A Franciscan Approach to Climate Change

by Ríobart É. Breen, SFO Ph.D.,
FAN Research Analyst

In concern for addressing climate change issues, people of faith have looked to their own various traditions to identify insights and wisdom to help create practical, concrete steps that will make a difference.  Christians have looked to the Scriptures, and the Catholic Church has supplemented that effort with insights from its own theological and pastoral tradition.  The Catholic Church has found tremendous insight within its own Franciscan heritage, and so contemporary Franciscans in particular are being called upon to draw deeply from the Franciscan Tradition to provide leadership in efforts to address Climate Change.

First, it is important to introduce subtle Franciscan nuances or orientations that are key to any Franciscan approach.  For example, Franciscans embrace a fundamental “yes” to the intrinsic goodness of the created world – joy, hope and delight in simple beauty.  This created world includes the social world of people, too.  This emphasis makes a difference in an emerging climate change movement that can get bogged down with the ominous reality of negative impacts of the climate change crisis.  This is our Franciscan Incarnationality.   Franciscans offer a vision that is deeply grounded in hope and joy because Creation and the unfolding of events are deeply permeated by the presence of the Living God, and we know that in a profound way.  Franciscans also are eminently pragmatic and practical.   We offer not only an intellectual, theological and philosophical reflection on the concept of Climate Change, but rather we continue through the process to consider insights from and implications for prayer life, liturgy, lifestyles, communities, ministries, and society, developing some practical action steps in response. This is our Franciscan sacramentality.

Franciscans also presume our kinship with Creation.  There are other ways to consider human – nature relationships.  Utilitarian approaches recognize that what we do to nature through environmental pollution and degradation, we do to ourselves.  The stewardship approach sets humans at the top of the Creation hierarchy, and implores people to be responsible and considerate when they exercise dominion over Creation.  Franciscans are much more humble and intimate in our outlook.   We are to treat Creation as our brother and sister and mother, as members of our family.  We are not in a position of power and control, but rather in a loving relationship of mutual concern and care for our family.   Right relationship with Brother Wind, Sister Water and Mother Earth helps us to encounter God in Creation.   Climate Change affects our family, and puts our entire family into harm’s way.

Franciscans have had a centuries-old tradition of explicitly integrating science, and using science as a means of exploring and coming to know our created world.  Knowing the science of ecology helps us to read the Book of Creation, and to know the Creator.  Franciscans also emphasize haeccitas or “thisness,” the unique specialness of each particular living and nonliving thing, loved individually and particularly by God.  Every person, every tree, every pond, and every member of every species is uniquely special, is uniquely known and loved by God, and is uniquely imbued with the presence of God.  Integrating Climate Change science into our considerations is essential for Franciscans, as is an understanding of the impacts of Climate Change on every individual creature that is part of the ecosocial system.

Perhaps the most important Franciscan aspect for Climate Change is the Franciscan conversion process.  Franciscan penance is a person’s process of conversion or transformation that results in a metanoia, or new way of seeing.  This metanoia results in a new way of being, and a new way of living in right relationships in the world.  This Franciscan conversion process is a deepening cycle; by changing the way a person sees Climate Change, there is a change in personal and community lifestyle that reduces Climate Change impacts, which in turn further changes the way the person sees Climate Change.  This Franciscan conversion or transformation process attunes the person and the community to the presence of God in Creation, and brings people into a more intimate relationship with God. 

The Franciscan conversion process relies on the Franciscan education or formation process, which is deeply rooted in our storytelling tradition.  Franciscan storytelling helps in establishing or recovering people’s identity, meaning and purpose rooted in the Gospel.   Franciscan conversion and formation using storytelling allow us to engage the full person—emotionally, intellectually, imaginatively, physically through the senses, and spiritually.  As an example, imagine the Incarnation of tomorrow, with Jesus being born into a climate changed world.  Born into poverty in a community of people struggling with unnatural drought, the Holy Family becomes environmental refugees.  Joseph is not able to care for his family because they cannot find clean water, and the crops will not grow.  The wood supply for his carpentry and their heating and energy source is no longer available, since trees and forests cannot survive the drought and wildfires.  Joseph no longer has any meaningful work in which to engage to support his family in a dignified way.  He moves his family to a refugee camp and takes handouts from first world charities.  Periodic flash floods destroy the refugee camps, which routinely have to be rebuilt, keeping families in constant chaos mode.  What kind of world will we be creating for babies, children and young families of a climate changed world?   Will it be hospitable and allow all people to find their human dignity through human-nature relations?  Or will the earth only be a source of suffering and poverty and charitable handouts from the wealthy?  Franciscan storytelling can help us to get at new possibilities rooted in love, peace, justice, human dignity, service and sustainability.

The Franciscan Conversion process is essential today, because Climate Change is going to require a completely new way of living in relationship with Creation (including its  fossil fuels, alternative energy, food and agriculture, and other natural resources), and most especially with our brothers and sisters in the developing world who are most impacted by negative effects of Climate Change. The Franciscan family has much to offer in a world hungry for a new direction and a new vision to help deal with the Climate Change crisis. For Franciscans, now is our time.  At this critical moment, It is our privilege to serve God, Creation and humanity in a new way.