological conversion call people to adopt profound life-style changes for the sake of each other and the earth.

Hence, Laudato Si’ contains much to gladden the ecofeminist heart, but it also has some serious lacunae. The first is that there is no discussion of the relationship between women and nature in Christian theology. According to Rosemary Radford Ruether, an important ecofeminist theologian, the idea that women have a special, ‘caring’ connection to nature because of their gender is deep-rooted in Western religion, but it’s also a social ideology that’s constructed by patriarchal culture to justify male domination over the environment. That’s why ecofeminism contains such transformative potential.

The encyclical does use gendered language to refer to the earth who is ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ to us. For example, it states that the “earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and mistreated of our poor.” All through the ages, Christian theology has been influenced by neo-Platonic dualism which ranks the supposedly male world of the spirit over the supposedly female world of matter. But it’s unclear whether Pope Francis is continuing this dualistic framework in his encyclical through this language or using it to recognize a deeper interconnection between gender and nature.

Secondly however, and on a much more practical level, Laudato Si’ says not a word about how women, especially poor women, experience ecological degradation on a daily basis: the collapse of eco-systems, the spread of polluted water sources, and the lack of sustainable means of cooking that force women and girl children in Africa, Asia and Latin America to walk increasing distances to find water and firewood for their families.

In both the practical and theological senses therefore, Laudato Si’ ignores the gendered dimensions of the ecological crisis. Why?One answer is that Pope Francis and his theological advisers don’t seem to read the work of women theologians, since the encyclical’s footnotes refer almost exclusively to official church documents. The voices of leading ecofeminists like Radford Reuther, Ivone Gebara from Brazil, Heather Eaton from Canada, and Elizabeth Johnson from the USA are completely missing. If the Church doesn’t study the writings of women theologians from all parts of the world, their theological reflections will always be incomplete.

The same exclusion applies to ecofeminist activists like Wangari Maathai, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her establishment of the Green Belt Movement in the 1970s.  Focused on helping women to repair the damaged ecology of Kenya through tree-planting, the Green Belt Movement has helped to revolutionize attitudes towards environmental conservation, but along with other similar movements it is ignored in an encyclical that’s focused on exactly this subject.

Thoughtful readers of Laudato Si’ will notice and lament that a key document of the Catholic Church that wants to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” seems to have forgotten or marginalized the rights and voices of half of the world’s population. The Pope’s latest letter is an excellent ecological document in many ways, but it could have been so much better.


Susan Rakoczy is professor of spirituality at St. Joseph’s Theological Institute and the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Her current writing projects include work on the spirituality of Thomas Merton and a book on feminist interpretations of discernment.

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Page 9      



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