What the Pope and Thousands of Pagans Have in Common

The causes of our environmental crisis are more complex than any single religion. We can neither vilify Christianity, nor idealize ancient pagan religions.
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Pope Francis' much-anticipated environmental encyclical will be published tomorrow, but a draft of the statement was recently leaked to the press. In it, Pope Francis describes environmental stewardship as a Christian duty. He acknowledges that climate change is largely human-made and calls for bolder action by world leaders. And he emphasizes the disparate impact of climate change on the poor. The Earth, says Pope Francis,

is protesting for the wrong that we are doing to her, because of the irresponsible use and abuse of the goods that God has placed on her. We have grown up thinking that we were her owners and dominators, authorised to loot her. The violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin, is also manifest in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air and in living things.

For many contemporary Pagans, this language is very familiar. Just two months ago, on Earth Day 2015, Pagans published their own environmental statement. "A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment" can be found at ecopagan.com. An invitation went out to Pagans around the world to sign the statement. It has since been translated into 16 languages, and thousands of people from over 70 countries have now signed the statement. More do so every day. Those who have signed the statement include the expected assortment of Pagans, Wiccans, Druids, Goddess worshipers, Heathens and Polytheists, but there are also signatures from those of other faiths, including Christianity.

Contemporary Pagans and Catholics have always had a complex relationship. Both Pagans and Catholics tend to define themselves in contrast to one another. For example, it is common for many Pagans to define their experience of an immanent divinity in contrast to the transcendental deity of Christianity. Many Pagans believe that Christian theism necessarily leads to environmentally unsustainable ways of life, an idea which originated with Lynn White's 1967 article, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," which traced the ecological crisis to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism, and even further back to the Biblical injunction to man to "subdue" the earth and exercise "dominion" over every living thing.

The reality, though, is that the causes of our environmental crisis are more complex than any single religion. We can neither vilify Christianity, nor idealize ancient pagan religions. Christianity has inspired ecologically sustainable visions of human life. There are many historical and contemporary examples of this, from the "patron saint of ecology," St. Francis, to Pope Francis today. We must recognize that every religion is a complex mixture of ideas that can be used to either rationalize environmental abuse or encourage ecological harmony.

Just as Pagans often define themselves in contrast to Christianity, so, too, do Catholics and other conservative Christians often define themselves in contrast to "paganism," distinguishing the "idolatrous" worship of creation by pagans from the worship of the divine creator by Christians. For example, five years ago, Pope Benedict made a point of distinguishing his own call for earth stewardship from what he called "neo-paganism" or the "new pantheism." Pope Francis, however, appears to have made no such effort to distance himself from Pagans in the way his predecessor did. Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical is evidence of how Catholics and Pagans can arrive at the same place by different paths.

The coincidence of the publication of Pope Francis' environmental encyclical and "A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment" presents an opportunity for both communities to reconsider the habit of defining ourselves in contrast to one another. It is an opportunity for us to consider what our feelings of superiority actually serve: the ecosystem or our egos?

And it is also an opportunity for both Pagans and Catholics to consider the possibility that we have not really seen each other clearly, that we have instead set up convenient "straw men" of one another. When Catholics speak of "paganism," many contemporary Pagans sense a disconnect between the Catholic image of "paganism" -- which seems to be a kind of Catholic boogeyman -- and the reality of contemporary Paganism. Similarly, the Pagan image of Catholicism is often no more accurate than the Catholic image of Paganism -- merely another convenient, but inaccurate, "othering." Pagans need to reconsider the notion that the Christian belief in a transcendent deity necessarily leads to environmental desecration, just as Catholics need to reconsider the notion that the Pagan belief in an immanent divinity necessarily leads to amoral hedonism.

Our respective faith paths are distinct in many ways and will remain so, but at this moment in history, those paths are intersecting -- as are many of the world's religious paths. They are intersecting at the point where our sense of care and responsibility for the ecosystem overcomes our egotism. Might we not consider whether we -- and all other life on Earth -- would be better served by emphasizing our similarities, rather than our differences?

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