On Wednesday, Pope Francis gave an impassioned speech on the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, calling on Christians across the world to undergo an “ecological conversion” from below, spurred on by popular movements. He claimed that humans have “sinned against the earth” by disobeying God’s command to be good stewards of it.
“Because of our selfishness we have failed in our responsibility to be guardians and stewards of the earth,” the pope said. “We have polluted and we have despoiled it, endangering our very lives. For this reason, various international and local movements have sprung up in order to appeal to our consciences. I deeply appreciate these initiatives; still it will be necessary for our children to take to the streets to teach us the obvious: we have no future if we destroy the very environment that sustains us.”
Francis went on to confess that humans had “sinned against the earth,” and the planet will have its reckoning.
“We have failed to care for the earth, our garden-home; we have failed to care for our brothers and sisters. We have sinned against the earth, against our neighbors, and ultimately against the Creator, the benevolent Father who provides for everyone, and desires us to live in communion and flourish together,” he said. “And how does the earth react? There is a Spanish saying that is very clear in this; it says: ‘God forgives always; we men forgive sometimes; the earth never forgives.’ The earth never forgives: if we have despoiled the earth, the response will be very bad.”
Christians can counter the pope, insisting that the earth is not a person against whom a person can sin. The earth is also not a person who can choose not to forgive sins. Pope Francis’s perhaps undue reverence for the earth was not limited to this statement, however.
“In today’s celebration of Earth Day, we are called to renew our sense of sacred respect for the earth, for it is not just our home but also God’s home. This should make us all the more aware that we stand on holy ground!” he said.
The earth is certainly not God’s home, although Jesus did live in Israel. After His Resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. While the Holy Spirit dwells in the people of God on earth, the earth is not their home. The Bible clearly teaches that there will be a “new heaven and a new earth.”
That said, Pope Francis is correct that human beings can sin against God by abusing the earth He entrusted us to steward. However, he used the speech as an opportunity to encourage political activism in the green movement.
“At the same time, we need an ecological conversion that can find expression in concrete actions. As a single and interdependent family, we require a common plan in order to avert the threats to our common home,” Pope Francis said. He encouraged “concerted action” on all levels: local, national, and international. “It will help if people at all levels of society come together to create a popular movement ‘from below.’ The Earth Day we are celebrating today was itself born in precisely this way.”
Pope Francis has repeatedly called for “structural change” to fight climate change, dressing up the green movement in Christian language. Christians do have a duty to steward the environment that God created, but this does not necessarily entail a rejection of free-market capitalism or the oil industry. Cheap energy enables Christians to alleviate poverty across the world, and there is no evidence that burning fossil fuels will bring about a long-predicted climate disaster that persistently fails to occur.
Pope Francis’ declaration that “we have sinned against the earth … God’s home” and “the earth never forgives” seems dangerously close to the idolatry perpetrated by Union Theological Seminary last year when the mainline Protestant institution celebrated a ceremony of confessing sins to plants. When humans sin by not taking proper care of the earth, they are sinning against God — not plants or the planet. Christians should take any such sin extremely seriously, but it is far from clear that burning fossil fuels constitutes such a sin.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.