One cannot escape the dilemma of gendered language when trying to interpret the pope’s new encyclical. While it is certainly refreshing to see inclusive language used for human beings (except when the document quotes earlier publications, of course), I had hoped that this encyclical would also begin to transform the way that encyclicals name God. While I was very moved when reading Laudato Si’ (hereafter LS), and I believe it makes a significant and timely contribution to official church teachings, our theo-ethical discourse, and public policy discourse more broadly, I have mixed reactions to the God-talk of the text. I had hoped that an encyclical on environmental justice would draw on the rich biblical and spiritual traditions of Christianity that offer a range of creative symbols for God, including God as Mother. As others on the blog have pointed out in various posts, many readers trained in theological ethics have not only praised the document but also pointed out limitations. This is, of course, to be expected, as we continue to wrestle with the key arguments and interpret the messages in our own particular contexts. Towards that end, I offer a feminist reading of the way the encyclical names God.
While the normative judgments of the encyclical regarding care for the environment and human interdependence with creation overlap considerably with ecofeminist concerns, this encyclical continues to employ a tired gender binary expressed not only in its understanding of human relationships but also in the way that it constructs the reality of God/the Divine as masculine and Creation/Earth as feminine. Drawing on the structure of Sandra Schneiders’ key argument in her Madeleva Lecture of 1986, yet applied to LS, I will argue that LS both adopts and subverts patriarchy in its theology of God. LS does not present as radical a vision as some ecofeminist proposals (for example, those by Ivone Gebara, Carol J. Adams, Ilia Delio), and retains mostly masculine God-talk. But it also shares many concerns with feminist theologians including the persistent focus on how women and children are most vulnerable to climate change, poverty, and human trafficking. In some places, the encyclical sounds like a feminist manifesto, but in other places it completely ignores decades of scholarly research by feminist theologians.
Part 1: How the Encyclical Adopts Patriarchy
LS adopts patriarchy in two ways: first, by its emphasis on God as Father, and second, by employing a gender binary and gender stereotypes that cast women in a supporting role to male power.
1.1: Masculine Language for God
Language matters. As feminist theologians have argued for quite some time now, religious language functions. Mary Daly wrote decades ago, “If God is male, then male is God.” Exclusively masculine language for God serves male power interests and malforms the spiritual imagination (see writings by Sandra Schneiders, Elizabeth Johnson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and many others). When sacred liturgy and papal encyclicals continue to refer to God only in masculine metaphors, titles, and pronouns, this gives the impression that men are more like God than women. In short, as Sandra Schneiders has eloquently argued, “God’s presumed masculinity has functioned as the ultimate religious legitimation of the unjust social structures which victimize women.” (Women and the Word, 5).
God is neither male nor female; God is pure spirit. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 370). But our language for God in liturgical prayer and magisterial teachings seem to imply that God is more like men than women. LS carries on this tradition by emphasizing masculine symbols for God and using exclusively masculine pronouns for God. Even the non-gendered title of Creator is given a masculine emphasis. Pope Francis argues that dominion belongs only to God, thereby presenting the Divine as dominative:
“A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.” (75)
But I would argue that here that the pope’s prescription is incorrect, and dangerously so. Pope Francis is right to criticize human attempts at absolute domination. He is critical of the dominion model of relating to nature. Francis says it is a problem that humans have identified as God, usurping the place of God. I would suggest that the last thing we need is a new emphasis on a male image for God, especially a new hierarchical and dominative one that focuses on God as “all powerful” “who alone owns the world.” This image, drawn from human experiences of power and property ownership, is more akin to a patriarch who rules over his household than a loving companion who nurtures new life and cares for the vulnerable.
To say God is Father is to use the symbol of human reproduction as a way of explaining who God is. Taken literally, it would be absurd to say that God is Father because God does not have male sexual organs. The literal reading is absurd in another way as well, since in the reality of human reproduction, it takes more than just a father to create human life. So the two-fold problem of the overuse of this symbol of God as Father is that, first, it seems to say that God is more like men than women, and second, it forgets the need for women in the work of human generation.
Pope Francis employs the image of God as Father elsewhere to draw attention to relationality:
“Called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate, and humble respect.” (89).
Surely the biggest take-away from this section of the encyclical is to draw on God-Talk in order to emphasize the bonds of relationality among humans and between humans and creation. But such a claim can be made without reinforcing a male image of God and a patriarchal organization of human society.
In presenting the core of the Gospel, Pope Francis begins his analysis of Jesus with the following:
“Jesus took up the biblical faith in God the Creator, emphasizing a fundamental truth: God is Father (Mt 11:25). In talking with his disciples, Jesus would invite them to recognize the paternal relationship God has with all his creatures.” (96)
In this way, LS seems to literalize the symbol of God as Father and situates his interpretation of Jesus’s God-talk in this light. Jesus’s use of maternal metaphors for God goes without notice (for example, Jn. 3, to be born again in the Spirit, Mt 13:3, bakerwoman, Lk. 15:8-10, woman in search of lost coin) and the encyclical does not point out in any explicit way the dangers of gendered God-talk. Instead, it simply asserts that God is Father as if this is the only and best way to name towards God.
1.2: Gender Binary and Gender Role Stereotypes
A second way that LS adopts patriarchy is by employing a gender binary that relies on outdated gender stereotypes. The very first paragraph sets up a pattern that repeats throughout, as the God-talk is masculine but Earth-talk is feminine:
“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.” (1)
The gender symbolism here does not originate in Christian theology, but Christian theology has failed to interrupt it satisfactorily. As Rosemary Radford Ruether argued in her 1983 classic, Sexism and God-Talk, in dominant cultural metaphors the hierarchy of male over female is closely aligned with the hierarchy of culture over nature.
“Women are symbolized as ‘closer to nature’ than men and thus fall in an intermediate position between culture as the male sphere and uncontrolled nature. This is due both to woman’s physiological investment in the biological processes that reproduce the species rather than in processes that enhance her as an individual… Female physiological processes are viewed as dangerous and polluting to higher (male) culture… Woman’s body—her reproductive processes—becomes owned by men, defined from a male point of view… Male transcendence is defined as flight from and warfare against the realm of the mother, the realm of body and nature, all that limits and confines rather than being controlled by the human (male).” (72-75).
By adopting masculine language for God and feminine language for Nature, Pope Francis carries forward a long-standing cultural metaphor that has been dangerous for women, given that it fails to recognize the equal dignity of women in shaping culture.
Further, the encyclical presents a rigid gender binary consistent with magisterial teachings in sexual ethics and theological anthropology: masculine and feminine are seen as different and complementary (155). In this worldview, to be masculine is to be strong, rational, active; to be feminine is to be weak, emotional, passive. Consider the hymn of St. Francis, in which the masculine Brother Sun, Brother Wind, and Brother Fire are radiant with a likeness of the Most High, giving sustenance, playful, robust, and strong, while the feminine Sister Moon and Sister Water are precious, beautiful, useful, humble, and chaste (87). Maternal affection is reserved for Mary, Beauty Queen par excellence:
“Completely transfigured, she now lives with Jesus and all creatures sing of her fairness. She is the Woman, ‘clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Rev 12:1). Carried up into heaven, she is the Mother and Queen of all creation. In her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty.” (241).
These tired dualisms (masculine/feminine, strong/weak, rational/emotional, active/passive) have been named and criticized by feminists who argue, first, that gender is at least in part socially constructed and, second, that these dualisms create an imbalance of power between men and women, not only in interpersonal relationships but in institutional contexts (for example, in the exclusion of women from ordination in the Roman Catholic Church). To quote Ruether’s 1983 classic again:
“There is no valid biological basis for labeling certain psychic capacities, such as reason, ‘masculine,’ and others, such as intuition, ‘feminine.’ To put it bluntly, there is no biological connection between male gonads and the capacity to reason. Likewise, there is no biological connection between female sexual organs and the capacity to be intuitive, caring, or nurturing. Thus the labeling of these capacities as masculine and feminine simply perpetuates gender role stereotypes and imports gender complementarity into each person’s identity in a confusing way.” (111).
Given the breadth and depth of feminist theology in 2015, it is unfortunate that LS adopts a patriarchal mindset in key passages that privilege a male image for God (namely, Father) and that repeat a problematic gender binary. But the God-talk of LS goes beyond what we’ve addressed already, and in some places Pope Francis subverts patriarchy. To this we will now turn.
Part 2: How the Encyclical Subverts Patriarchy
2.1: What kind of Father is God, according to LS?
One way that LS subverts patriarchy is the way it characterizes the kind of God present in the metaphor of God as Father. While I’ve argued above that in some passages God is presented as all-powerful patriarch, in other passages there is a focus on God’s tenderness, mercy, and compassion. These characteristics of God subvert a dominative model of Fatherhood. For example:
“Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection.” (77, see also 73, 220)
“With moving tenderness he would remind them that each one of them is important in God’s eyes: ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God’ (Lk 12:6). ‘Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.’ (Mt 6:26).” (96, see also 226)
In describing the fatherhood of St. Joseph, Pope Francis first begins with the more traditional images of the father as “hard-working and strong,” but then goes on to subvert a patriarchal portrait of the perfect human father in his description of the nurturing rule of St. Joseph:
“He also shows great tenderness, which is not a mark of the weak but of those who are genuinely strong, fully aware of reality and ready to love and serve in humility. That is why he was proclaimed custodian of the universal Church. He too can teach us how to show care; he can inspire us to work with generosity and tenderness in protecting this world which God has entrusted to us.” (242).
It may be helpful, then, to remember the distinction Sandra Schneiders makes between patriarchy (an unjust social system that privileges men over women) and paternity (fatherhood). It is possible, says Schneiders, “for a man to be a father to his minor children in relation to adult children whose autonomy and equality with himself he fully accepts. Likewise, it is possible or God to be experienced as paternal without being experienced as a patriarch. And a father-God who is not experienced as a patriarch can equally well be experienced as a mother-God without loss of status.” (Women and the Word, 15).
In Francis’s vision, the paternity of God yields ethical norms for human relationships:
“Jesus reminded us that we have God as our common Father and that this makes us brothers and sisters. Fraternal love can only be gratuitous; it can never be a means of repaying others for what they have done or will do for us… We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.” (228-229).
Of course, one could just as well substitute the non-gendered term “Parent” or the feminine “Mother” in place of “Father” in the above, and the meaning would be the same. That Francis chooses not to do so does not mean it is not theologically valid and possible for others to imagine God so.
2.2: Rebuke of the Patriarchal Mindset
I said before that the encyclical begins with a binary in which God is masculine and Earth is feminine. And yet, Pope Francis seems to rebuke a patriarchal mindset immediately. In the very next paragraph, he writes:
“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” (2)
Pope Francis argues that the abuse of the feminine (earth) is a problem, and it is a problem because humans adopted a patriarchal mindset – “we have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters.” Ecofeminists have long argued that this is precisely the problem. The dominion model empowers men over women, humans over animals and the natural world. Pope Francis is challenging this model explicitly, as have ecofeminists for years. It becomes confusing only because LS contains both these rebukes of patriarchy together with descriptions of Mother Earth as fragile, weak, and in need of protection, while God is Father, Lord, and All-Powerful Master of All. Is it possible that the mindset of power-over-nature that has led to catastrophic pollution, waste, and destruction of the created world is in part a result from the feminization of creation and the dominance of the male gaze, a gaze which Pope Francis seems to want to undercut at the same time that he employs male language for God?
We could, instead, adopt a more radical God-talk that breaks from the dualisms of the past. Here’s an early ecofeminist scripting for such a project:
“An ecological-feminist theology of nature must rethink the whole Western theological tradition of the hierarchical chain of being and chain of command. This theology must question the hierarchy of human over nonhuman nature as a relationship of ontological and moral value. It must challenge the right of the human to treat the nonhuman as private property and material wealth to be exploited. It must unmask the structures of social domination, male over female, owner over worker that mediate this domination over nonhuman nature. Finally, it must question the model of hierarchy that starts with non-material spirit (God) as the source of the chain of being and continues down to nonspiritual “matter” as the bottom of the chain of being and the most inferior, valueless, and dominated point in the chain of command. The God/ess who is primal Matrix, the ground of being-new being, is neither stifling immancence nor rootless transcendence.” (Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, 85).
There are seeds of this more radical view planted in LS, especially when one digs deeper into the theology of God as Love, as we will next analyze.
2.3 God is Love: Trinitarian God-Talk as Liberating Discourse
LS overflows with descriptions of God’s love, as when we read that “the entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us.” (84). And in paragraphs 238-240, Francis points to the importance of “reading reality in a Trinitarian key” (239). This traditional way of naming God, so central to the Christian theological imagination, could be misinterpreted as hopelessly patriarchal, given the way that we have so often used exclusively masculine language to describe Trinitarian relationality (Father, Son, Spirit, as in 238). But feminist Elizabeth Johnson writes:
“If the image of God is the ultimate reference point for the values of a community, then the structure of the triune symbol stands as a profound critique, however little noticed, of patriarchal domination in church and society. The power of an interpersonal communion characterized by equality and mutuality, which it signifies, still flashes like a beacon through a dark night, rather that shining like a daytime sun. Human community in a relationship of equals has yet to be realized save in isolated and passing instances. Yet the central notion of divine Trinity, symbolizing not a monarch ruling from isolated splendor but the relational character of Holy Wisdom points inevitably in that direction, toward a community of equals related in mutuality.” (She Who Is, 223).
Pope Francis takes a decidedly feminist turn in paragraph 240, emphasizing mutuality and communion:
“The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfillment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that Trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.” (240).
Such a theology of God is compatible not only with Christian tradition, but also with the data of modern sciences, especially evolutionary theory. Pope Francis even uses the maternal image of childbirth in an earlier section to describe the Creator’s relationship to a groaning creation:
“Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator.” (80)
This is an important and sophisticated theological claim, bringing together both the question of suffering and the hopefulness of the Christian story with the data of science. In her more recent book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Elizabeth Johnson names God in a way that can deepen our appreciation for the natural world as well as for the holy mystery of God, and this description is, I think, totally compatible with the Trinitarian “read” of Pope Francis:
“A theology of the Spirit as the love of God in person indwelling the natural world and sparking its own daring generative powers goes a good distance toward meeting this challenge. Infinite mystery of self-giving love, the Creator Spirit calls the world into being, gifts it with dynamism, and accompanies it through the by-ways of evolution, all the while attracting it forward toward a multitude of ‘endless forms most beautiful.’ We glimpse here bounteous personal love that pours itself out in empowerment of a creation that is transient and vulnerable yet resilient and generative, a creation that without this love would be literally nothing at all. As such unbounded love will do, the Spirit of God unleashes autonomy in the beloved rather than seeking to control the other by any form of power-over, even if benevolently exercised. Sheer overflowing goodness, the Creator respects the freedom and independence of the world such divine bountifulness lets loose, and works through its dynamisms and interlocking evolutionary processes.” (178-9).
Part 3: Looking Ahead…
To explicitly name some common ground between an ecofeminist perspective and the encyclical, it is important to note that both:
- Recognize the “inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology” (116) in the tradition and say there is “no place for tyrannical anthropocentrism” (68, 200);
- Encourage open and honest debates about thorny ethical issues (188);
- Share suspicion regarding power and technology (107);
- Call for healing of human relationships (119);
- Say we need a renewal of the moral imagination (202);
- Argue that we are part of nature, not simply over nature (139);
- Affirm a focus on lo cotidiano and la lucha (147-151);
- Argue that humans have agency and that we can form new habits (112);
- Say we should be willing to learn from one another (214);
- Are emphatic about the worth of the human person (117); & both
- Highlight particular issues of injustice in which women and children are disproportionately vulnerable, including human trafficking (91, 123), access to clean water, global hunger and poverty (109).
Two other passages offer additional hope for the feminist reader.
First, when Pope Francis rejects the “dominion model,” he does so by arguing that previous Christian interpreters of Genesis 1-3 were wrong (67). The dominion model “is not a correct interpretation of the Bible,” whose stories “must be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic.” This is a straightforward acknowledgement that the sources of the Christian tradition must be interpreted, and that genuine development is not only possible but likely.
And the second important passage that is uplifting for a feminist reader is when, in paragraph 98, the pope names “unhealthy dualisms” which “left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and disfigured the Gospel.” This, too, is an important recognition of the way that the Christian tradition has been shaped by humans influenced by their own limited contexts. While some dualisms are retained in the overarching claims of LS, perhaps in the future even those will be seen as remnants of a past patriarchal mindset that must be overcome because it is a serious misunderstanding of the Gospel.
This is a very long blog post about God-talk, which is, admittedly, not a key focus of the encyclical, but is rather embedded in the primary argument. While the more important take-aways from this encyclical should be about changing our consumerist lifestyle, not only our language about God, these two really are deeply connected. It is time to let go of exclusively masculine titles, pronouns, and symbols for the God of Creation who is beyond all limitations of sex, gender, and humanly constructed dualisms. If we adopt a mindset that recognizes the presence of God in the natural world, a God incomprehensible who is at the same time as close to us as the air we breathe, then we will need to continue to mine our tradition and our imaginations for language that best captures the essence of the God of Love.
LS is a deeply moving call to action that takes seriously the scientific achievements of our age and the reality of human sinfulness but also presents a hopeful vision of the future. I, too, remain hopeful, not only about the possibility of collective action to change destructive habits but also about the possibility of our moral imaginations becoming open to a wider range of symbols for God.