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‘Sister Earth’: Pope Francis Reads G.K. Chesterton?

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Pope Francis’ new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, is generating discussion across the web. For a round-up of responses and reactions from Acton, see Acton Speaks on the Environment.

There’s plenty left to explore, respond, and reflect on, but in the meantime, it’s worth noting an interesting parallel with another great Catholic thinker (as passed along by a friend of mine).

The beginning of the environmental encyclical leads off with the following statement about Earth being our “sister”:

LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.  This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.

These references to “sister earth” are sprinkled throughout the encyclical, and it’s metaphor that’s been used before by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.

For whatever other shortcomings of the encyclical, as we strive to understand our role in stewarding creation, when properly framed, it’s an apt image indeed.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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