Certainly, the Bible is rife with injunctions to care for the poor, and Catholic social teaching insists on the theological and ethical imperative known as the “preferential option for the poor.” But has any pope ever talked the talk while walking the walk? Enter Francis, who has decided to not live in the papal apartment (he will live in the Vatican guesthouse), who has eschewed highly filigreed garments, and who has constantly spoken of humility and poverty. Might this papacy be less about pontifical pomp and theological rhetoric than about attention to concrete circumstance? That would be theology as praxis: where the word of God hits the ground, and keeps walking.
[I]t’s not enormously surprising that at his first press conference, Pope Francis mused, “These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?”
No, we don’t—neither as an economically-driven global society, nor as a Catholic institution. Sure,
Vatican Citypledged to become the first carbon-neutral country; but first-world folks in pews, especially in the United States, are unused to heeding this message.
Yet Francis inherits a legacy of Catholic social teaching that links economic globalization, environmental degradation, and poverty. Even the recondite Benedict XVI wrote about environmental degradation and its deleterious impacts on the lives of the poor. Along with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he considered access to clean air and fresh water as “right-to-life issues.” Moreover, he insisted that commodification of such essential “goods of creation” is unjust. Here’s the upshot: In the 21st century, papal pro-creation involves the preferential option for the poor and a critique of excessive pursuit of profit. There is a strong set of Catholic teaching in which the rhetoric of pro-creation is not reducible to the prohibition of prophylaxis.
As it turns out, these social and economic teachings have existed since the 1960s, though they are often minimized or referred to as the church’s best-kept secrets—especially in the
United States. Think about it: When was the last time you heard a Catholic invoke the “right to life”—and proceed to expound on the importance of clean, fresh water? (Well, never.)