Laudato Si

Rusty Reno at First Things, complaining that Pope Francis’s attitude to modernity reminds him of Pius IX’s, almost makes me a Francis fan.

In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era…

If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity. In the nineteenth century, the Church regarded modernity’s failure to acknowledge God as damning. It led to usurpations of authority, disrespect for hierarchy, and other signs of anthropocentric self-regard. Francis’s concerns are different. He’s worried about the poor, environmental disasters, and the complacent rich indifferent to both. But his analysis is the same, and he shares a similar dire, global view of modernity as the epitome of godless sin.

He’s right.  Modernity is the epitome of godless sin.

I’m not opposed to the idea of an encyclical on the environment or even one on the ethical issues raised by climate change, but I fear the encyclical we’ve got will be a lost opportunity.  This is a shame, because it does make some important points mixed amid the tedious committee-speak.

As a teacher, I think hard about how to effectively communicate ideas, and I see three serious pedagogical problems with the new encyclical.  1) At nearly 200 pages, it’s way too long.  No one will read it but paid Vatican-watchers.  Even people who make their living promoting climate “awareness” won’t read it.  I certainly don’t plan to read it.  Number of pages is only one measure of “too long”.  It also covers far too many topics for a single teaching document.  2) Too much committee-speak and portentous statements of the obvious, e.g. “Social problems must be addressed by community networks.” 3) Reliance on straw-man alternatives, so that no one will feel that his position in particular has been rebuked.  For example, also on First Things, Josiah Neeley doesn’t think Francis is that anti-modern:

At the same time, the attacks tend to be qualified. It’s not progress but “irrational faith in progress” that he opposes; not technology but “blind confidence in technical solutions.”

That’s the thing.  Anyone who is confident in technical solutions will think his confidence warranted and sober, just like no advocate of capitalism would claim that profit should be pursued with utter indifference to moral norms.  Adding these descriptors is meant to add further criticism to the criticized point of view, but in fact it lets all its real advocates off the hook.

The useful thing Francis tries to do is to lay down ethical principles for dealing with nature.  Do we have duties to the non-human world apart from those springing from consideration for other humans?  Obviously, when arguing against things like pollution, one can base oneself strictly on the harm it causes other people and communities.  But does nature itself make moral demands on us?  Francis claims so.  From the summaries I’ve read (e.g. here, with thanks to Laura Wood for the link), there appear to be two sources of obligation to nature, although I don’t know if Francis identifies them as such.

First, there is the intrinsic value of non-intelligent creatures (and creation vaguely considered as a whole) which demands our recognition even apart from their value to humanity.  The intrinsic good of creatures works well I think for grounding opposition to animal cruelty (which is not the point of this encyclical), because cats, say, are Aristotelian substances, so we have a good idea of what constitutes their intrinsic flourishing and what constitutes malicious interference with it.  I have trouble applying the value of creation to larger aggregates.  I see no grounds for saying that the Earth itself is worse off with more carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, and even when talking about biospheres, it seems to me a subtle thing to categorize changes as better or worse.

Second, there is Francis’ expansive notion of “ecology”, which extends to a sense of mankind taking his proper place within the order of being.  We are morally required to assume the proper relationships to God and our fellow intelligent beings, and to this Francis adds a third relation:  to nature itself.  This concern is by no means foreign to historical conservatism, which has characteristically been agrarian and anti-industrial precisely from a sense that industrialized urban centers spiritually impoverish man by severing him from the natural world.  “Nature” is, of course, a very general term.  We ourselves have natures and are part of nature.  A proper ecological “conversion” requires a reverence for the order imbued by God in each being.  Applied to ourselves, this means respect for the natural law.  The opposite of this respect and reverence is the attitude of seeing the environment or our own bodies as raw material for the gratification of our own desires.  Francis makes the connection explicit:

Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.” It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.”

Comparisons have begun to be made between Laudato Si and Humanae Vitae, the point being that conservatives will ignore the latter just as liberals ignored the former.  In fact, there is a deep connection in the message of the two encyclicals.  Nature is imbued with value, order, and purpose.  Recognizing it with due respect and reverence is a sort of natural communication with God.  It is in this recognition, rather than imposing our own will, that we find our proper fulfilment.  Sex is for us, and the beasts in the fields are for us, but that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want with them.

I close with a suggestion to the papacy, if its occupants would like their doctrinal pronouncements to be widely read, because unnecessary length and poor organization have been a problem for a long time.

  1. Observe a strict 6 page limit (single space, single column, 12 point font, 1 inch margins), not counting references.
  2. Provide an abstract.

The above will force the main author (3. Make sure there is one main author) to decide what his main points are and how to expound them most directly.  Don’t waste time with greetings or other unnecessary preliminaries.  Keep your focus narrow; if you want to talk about two subjects, write two letters.  I promise that harsh limitations on length will improve your prose style, making it more clear and more elegant.  Most importantly, more people would be willing to actually read the document rather than just getting the supposed main message from a hostile media.

9 thoughts on “Laudato Si

  1. Pingback: Laudato Si | Neoreactive

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  3. I like what you have to say here about ecology and the very typical Conservative concern about rural vs. urban life. This is likely to be a topic that becomes more relevant with time.

    Reno makes a classic Modernist mistake, and that is seeing anti-Modernism in simple opposition to outcomes of current systems. The Pope makes a critique similar in character to the Marxian one. He likes where Modernity starts from, its preconditions, but does not like its actual outcomes in the real world under the dominant set of societal-planners i.e – Consumer Capitalism, environmental degradation, etc. He’d rather have a different set of planners to mold Modern society. Yet at base, the Pope remains one of the most Modern, if not the most Modern. He has made pretty clear he dismisses all opinions from the more Reactionary-minded among the high clergy.

    • “[The Pope] likes where Modernity starts from, … but does not like its actual outcomes.”

      We have the advantage of hindsight which our forbears may in some sense be found guiltless of, but it seems to me that someone supposedly as spiritually enlightened and knowledgable as the Pope should well-understand the basic concept that every seed contains within itself all the information necessary for producing *its own kind of fruit*; that once planted invariably people (in a society that permits the planting of Marxist seed in the first place) are going to water it, and tend it and hoe out all the good seed surrounding it, that threatens to starve it and choke it out of existence. That Francis seems not to understand this makes me wonder about his level of intelligence, to say nothing of his spiritual qualifications as Pope.

  4. Christians have one additional grounds for the preservation of nature. We have always seen the glory and beauty of nature as part of God’s general revelation. In the seventeenth century, Christians began to read the “book of nature” largely in terms of “design,” but before that the emphasis was on its beauty and magnificence. Human works could enhance this beauty, just as a woman’s beauty can be enhanced by jewelry, or they could disfigure this beauty, just as a woman’s beauty can be disfigured by piercings. Some human landscapes enhance nature, some disfigure it, and when they disfigure it they blot the “book of nature.”

  5. In the Catholic Church’s sense of the word “Modernist,” Modernist are hardly anti-scientific. They even believe that the Church should change her doctrines when science progresses. In their opinion, we can’t even know that Christ is divine. Please read parts 6-8 in St. Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis.

  6. Here’s more from Pascendi to support what I said about the Modernist heresy and science.

    16. We have proceeded sufficiently far, Venerable Brethren, to have before us enough, and more than enough, to enable us to see what are the relations which Modernists establish between faith and science — including, as they are wont to do under that name, history. And in the first place it is to be held that the object-matter of the one is quite extraneous to and separate from the object-matter of the other. For faith occupies itself solely with something which science declares to be for it unknowable. Hence each has a separate scope assigned to it: science is entirely concerned with phenomena, into which faith does not at all enter; faith, on the contrary, concerns itself with the divine, which is entirely unknown to science. Thus it is contended that there can never be any dissension between faith and science, for if each keeps on its own ground they can never meet and therefore never can be in contradiction. And if it be objected that in the visible world there are some things which appertain to faith, such as the human life of Christ, the Modernists reply by denying this. For though such things come within the category of phenomena, still in as far as they are lived by faith and in the way already described have been by faith transfigured and disfigured, they have been removed from the world of sense and transferred into material for the divine. Hence should it be further asked whether Christ has wrought real miracles, and made real prophecies, whether He rose truly from the dead and ascended into Heaven, the answer of agnostic science will be in the negative and the answer of faith in the affirmative yet there will not be, on that account, any conflict between them. For it will be denied by the philosopher as a philosopher speaking to philosophers and considering Christ only in historical reality; and it will be affirmed by the believer as a believer speaking to believers and considering the life of Christ as lived again by the faith and in the faith.

    17. It would be a great mistake, nevertheless, to suppose that, according to these theories, one is allowed to believe that faith and science are entirely independent of each other. On the side of science that is indeed quite true and correct, but it is quite otherwise with regard to faith, which is subject to science, not on one but on three grounds. For in the first place it must be observed that in every religious fact, when one takes away the divine reality and the experience of it which the believer possesses, everything else, and especially the religious formulas, belongs to the sphere of phenomena and therefore falls under the control of science. Let the believer go out of the world if he will, but so long as he remains in it, whether he like it or not, he cannot escape from the laws, the observation, the judgments of science and of history. Further, although it is contended that God is the object of faith alone, the statement refers only to the divine reality, not to the idea of God. The latter also is subject to science which, while it philosophizes in what is called the logical order, soars also to the absolute and the ideal. It is therefore the right of philosophy and of science to form its knowledge concerning the idea of God, to direct it in its evolution and to purify it of any extraneous elements which may have entered into it. Hence we have the Modernist axiom that the religious evolution ought to be brought into accord with the moral and intellectual, or as one whom they regard as their leader has expressed it, ought to be subject to it. Finally, man does not suffer a dualism to exist in himself, and the believer therefore feels within him an impelling need so to harmonize faith with science that it may never oppose the general conception which science sets forth concerning the universe.

  7. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/06/21) | The Reactivity Place


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