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As strange as it sounds, St. Paul had a sort of "environmental agenda" of his own, not altogether unlike the one we find posited in Laudato Si. In fact, Pope Francis crafted his encyclical "On Care for our Common Home" according to the framework Paul laid out in Romans 8. So however one comes down on alleged man-made climate change and other charged environmental issues, it must be conceded that Pope Francis and St. Paul agree that the reason creation is in a precarious state is that man, God's image-bearing representative, has rebelled against God.
In Laudato, the Holy Father somewhat famously exhorts,
The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she "groans in travail" (Romans 8:22).
And I'm well-aware: Assertions like the one above are frequently the subject of suspicion in orthodox Catholic circles. But the visceral reactions that statements of this kind elicit aren't justifiable when the Holy Father's message is read with Romans as polestar. Indeed, to do the passage in question justice, a proper understanding of Pauline theology and the political reign of Christ the King as a central facet of redemption is absolutely necessary.
Yet many remain fixed in the un-Christian belief that the earth is destined to be destroyed for good (it goes along with the "matter 'bad,' spirit 'good'" error that's long plagued the ranks of Christendom) — and they do mean for good! Indeed, many Catholics can't fathom why it would be that Romans 8 would be fixed where it is in the middle of Romans, at the very heart of the letter, at the climax of Paul's long, sophisticated argument.
Why would Pope Francis be so concerned with creation qua creation that he'd dedicate an entire encyclical to it? Why would St. Paul go so far as to place creation at the center of arguably the founding document of all Catholic theology? What does creation, both its rescue and care, have to do with man's redemption?
A quick skim through Romans in general — and Romans 8 in particular — will tell the careful reader that "redemption" is more than what it may seem, a placeholder for "going to Heaven when you die" (which, of course, is true, insofar as it goes). But Paul's redemption scheme includes more than just souls going to Heaven. Let's track his argument closely:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:18–19).
Now, rework the solution backwards to formulate the precise problem as Paul sees it: So long as we are in rebellion against God, creation will be in rebellion against us. The revelation of the sons of God is the night signal to all involved that the long, dark battle with the powers is reaching its end, and creation is being restored, precisely because humans — originally commissioned to be representatives of God to creation and tasked with ordering creation back to God and ruling on earth (as it is in Heaven) as images of God's sovereign reign — are having their images renewed in the sovereign realm of seven sacraments. For Paul, the transfer of allegiance from the "old man" to the "new man" in baptism and expressed through pistis ("faith") was more than an individual "conversion" from one worldview to another. It was the clash of two worlds. Full stop.
Hardly any of this will make any sense whatsoever without verses 29 and 30. The only way to make sense of both the timing and the sequence of the revelation of the sons of God at the exact moment of the creation's rescue is if the purpose of the predestined plot was always "to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). If first-born, then New Adam; if New Adam, then new creation, and if conformed to that same image of the Son, then a new humanity to reign with Him in it! This was the Gospel that the New Testament authors were telling us about, and it’s just as dangerous today as it was back then, in a world where Augustus claimed to be in god's image, inferring from that the right to rule as he did.
Paul's travels around the empire, his setting up local communities, his scooping up poor peasant Catholics under Caesar's nose — all the while claiming that, by virtue of their baptism and their new conformity to Jesus, the reborn sons of God are destined to rule the nations — were not insignificant feats. Paul was surely bold. But he might have seemed an unfit representative for such a revolutionary message: Not only was he not an eloquent speaker like others in Corinth, he barely had a resume to tout, especially in the face of the disparagements of the elites. His claim to credibility was that his sufferings were enough to stamp him as an ambassador of the Crucified King. (This is what Paul called "the wisdom of God.")
Did Paul really understand what it sounded like when he claimed that Catholics in Ephesus were already seated with Christ in the heavenly places? If Paul would have known what he was saying, then he would have known that he was going to get himself killed. Did anyone advise him as such? Did a friend send him a letter warning him of making a rash move by emptying his 401k out so soon, of withdrawing any future insurance he would have on his life? But the very fact that he wrote these very words "in chains" (Ephesians 6:20) in Rome meant that he not only knew what the implications were but was willing and ready to undergo the corporeal consequences of saying them out loud.
Might it be possible — there are hints in the texts themselves — that he understood his sufferings and his very own death as an actual advancement of that very same reign of Christ the King? And insofar as Ephesians itself links up with Romans 8, we can argue that Paul's Gospel of Christ the King with Catholics as His vice-regents contextualizes Paul's very own environmental agenda. "Save the whales," for Paul, really meant the establishment of the reign of Christ through the Catholic Church. What kind of world does Paul think he is actually living in? Clearly, it's a world in which many things need to be considered at once.
Haley Goranson Jacob's book Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul's Theology of Glory in Romans forces us to consider, once more, the implications of verse 30 in Romans 8. Jacobs demonstrates exegetically, and with academic precision, what we have been merely hinting at here in this article, which is that
in Romans 8:29–30 Paul sees that those conformed to the image of the Son are those who, though once participants in the Adamic submission to the powers of sin and death, now participate in the reign of the new Adam over creation. Mankind's position on earth as God's vicegerents to his creation is now restored, though now through the image of the Son of God, who reigns as God's preeminent vicegerent.
The political reign of Israel's Messiah is not something tacked on as the implication of a long list of conclusions drawn from a summa of speculative theology or an index of philosophical premises (integralism), nor from any one reaction to the failures of political liberalism (postliberalism), but the beating heart of all positive theology. This is what it means to understand the content of revelation. Before we go on to consider whether or not we should "sanctify the GOP" or "start a new Catholic political party," we need to understand the content of revelation itself: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:20). This is what the early Church, the first Catholics, went around calling "the gospel."
All of this has been largely forgotten, in part, because, as Pope Francis points out, "We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Genesis 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters." We have swapped this fundamental truth for a narrative that says we are destined for another world where there are no elements to make up any bodies. This is, of course, as Scott Hahn hints at in his book on the Resurrection (Hope to Die), what the Freemasons wanted all along: Get Catholics to abandon hope for the restoration of creation which began with the resurrection of Jesus and ... get them to abandon their vocation to rule the world on God's behalf. Eschatology has always been linked to politics. If you want political liberalism, give the Catholic world a purely Platonic ending of the story.
Once Freemasons altered our eschatology, they could diminish our concept of soteriology to purely "getting to Heaven when we die," which finally allowed room for Marx's materialism and liberation theology's socialism to fill the vacuum. Marx would revive ancient epicureanism, which many of us thought Paul had already put to rest. Eventually, liberation theology would pick up the obvious politically charged texts of the New Testament, which had been dropped in the process of seeking an other-worldly salvation, for their own purposes of identifying the war against the "powers and principalities" with tearing down the "structures of sin" (socialism). If redemption no longer meant what it meant — the restoration of all creation through the social kingship of Christ — then anything goes, not least radical reductionistic interpretations of history (communism or fascism).
And all of this being smuggled in the back door at the exact moment when Christendom had been kicked to the curb and reduced to ashes. It was not just the lay vocation that was lost, but much, much more. Could it be because the actual biblical story had been misplaced and replaced with half-truths and distortions?
And now, of all things, we have a distortion of the original climate agenda, which was originally an agenda to restore all things in Christ! In a certain sense, the Sorosian globalists of the 21st century have got nothing on the Pauline globalists of the first. Christians have the true claim to "a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:10). The authentic global agenda was always the Creator's plan to restore all things in the image of His Son, says Paul.
Paul's climate agenda was not so much about reducing fossil fuels as it was about the royal promises made to Abraham finding their worldwide fulfillment in Jesus and the Church. The problem here is not so much that environmental activism is anachronistic but rather that it is reductionistic, and thus the insistence on carbon emission and forests and endangered species and nothing more, can never address the much-larger reasons behind environmental decay, as Paul sees it in passages like Romans 8.
It was not about reducing carbon, but always about reducing the number of nations that had not yet proclaimed Christ the Lord, Christ as Lord. Until Catholics take up this vocation, precisely as the sons who are to be revealed, the sons in whose image the new humanity has been conformed to the true image, there might or might not be a reduction in fossil fuels, but there will always be a climate crisis. Creation groans, says Paul, until Catholics are ruling and governing the world on God's behalf, as images of Christ the King.
For those who wish to know more about the story of Scripture, join Church Militant’s upcoming masterclass — taught by yours truly, Chris Plance — starting on Oct. 22.