October 4th is Saint Francis’ feast day, but the weeks of late September and early October might as well be Francis’ feast month. On any given Sunday during this period, people in many denominations bring their pets to church to be blessed by clergy in the name of the beloved saint. Therefore, when Pope John Paul II in 1979 declared Francis of Assisi (1182– 1226) the patron saint of ecologists, the saint’s new assignment seemed like a perfect fit. Already a patron saint of Italy along with Catherine of Siena, this additional tribute was the result of a happy confluence of Francis’s love of nature and a growing scientific interest in the environment. It’s interesting to note, however, that the Pope’s declaration was preceded by a medieval historian’s similar proposal. In a 1967 article appearing in the research journal Science, the historian Lynn White argued that Christianity has to bear a significant part of the blame for the ecological crisis:
Since both science and technology are blessed words in our contemporary vocabulary, some may be happy at the notions, first, that, viewed historically, modern science is an extrapolation of [Christianity’s] natural theology1 and, second, that modern technology is at least partly to be explained as an Occidental, voluntarist2 realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature. But, as we now recognize, somewhat over a century ago science and technology – hitherto quite separate activities – joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt. (HR, 1206)
According to White, Francis has an important role to play in reorienting our Western attitude toward God’s creatures.
Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. . . . 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. (HR, 1206)
White concluded the essay with his proposal which he offered as a religious response to the ecological crisis.
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. (HR, 1207)
According to data available in the Web of Science, the widely used citation indexing service for scholarship in the humanities, social and physical sciences, White’s article has been cited in over 1,400 articles and books. In other words, White’s views about “Christian arrogance over nature” have received a great deal of attention. But White’s criticism of Christian scripture and theology has in recent decades been challenged by theologians who point to a rich theological tradition that recognizes nature’s deep relationship with the divine. It’s a tradition where Saint Francis is not an isolated figure but an exemplar within a theological school of thought based on scripture and Greek theologians of the early church. An excellent summary of some of the main threads of this school can be found in an article by Keith Warner, OFM. He begins by acknowledging the flaws in Christian ethics regarding the ecological crisis:
The field of Christian environmental ethics emerged in response to the provocative yet flawed thesis of Lynn White, and it retained a defensive posture for its early years. The field has struggled to find a compelling and coherent moral narrative that embraces the Christian story and care for the Earth. (FE, 143)
Warner argues that a “compelling and coherent narrative” could start by mining the rich theological resources of the Franciscan tradition.
Drawing its inspiration from the love Francis of Assisi had for nature, the Franciscan tradition holds that creation bursts with religious significance. This tradition interprets Francis’s affective and direct sensory experience of the natural world with theological concepts drawn creatively and reworked from scripture and patristic sources, especially on the Incarnation and the Trinity. Of course, medieval Franciscans were in no way addressing environmental degradation or pollution. However, their work can prompt us to retrieve ancient theological currents to inform contemporary applications as a useful ethical method for duties toward the environment. (FE, 145)
Medieval Franciscan theologians Bonaventure (1221 – 1274) and Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308) are often considered as two of the three greatest theologians of their era, the third being the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). At a time when Francis was still vividly remembered by many, Bonaventure wrote the saint’s biography incorporating many of the stories being told about him. Here’s an excerpt from Bonaventure’s The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi (Legenda Maior):
In beautiful things he beheld Beauty itself
and through the footprints impressed in things
He followed his Beloved everywhere,
Out of them all things making for himself a ladder
Through which he could climb up to lay hold of him
who is utterly desirable.
With an intensity of unheard devotion, he savored
in each and every creature—as in so many rivulets—that fountain of Goodness
and discerned an almost celestial choir in the chords of power and activity
given to them by God, and like the prophet David,
he sweetly encouraged them to praise the Lord. (FE, 149)
That praise is most famously expressed in his Canticle of the Creatures, known also as The Canticle of Brother Sun, a psalm-like hymn that has been adapted and set to music by Paul Winter for his Missa Gaia, by William H. Draper in the Anglican hymn All Creatures of Our God and King, and by many others. Here is a translation from a Franciscan website:
The Canticle of Brother Sun
Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.
1Natural theology: theology or knowledge of God based on observed facts and experience apart from divine revelation.
2I think White’s use of “voluntarist” in this context refers to the theological doctrine where human action is identified with God’s will. In other words according to White, Christians believed it was God’s will that humanity rule over nature.