An ongoing discussion of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ is changing the way I think about intersectionality. It first came up several weeks ago in a Zoom dialog on the Laudato Si’ Action Platform. The dialog, conducted by the Springfield Dominican Sisters’ action program committee, would have been held at the motherhouse. it was held online instead, due to the omicron variant surge of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the Laudato Si’ Action Platform is an ongoing initiative, and I’m only just now starting to learn about it, I’ll resist the urge to explain it in a single blog post. At this point, I don’t know enough about it anyway.

Announced in May of last year by Pope Francis, the LSAP is a seven-year Vatican program designed to enlist “an international coalition of Catholic organizations, and ‘all men and women of good will'” in response to climate change. So the Zoom dialog here on Jan. 5 was an early step as the Dominican Sisters of Springfield formulate their response. Their website has a statement of goals and an invitation:

We will work toward all seven areas of concern as outlined in the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’: (1) responding to the cry of the Earth, (2) responding to the cry of the poor, (3) ecological economics, (4) adoption of sustainable lifestyles, (5) ecological education, (6) ecological spirituality, and (7) community action.

Join us as we take part in this ground-up approach, empowering all people to take “decisive action, here and now” as we journey towards a better future together.

I don’t know yet exactly what that’s going to look like, but I’ve ordered a copy of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ from an online bookseller; my obvious first step is simply to read up on it and find out more about it.

In the meantime, I’ve learned something already about intersectionality from the Dominican sisters’ LSAP dialog. As they used the term, it means a lot more than I’d imagined.

The whole subject of intersectionality is controversial, and the discussions of it that I’ve heard tend to get bogged down in academic hairsplitting. So I’ll just cite Merriam-Webster’s definition: “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”

True enough, all of it. But it’s all too easy for someone like me, as a white cis-gendered male of a certain age, to think of these things as somebody else’s problem. And that’s a shame. The dynamic of intersecting obstacles it describes is very real.

But what if it’s all a factor in our failure to care for one another?

That’s how the Dominican sisters described it in the Jan. 5 dialog on Laudato Si’, and they gave me a whole new way of thinking about it. It also gave me a wider perspective on the encyclical.

In a script titled “Cry of Earth, Cry of the Poor,” the LSAP committee excerpted four single-spaced pages from Pope Francis’ encyclical and asked participants to reflect on this question:

What have I gleaned from my reflection on the excerpts from Laudato Si’  that points to the intersectionality of the whole of life on Earth?  How does this growing understanding enhance my spirituality and challenge my behaviors?

Definition:  Intersectionality refers to the reality that all things are interdependent, intimately connected to each other. Everything contributes to everything else. No one issue is separate and apart for any other.  

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.”   Pope Francis

The pope’s quotation in turn quotes St. Francis. In their supporting materials, the sisters referred to paragraph 92 of Laudato Si’, in which he develops the concept in detail, again in terms of St. Francis’ emphasis on the interconnectedness of all of God’s creation. Citing the Catholic catechism and a pastoral letter of the Dominican Conference of Bishops, Pope Francis says:

 We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”.[69] We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality: “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism”.[70] [Citations in the original.]

This gives me a wider context for the intersecting “forms of discrimination … such as racism, sexism, and classism” cited in the Merriam-Webster definition of intersectionality. Pope Francis goes on to draw the lines even more widely, again in terms derived from St. Francis:

Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.

And I have to believe it means, again citing Merriam-Webster, that when marginalized people of a different color, sex and/or class endure a problem, it is my problem. Everything is related, and we’re all on the same wonderful pilgrimage.

Or should be.

At any rate, it gives me a lot to think about. And a new way of thinking about it.

Note to self: For further reading

When I was searching for material that relates intersectionality to the issues raised by Laudato Si’ and the coming action platform, I found a piece on the Catholic Climate Covenant website by by Anna Robertson, the covenant’s Director of Youth and Young Adult Mobilization. She cites Laudato Si’ — “Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” — and explains the relationship between the two:

It reminded me of a recent Catholic Climate Covenant webinar on environmental justice, in which Dr. Catherine Wright, Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wingate University, turned to the same passage as she sought to establish the centrality of environmental justice to the Catholic faith. “As Catholics we have a special voice to speak about justice,” she contended, “but it can only happen when creation care is not seen as optional but as an actual core moral issue for Catholics.”

To make her case, Dr. Wright wove together the theological insights of Laudato Si’ with the tools of social analysis—in particular the concept of intersectionality, first articulated by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the impact of overlapping experiences of oppression on Black women. In doing so, Dr. Wright not only made a compelling case for the inseparability of care for creation and care for the poor; she also offered rich entry points for prayer and reflection on our interdependence with all of life, demonstrating how this view is not only resonant with Catholic doctrine but indeed embedded within it.

“Pope Francis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are very clear,” Dr. Wright emphasized. “God wills the interdependence of creatures. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other. We have not lived these truths very well, and the path to right relationship starts with an awareness of our common origin, our mutual belonging, and our shared destiny.” She went on to mine Catholic doctrine for “signposts” that point the way toward the possibility of right relationship within creation, engaging with theologies of the incarnation, the Trinity, and creation to demonstrate how they each offer foundations for an integral ecology that responds at once to the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor. 

The Catholic Climate Covenant’s mission statement reads as follows: “Through our 19 national partners, we guide the U.S. Church’s response to climate change by educating, giving public witness, and offering resources.]

Works Cited

Francis I, Laudato Si’ [Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home, May 24, 2015], Dicastero per la Comunicazione, Libreria Editrice Vaticana https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

Anna Robertson, “Come as you are: Integral ecology points the way for engaging authentically on creation care for our generation,” Catholic Climate Covenant, Feb. 19, 2021 https://catholicclimatecovenant.org/news/come-you-are-integral-ecology-points-way-engaging-authentically-creation-care-our-generation.

[Published Jan. 30, 2022]

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