I am haunted by a photograph that was recently circulated on social media by the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR). It shows luxury yachts in a harbor with diners at an outdoor restaurant in the foreground. In the background flames are leaping into the night, casting an eerie glow over the sky and the water. It could be a scene from any of the Mediterranean countries currently plagued by heatwaves and wildfires.
I saw that image while on a caravan tour of the Scottish Highlands last month with my husband Dave. We spent an idyllic month in some of the most unspoiled places on the planet – soaring mountains, rolling moors speckled with wildflowers, pristine seas lapping onto dazzling white beaches, dolphins leaping in the incoming tides. The luxury of a caravan is a long way from the camping holidays we used to have when we lived in Zimbabwe, when we would pile our four little children into the car and take off on safari. Herds of elephants would amble through our rudimentary campsites, baboons would settle noisily for the night in the trees above our tent and somewhere in the distance, we might hear the grunt of a leopard or the haunting cackle of a hyena. All these experiences of nature at its most awe-inspiring are overshadowed by that apocalyptic image of the night sky ablaze behind a scene of decadent luxury. In a report published this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that human activity has caused unprecedented and irreversible changes to the earth’s climate, and time has almost run out to avert a global catastrophe.
Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, offers a magnificent creation-centred theology that puts social and environmental justice at the heart of the Church’s life. It is an inspiring resource for all who recognize the urgency and enormity of the challenges facing us, but it is marred by one serious omission. Global environmental agencies recognize the vital contribution made by women in tackling environmental degradation, and gender equality is one of the key goals of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Yet Laudato Si’ has nothing to say about women and the environment. For all its emphasis on social and economic justice, it is silent about the disproportionate impact of climate change on the world’s poorest women and girls. It encourages local initiatives, but fails to acknowledge the extent to which women are in the forefront of grassroots sustainable development projects.
Despite its silence on women, however, Laudato Si’ is gendered through and through. Its subject is “Mother Earth” and “she” is a victim who is being laid to waste by human (male?) greed, neglect and indifference.
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. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. … [T]he earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). (LS para 2)
Implicit in this quotation is the gendering of power – the lords and masters are male, and the feminized earth is their victim. But Mother Earth is not a passive victim of human abuse awaiting rescue by papal knights in shining armour, any more than women are passive victims of male power who need strong men to protect them. Mother Earth fights back, and if she must destroy some of her children to ensure her survival, she will do so. Pandemics, fires, heatwaves, storms, floods – this is the behaviour we should expect if we attribute metaphorical motherhood to the planet, for it is how real mothers have behaved throughout history. If women are exploited, abused, raped, commodified, ignored and excluded, the result will be the savage desperation of needing to fight back however one can to survive.
Church teachings on motherhood are shaped by sentimental fantasies of maternal femininity which gloss over the often harsh realities and painful dilemmas of women’s lives, and these same attitudes infect the maternal feminine representation of nature. As ecofeminists have been arguing for many years, the romanticization of motherhood and the romanticization of nature go hand in hand, and both help to sustain a culture of domination. If the Catholic Church is to become a leader in the struggle for the environment, its leaders will have to radically rethink their gender politics.
Robert Mickens suggested here recently that Pope Francis is seeking radical reform of the Roman Curia. It may be that in getting rid of the Vatican’s elitist patriarchal power structures, this shrewd Pope is preparing the way for his successor to at last bring women into full and equal partnership in the Church, but by then it may be too late to save our common home. Women are losing patience, and so is Mother Earth.
Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.