Relational Ecology in Pope Francis’ Thinking

Alfonso Aguilar González, PhD

Archdiocese of Granada, Laudato si’ Institute

Pope Francis has taught us about the ecological conscience, especially in his encyclical letters Laudato si’ (2015) and Fratelli tutti (2020). We may say that these texts are the chartæ magnæ of natural and human ecology.

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The ecological conscience should be rooted in a relational philosophy that views the natural and human worlds as relational realities. Thus, ecological philosophy must be relational.

In this essay we will first explain the metaphysical notion of relationality. Then, we will apply such a notion to ecology in the light of Pope Francis’ thoughts.

1. The metaphysical notion of “relationality”

Every being is relational. To be means being-in-relation. Relationality is the communitarian, receptive, and communicative interiority of a being. Relationality has a twofold dimension: immanent (ad intra) and transcendent (ad extra).

The immanent dimension is “the natural love of self,” by which a being relates to itself in three ways:

  • (1) by actualizing its own existence (esse in),
  • (2) by unifying itself (esse cum),
  • (3) and by fulfilling its own nature (esse trans).

The transcendent dimension is “the natural love of others,” by which a being relates to others in three ways:

  • (1) by interacting with others (esse apud),
  • (2) by being influenced by others (esse ab),
  • (3) and by communicating with others (esse ad).

Relationality is a transcendental aspect of being together with unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. This is true for several reasons:

  • (1) The meaning of relationality does not imply any sign of imperfection.
  • (2) Relationality is an essential attribute analogically present in all beings.
  • (3) Relationality is a notion evident to reason, even without Christian revelation.
  • (4) Relationality has its own specific meaning, different from the meanings (or rationes) of the other transcendentals.

The ontological degree of a being corresponds to the degree of its own immanent and transcendent relational capacity. The more being you have, the deeper your own interiority is and the better your interactions with others are in quantity and quality.

The ontological differences between beings are determined by the ad intra and ad extra relational capacity they have. Relationality varies greatly from an inorganic being, a vegetative being, an animal, and a human being.

2. Relationality in the ecological conscience

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Every being is relational because it has been created by a Trinitarian God who is, by nature, Relationality and Love. Man is the most relational being in the universe because he or she has been created in the image and likeness of a relational God. “The very mystery of the Trinity reminds us that we have been created in the image of that divine communion, and so we cannot achieve fulfilment or salvation purely by our own efforts” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 178).

“The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships”

(Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato si’, 240).

Beings are relational both on individual basis and as a whole. The universe is a symphony of interactions of communion, receptivity, and communication. There is no ontological island in the world. To be alone is to not be at all. Every being depends on others and benefits from

others. This is what Saint Francis of Assisi expressed in simple words in his Canticle of the Creatures: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs” (Fonti Francescane 263).

Harming nature is harming humanity, as is demonstrated by the great health crises caused by deforestation, pollution, water contamination, and the unhealthy and artificial living conditions of animals raised for food. According to the World Health Organization, seven million people die due to urban pollution every year.

If nature is relational, then human beings are even more so. We are called to love all of reality. Man, “who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 24).

As we have noticed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, nobody can save oneself by himself.

“We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. […] We have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this”

(Pope Francis, Extraordinary Moment of Prayer, March 27, 2020).

We need one another for everything: nutrition, clothing, housing, technology, medicine, education, and culture, as well as for economic, social, political, and religious organization. “Whoever wants to save oneself will only hurt oneself and hurt his or her own brothers and sisters” (Francisco Javier Martínez Fernández, Archbishop of Granada, Letter on the Day of the Diocesan Church, Nov. 8, 2020).

3. Relational ecology

The interactions between man and nature and the relationships among human beings must not be based exclusively on profit and usefulness. We all belong to a community of being and relationality. We were created to love and to be loved. Thus, as the Poor Man of Assisi taught, our interactions with nature and society must be based on a relationship of brotherhood that leads us to admire, protect, care for, and love one another.

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In his Canticle of the Creatures, Saint Francis called the sun, moon, stars, wind, water, fire, Mother Earth, and bodily death “brother” or “sister.” He “knew that he was even closer to those of his own flesh” (Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti, 2). Thus, he addressed all people as fratelli tutti – brothers and sisters. He declared blessed all those who love their brother “as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him” (Admonitions, 6, 1. English translation in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol 1. New York: London, Manila 1999, 131).

The saint understood that love is the highest and deepest expression of relationality, as well as the best type of connectedness for both nature and man. “This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. The human person grows more, matures more, and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others, and with all creatures.

In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity” (Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato si’, 240).

4. Ecological conversion based on a relational ecology

As the Holy Father noted, “we need an ecological conversion that can find expression in concrete actions. As a single and interdependent family, we require a common plan in order to avert the threats to our common home. ‘Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan’” (Pope Francis, General Audience on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 2020, quoting Laudato Si’, 164).

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Ecological conversion can only be built on a metaphysics of relationality. Such a metaphysics will overcome anti-ecological vices, such as materialism, individualism, unrestricted capitalism, the culture of disposability, and the contempt of nature and of human rights. At the same time, a relational metaphysics will promote ecological virtues based on love, such as fraternity, charity, solidarity, recycling, a preferential option for the poor and marginalized, and respect for nature and human rights.

The ecological conversion and conscience derive from a relational philosophy that encourages us to live out our relational vocation in its highest degree – as fratelli tutti.

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