In the lead-up to the encyclical a number of friends, colleagues, and pundits have wondered what place teaching on gender and sexuality would occupy in Pope Francis’ treatment of faith and ecology. If the question seems a strange one it is not without warrant. Building on John Paul II’s connection of environmental stewardship to more recognizable “life issues,” Benedict XVI often paired calls for responsibility in “natural ecology’ strictly speaking with care for “human ecology,” or the nature of the human person. Reaffirming that human beings are created “male and female” (Gen 1:27), he linked appreciation for the Creator’s design not only to energy use and pollution but also to the moral imperative to preserve sexual difference. Francis’ own fraught statements concerning gender and his comment, “Who am I to judge?” regarding LGBT persons furnish a more proximate backdrop. So, too, the recent Synod on the Family. Would Francis’ document occasion any clear statement on these freighted social issues?
It may be a telling response that "Laudato Si'" doesn’t offer much. In an initial summary of previous papal contributions, Francis cites a line from Benedict’s "Caritas in Veritate": “The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations…” (No. 6). This passage was a platform for Benedict’s tendency to support environmental care with one breath and condemn same-sex relationships in the next, as in his September 2011 address to the German Bundestag. Here the unity of nature receives no such exposition. Francis’ concern for “integral ecology” as layered patterns of relationship instead overwhelmingly points back to the socio-political, cultural, and ecological stakes of poverty.
While "Laudato Si'" affirms Catholic teaching against artificial birth control and abortion, the only specific comment on gender or sexual identity is brief and somewhat oddly positioned at the close of a section on the “ecology of daily life.” Following a more substantial treatment of urban planning and the realities faced by the poor comes a reflection on bodily interaction with one’s environment as a facet of “human ecology.” Then this: “Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the creator, and find mutual enrichment” (No. 155).
How should we read this rather broad claim about gendered identity and interaction? Francis ends the paragraph with a clue, citing his general audience on April 15 of this year: “It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it’” (No. 155). In that address, Francis criticized gender theory when laying out "the difference and complementarity between men and women" as a basis for reflecting on the sacrament of marriage within “the beauty of the Creator’s plan.” He echoed these themes in a defense of children’s need for heterosexual parents following Rome’s gay pride parade just a few days ago.
It would therefore be a mistake to see the seeds of any radical departure from magisterial teaching on gender and sexuality in Francis’ text. A general, natural law-based statement in favor of gender essentialism is unsurprising. Nevertheless, interpretation must attend to specific silences, or in this instance, relative quiet on sexuality against the resounding demand for economic and ecological justice, cultivated at both personal and political levels. In a sense, then, the cards are drawn but the hand is not played. Within the development of papal teaching on “integral ecology” this may be a notable move.
Moreover, it may allow for other inquiries regarding the shape of human ecology. For instance, let’s take the pope’s keen insistence on the interconnections not only within ecosystems, but also among scientific, economic, political and cultural approaches to their functioning. Then there is Francis’ beautifully mystical spirituality of nature. He reminds us that humans, like all creatures, are of dust, “our very bodies made up of [earth’s] elements” (LS 2; Gen 2:17). These are precisely the bodies in which “each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure” (No. 239) and in which a human person “enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures” (No. 240). Yet this complex interpretive dynamic falls by the wayside around certain aspects of embodied life; what might result from a more consistent interdisciplinary treatment of gender and sexuality as elements of the manifold diversity of creaturely life?
Elizabeth Pyne is a PhD candidate in theology at Fordham University.