Let me guess.
You’re a Catholic, but your views on “the environment” are drawn more from your political affiliation than from Church teaching. If so, Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato si’ will challenge you, whether you’re liberal or conservative.
That’s the funny thing about Catholicism - it doesn’t fit neatly into our modern, American political categories of “liberal / progressive” and “conservative.” It has a nasty little habit of making both those on “the left” and on “the right” uncomfortable. Anyone who uses Catholicism to prop up another worldview - especially a political worldview - must be continually frustrated by the Church’s tendency to propose not conservatism or liberalism, but Christianity.
Pope Francis, in his latest encyclical, Laudato si’, continues this trend.
Finding the Pole Star
Pope Francis begins Laudato si’ by re-envisioning the environmentalist debate in Catholic terms. The first few paragraphs provide Catholics with a “pole star” to navigate both the rest of the encyclical and the entire environmentalist movement.
Let’s examine this “pole star” together.
We are the World.
The first part of the “pole star” is Francis’ rejection of the neo-gnosticism that surrounds much of the environmentalist debate, on both sides. He writes,
Dimentichiamo che noi stessi siamo terra. Il nostro stesso corpo è costituito dagli elementi del pianeta, la sua aria è quella che ci dà il respiro e la sua acqua ci vivaci e ristora. (2)
We forget that we ourselves are earth. Our body is made of the elements of the planet, its air gives us breath, and its water gives us life and restores us. (translation mine)
This flies in the face of modern man’s self conception, inherited from René Descartes, that we are essentially distinct from nature. For Descartes, man was mind, accidentally trapped in a body, like a “ghost in a machine.” Thus conceived, man is set apart, even set against, nature.
Much of the modern environmentalist movement has followed Descartes lead, even if they reject his idea that man is superior to the natural order. For many environmentalists man is indeed set against nature, although man is here envisioned not as a superior, immaterial mind, but as an evolutionary pox upon the planet.
Francis eliminates this Cartesian divide between man and nature altogether by reminding us that man doesn’t just have a body, but is a body, is a hylomorphic unity of body and soul. Our souls transcend the natural, animal world, but our bodies are both a part of it and rely on it for continued existence.
Viewed in this light, the call to protect the Earth of which our bodies are a part (cf. Gen 2:7) - the call of Laudato si’, is the only possible Catholic response to current environmental science.
Francis Passes on the Bacon
This Catholic view is radically opposed to a view set forth by another Francis, the father of modern science - Francis Bacon. Bacon’s view of nature sees the natural world as inherently meaningless, there to be “conquered” and used for any end man desires. For Bacon, if science can do something to the environment to advance human “progress,” it ought to be done.
Pope Francis rejects this, remembering that you can’t derive an “I ought to” from an “I can.” For Catholics, something being technologically possible, doesn’t mean it is ethically just.
Francis makes this point explicit when he writes,
L’autentico sviluppo umano possiede un carattere morale e presuppone il pieno rispetto della persona umana, ma deve prestare attenzione anche al mondo naturale e «tener conto della natura di ciascun essere e della sua mutua connessione in un sistema ordinato ». Pertanto, la capacità dell’essere umano di trasformare la realtà deve svilupparsi sulla base della prima originaria donazione delle cose da parte di Dio. (5)
Authentic human development has a moral character and presupposes full respect for the human person, but must also pay attention to the natural world and “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system.” Therefore, the ability of human beings to transform reality must be developed on the basis of the first original gift of the things from God. (translation mine)
Nature, both human and environmental, is not to be bent to our will as if it were infinitely plastic and malleable. Respect must be shown to how God has ordered things, which logically entails rejecting things that might be technologically possible, if they are at odds with God’s “original gift.”
These lines immediately brought to my mind my recent post on Bruce / "Caitlyn" Jenner, who has rejected the “original gift” from God of his nature. He has despoiled his nature through an abuse of technology and science to his determent. Likewise, the use of technology can destroy our planet’s environment by failing to respect the “final cause” God has in mind for it.
The link between someone like the “gender-transitioned” Mr. Jenner and the Pope’s words on the environment are not seen just by this blogger, but are drawn out by Pope Francis himself,
Il mio predecessore Benedetto XVI…ha ricordato che il mondo non può essere analizzato solo isolando uno dei suoi aspetti, perché « il libro della natura è uno e indivisibile » e include l’ambiente, la vita, la sessualità, la famiglia, le relazioni sociali, e altri aspetti. (6)
My predecessor Benedict XVI… has remembered that the world cannot be analyzed only by isolating one of its aspects, because “the book of nature is one and indivisible” and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and other aspects. (translation mine)
Francis, following the lead of Benedict XVI (who, along with John Paul II, makes up the vast majority of the references in the footnotes of Laudato si’), sees respect for nature as intrinsically linked to respect for human nature.
It is this catholic (i.e. universal) view, that sees man both as a part of nature and as a being possessing a nature that must be respected, that separates Francis’ call to environmental stewardship from the secular world’s. Laudato si’ isn’t content to enter the debate on the world’s terms, but insists upon linking what the world would separate.
A Catholic Tone
Right at the beginning of Laudato si’ Pope Francis has already set a very different tone in the environmentalist debate. For Catholics, environmentalism can never be about viewing humans as parasites on “Mother Earth,” for humans are a part, indeed the crown, of the natural order. This flies in the face of the leftist approach to climate change.
Likewise, Francis has little time for the right’s approach to the issue. Unbridled technological and economic development, which disregards damage caused to the planet, is not just “unsustainable” but is morally unacceptable. Each of us is under a moral obligation to do what we can to reduce the damage our rapid technological and economic progress has made over the last two centuries. Turning a blind-eye, according to the Holy Father, is not a Catholic option.
But each of us is also under another moral obligation - to respect our natures. Egotism, the fuel of Pope Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism,” which demands to have everything “my way” and disregards either the negative effects of human actions on the natural environment or on human nature itself must always be opposed. In this sense, Laudato si’ calls for a teleological reading of both our planet and ourselves as the only way to avoid the errors so common on both sides of the debate.
This lesson, so eloquently set forth by Francis at the start of Laudato si’, is the real challenge to the modern world, both liberal and conservative.
With this “pole star” in mind, I encourage you to read the whole encyclical and to reflect upon your own attitude toward nature - both the environment and the human nature that is our own.
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