Saint Francis and the Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis

Over 40 years ago, Lynn White Jr. published The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, an article that sparked a significant number of theologians to connect the harmful understanding of the God-world relat21dc6c93d5ec6614651e652fb594505aionship within Christianity to the roots of the socio-ecological crisis. In the article, White contended that Western Christianity has created and sustained an “exploitative” attitude toward nature, Further, he conjectured that an anthropocentric attitude toward the environment developed as a result of the Judeo-Christian assertion that humans had dominion over nature, and the distinction made between humans (made in God’s image) and the rest of creation which had no “soul” or “reason”. White went so far as to claim in this article that Christianity is the most “anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” Although White did not put forth an action-guiding solution to the environmental crisis, he famously wrote thatsince the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”

In many ways, Lynn White forced Christians, and particularly theologians, to critically reflect on the interconnectedness of the environment and our religious beliefs, noting in particular that what theology has to say about the character and identity of God edifies religious self-understanding and human participation within the world. After this article was published, theologians emerged to contribute their voice to the conversation. Whether or not one accepted White’s thesis, in 1974 many Christians were faced with the questions: What is the Christian response to the environmental crisis? What does our theology have to say about degradation of our common home?

The connection between Lynn White Jr.’s 1974 article and Pope Francis’s recent encyclical is quite interesting. Over 40 years apart, these two works have one common underlying thought for how Christians should respond to the current environmental crisis.

It came as no surprise that Pope Francis continually evoked Saint Francis of Assisi throughout his exhortation. Not only is the title of the encyclical from Saint Francis of Assisi’s canticle but Pope Francis also states at the outset:

 I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the examimage-20150614-1456-a78vaeple par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

40 years ago, in The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White wrote:

“Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is the fact that he did not end at the stake, as many of his left-wing followers did. He was so clearly heretical that a General of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonaventure, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility–not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his. Later commentators have said that Francis preached to the birds as a rebuke to men who would not listen. The records do not read so: he urged the little birds to praise God, and in spiritual ecstasy they flapped their wings and chirped rejoicing. Legends of saints, especially the Irish saints, had long told of their dealings with animals but always, I believe, to show their human dominance over creatures. With Francis it is different. Saint Francis, says the legend, talked to the wolf and persuaded him of the error of his ways. The wolf repented, died in the odor of sanctity, and was buried in consecrated ground. What Sir Steven Ruciman calls “the Franciscan doctrine of the animal soul” was quickly stamped out. Quite possibly it was in part inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the belief in reincarnation held by the Cathar heretics who at that time teemed in Italy and southern France, and who presumably had got it originally from India. It is significant that at just the same moment, about 1200, traces of metempsychosis are found also in western Judaism, in the Provencal Cabbala. But Francis held neither to transmigration of souls nor to pantheism. His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inaminate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator, who, in the ultimate gesture of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, lay helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold. I am not suggesting that many contemporary Americans who are concerned about our ecologic crisis will be either able or willing to counsel with wolves or exhort birds. However, the present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. Their growth cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man. The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation. He failed. Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.”

Looking to Saint Francis, I believe that Christians can rediscover our roots in the world with awe and wonder – this is both integral to the religious experience and decisive to the nexus of religion and ecology. If we are to develop a new understanding of creation then we need a new consciousness that accepts the destructiveness the Christian faith has caused, and seeks to transform it. At the forefront of our theological horizon now more than ever is the demand for a vision of faith that can inform our ethical obligations and generate significant environmental transformation – we need a great faith, inspired by the vision of Saint Francis, to serve as the spiritual basis for the environmental crisis today.


Saint Francis, pray for us.


Meg Stapleton SmithMeg Stapleton Smith is a master’s candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School. After graduating from Boston College in 2013, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie mainly in Salvadoran liberation theology and contemporary Christian social ethics. In her spare time, Meg enjoys playing with her family dogs Ruby and Ty, visiting craft breweries, and reading poetry by Mary Oliver, Rumi, or Rilke. It is clear that Meg is a true believer because she is also an avid New York Mets fan.