Imagining and Incarnating an Integral Ecology: A Critical Ecofeminist Public Theology (@theTable: Planetary Solidarity)
By Rosemary P. Carbine.
In the landmark environmental encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (2015), Pope Francis portrays global environmental crises in similar ways to ecofeminist theologies that interconnect the exploitation, degradation, and deterioration of the environment with the subjugation of women (LS 1-2, 53).
From the letter’s opening paragraphs, Francis implicitly invokes a patriarchal/kyriarchal framework for ecojustice: he links ecological and social justice with struggles against imbalanced power relations among humans and between humans and other-than-human life that mutually reinforce other kinds of sociocultural and theological mastery. Sins against the sacramentality of creation as the incarnation of the divine (LS 84–86)—for instance, decreasing biodiversity, increasing climate change, and pollution of water, soil, land, and air by manufacturing, mining, agribusiness, nuclear, and other industries (LS 8, 12, 20, 23–24)—can then be construed as sins of eco-injustice against poor and marginalized peoples, especially indigenous peoples (LS 48-49, 93,146).
The letter explicitly challenges global patterns of inequality (LS 33, 81–82) that lead to environmental racism, modern-day slavery, and sexual exploitation (LS 45–46, 123). Thus, an integral ecology embodies “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (LS 139). My essay for Planetary Solidarity explores whether Laudato Si’—as an example of global Catholic eco-public theology or religious practices of public engagement for ecojustice—can envision and enflesh, or incarnate, an integral ecology that addresses this more complex notion of the common good at the intersections of ecological, sociopolitical, and gender justice. This blog post, drawn from my essay, will show how critical feminist theologies, feminist public theologies, and feminist hermeneutics helped me explore the limits of eco-public theology in LS and ultimately its neglect of Catholic ecofeminist theologies at great cost.
As I have argued elsewhere, public theology refers to the practices that religious actors utilize to address various audiences about contemporary pressing social issues in order to shape public discourse and policy that creates a more just common life. From a feminist theological perspective, public theology has less to do with making religious claims more intelligible to a wider society via shared norms and practices of rational public discourse or introducing faith-based views into current civic debates to reshape public discourse and policy. Rather, public theology can be construed in terms of the church’s sacramental and eschatological significance, that is, in terms of its ability to signify albeit imperfectly through its practices the not-yet-fully realized good society. Public theology, in this view, employs a rich range of theo-political community-building practices—rhetorical, symbolic, and prophetic—that witness to, imagine, and perform future possibilities for a mutually interdependent sense of solidarity that edges toward a just, loving, and peaceful world. Taken together, these practices discursively, theologically, and politically embody different forms of public engagement that contribute to a constructive theology of world-making, a more interdependent, interconnected solidarity that seeks justice.
Read from this perspective, the Vatican’s most recent venture into global eco-public theology does not yet incarnate an integral ecology. Laudato Si’ exemplifies rhetorical and to a certain degree symbolic, but not prophetic practices of Catholic eco-public theology. Laudato Si’ is addressed to all people (LS 3), encourages international political, economic, religious, and scientific dialogue (LS chapter 5), and relies on Global South Catholic bishops’ statements (e.g., LS 14, 38, 41) to situate climate and other eco-crises within global contexts of economic injustice against minoritized communities (LS 25, 28, 42, 48, 57). Backed up by this chorus of global Catholic bishops, an integral ecology inspires new international and intergenerational relations that recognize the “ecological debt” that the Global North owes the Global South (LS 51, 54, 56, 95, 143–44) for its technocratic logic of control and consumption of the world’s resources, including peoples and cultures (LS 53, 106, 109, 145, 170, 210).
However, as a symbolic and prophetic practice of eco-public theology, Laudato Si’ does not adequately critique and reconstruct Christian theological symbols of God-talk to prophetically pursue social, gender, and ecojustice. Francis proposes a creation theology that stresses the universal goodness, interrelatedness, and mutual responsibilities of all creation in order to counteract the sins of dominion and anthropocentrism (LS 65–67, 140, 240) that trade on a flawed Christian anthropology of mastery (LS 116) and instrumentalize marginalized peoples as dominated and disposable (LS 82, 106). Francis, along with Brazilian Catholic bishops, highlights the radical sacramentality and intrinsic value of all creation through its suffusion with divine presence or the indwelling of the Spirit (LS 88). Nonetheless, this promising eco-pneumatology or eco-theology of the Spirit parallels but neglects Catholic ecofeminist theologies.
Francis’ eco-pneumatology intends to advocate for a practice of ecological education and citizenship rooted in civic and political virtues of care, responsibility, and solidarity (LS 210–11, 219–20, 229, 231). However, it lacks a sufficiently critical theological basis to realize an integral ecology. Elaborated more fully in my essay, Pope Francis’s God-talk as an absolute dominating father retains a patriarchal/kyriarchal theology of power relations among humans and between humans and other-than-human life, which ineffectively contests the intersections of social, gender, and ecological injustices. Laudato Si’ certainly identifies the idolatry of current economic models as sins against a creator God as well as against marginalized peoples and environments (LS 56, 75), but the encyclical’s blindspot to fully elaborate its own eco-public theology emerges in its lack of prophetic God-talk. For example, Francis foregrounds paternal language for an all-powerful creator God as a theological symbol to reject absolute anthropocentric domination and simultaneously foster the relational interdependence of all life (LS 89). However, this eco-relationality is guaranteed by a dominating father God “who alone owns the world” (LS 75, 96), which thereby reinscribes and prescribes the very same social, political, economic, and even ecological structures that ironically the encyclical aims to undercut and undo. Prioritizing Jesus’s paternal God-talk in the encyclical replicates patriarchal/kyriarchal theologies of God as monarchical sovereign king and lord of creation. As US feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether has demonstrated, patriarchal/kyriarchal God-talk with its “hierarchical chain of being and chain of command” provides the theological symbolic system that sanctifies and reifies multiple unjust and intertwined religious, sociopolitical, economic, and ecological structures.
Building on the insights of ecofeminist theologies, an eco-public theology rooted in a theology of the Spirit resists any patriarchal/kyriarchal model of God. For example, US feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson unfolds a theology of the Spirit that takes as a theological starting point an evolutionary ecological world view that urges a love of nature in and for itself, as well as a universal love of all natural bodies, human and nonhuman alike, as rooted in the love of God. For Johnson, the ineffable but active indwelling of the Spirit points to divine love that creates and continues to give life, that stands in compassionate solidarity with all suffering and extinct life, and that empowers and enables all living and dying life toward a future eschatological transfiguration. Extending the focus on bodies from the personal to the earthly and ultimately to the cosmic, Brazilian eco-feminist theologian Ivone Gebara supports a similar ecological holistic worldview or a bio-centric, unitary worldview through God-talk. Gebara argues that all life is embraced by, dwells within, and co-constitutes one same Sacred Body of the divine. Within this Sacred Body, relatedness characterizes and encompasses our human, religious, earthly and even cosmic condition. Beyond ecological citizenship, Gebara underscores our cosmic citizenship to overcome all sorts of sexist, racist, and nationalist exclusions and other forms of xenophobia in our world.
For these reasons, the encyclical’s patriarchal/kyriarchal God-talk—even when an absolute dominating father God is characterized as affectionate and compassionate (LS 73, 77, 96, 220, 226)—contradicts its eco-pneumatology. Laudato Si’ therefore cannot yet symbolically underwrite or prophetically galvanize an integral ecology. A global Catholic eco-public theology better incarnates an integral ecology by leveraging ecofeminist theologies of God which parallel but expand far beyond LS’s eco-theology of the Spirit.
 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).
 Lieven Bove, Yves De Maeseneer, and Ellen Van Stichel, eds., Questioning the Human: Toward a Theological Anthropology for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 148–63.
 For instance, institutional or clerical leaders, religious orders and communities, theologians, laity in parish organizations, activists in social movements, etc.
 Also appearing in the Planetary Solidarity volume.
 Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), chapters 2 and 4.
Rosemary P. Carbine (MA and PhD, University of Chicago Divinity School) is currently Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Whittier College. She specializes in constructive Christian theologies, focusing on comparative feminist, womanist, and Latinx/mujerista theologies, theological anthropology, public/political theologies, and teaching and learning in theology and religion. She has co-edited and contributed chapters to three books, namely The Gift of Theology: The Contribution of Kathryn Tanner (Fortress Press, 2015), Theological Perspectives for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Public Intellectuals for the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and Women, Wisdom, and Witness: Engaging Contexts in Conversation (Liturgical Press, 2012). She has published numerous essays in anthologies, including Planetary Solidarity: Global Women’s Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice (Fortress Press, 2017), Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), Questioning the Human: Toward a Theological Anthropology for the 21st Century (Fordham University Press, 2014), Frontiers in Catholic Feminist Theology (Fortress Press, 2009), Prophetic Witness: Catholic Women’s Strategies of Reform (Crossroad, 2009), and Cross-Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (2006). And, her articles appear in peer-reviewed journals, such as Harvard Theological Review, Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Teaching Theology and Religion. Carbine has served as co-chair of the Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection Group within the American Academy of Religion, and as convener of Theological Anthropology as well as co-convener of the Women’s Consultation on Constructive Theology both in the Catholic Theological Society of America. More recently, she is a presidentially-appointed member of the Teaching and Learning Committee and member of the steering committee for the Women and Religion within the AAR.
Next: Responses to “Planetary Solidarity”: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Re/Naming Eco-feminist Critique as a Critique of Kyrocentrism: A Constructive Response to Planetary Solidarity” (Part 7)