Cross-post: Laudato Si

There’s a lot of stupid criticism of the new encyclical going around.  I’m happy to take what condemnations of the modern world I can get.

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.

29 Responses

  1. […] Cross-post: Laudato Si […]

  2. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  3. A great Catholic poet, Alexander Pope summed up the Catholic concept of nature in an age of Deism, the precursor of modernity:

    “All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
    Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
    That, changed through all, and yet in all the same;
    Great in the earth, as in the ethereal frame;
    Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
    Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
    Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
    Spreads undivided, operates unspent;
    Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
    As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart:
    As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
    As the rapt seraph that adores and burns:
    To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
    He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.”

    “Hear, O Israel, the LORD thy God, the LORD is one”

  4. Michael Paterson-Seymour,

    How is that the Catholic conception as opposed to the Deist one? “All are but parts of one stupendous whole,/Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;” is this not the definition of deism?

    Or is your point that our Catholic position reflects upon and illuminates the sentences of the age? And sometimes this is done in a way that makes it hard to distinguish where the era ends and the Christian begins?

  5. “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.”

    […] Anyone who is confident in technical solutions will think his confidence warranted and sober […]. 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.

    There’s a dilemma though, at least when it comes to technology. On one horn is the problem of “Well if you oppose technology flat out, then why do you live in a house, use electricity, or drive a car? Even written language is a kind of technology!” On the other horn is letting advocates off the hook, as you said: “My confidence in technological solutions of course meets all your criteria! I never rush into things blindly after all.”

    The solution I propose is a formalized method through which technological innovation must be vetted. It doesn’t matter too much what the specifics of this method are, because the people who create new technology tend to constantly tinker with things, so any planned method will be tinkered with. I guess as long as a few key elements are there to give it the right direction.

    What’s important is that the culture of tech innovation embrace some method of deliberately thinking about the possible impact of a given new technology on society in a wider, long-term sense–not just on the immediate experience of individual users.

    I know tech culture could embrace something like this, because it embraces all kinds of other similar things. In software for example there’s a big movement towards “craftsmanship” and test-driven development and Agile. And in areas like AI and genetic engineering, there’s already actual deep discussion going on about these very concepts (long-term societal impact, etc.). It’s not being superimposed from the top down, but energetically spread from the bottom up at conferences, in articles, and so on.

  6. Deism stressed the transcendence of God – the Great Architect, the Cosmic Watchmaker – at the expense of His immanence, which Pope so vigorously asserts.

  7. Deists believe that, after God created the universe, he ignores it because it doesn’t need him anymore. But if he sustains it, it still needs him. It’s as though he built Paley’s watch, wound it, and left. If my soul leaves my body, I’ll die. By bod and my soul are parts of me, so I’m neither of them.

  8. Perhaps the lesson is that we overreact, in this case from Deism to the opposite error of panentheism/pantheism.

  9. In the passage I quoted, Pope stresses the immanence of God, but in the same poem, he affirms His transcendence,

    “Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
    A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
    Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
    And now a bubble burst, and now a world.”

  10. A different church has taken your advice on how to write such documents… no, wait, this was 20 years ago:

    https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation?lang=eng

    You will, I am sure, applaud the form of the document, and you will agree with the content and clarity of the overall message (even though you will certainly disagree – and that fundamentally – with some details of the message. But you can see these are not being hidden or fudged, nor is the document deceptive).

    I looked through Laudato Si, I noted that the whole thing is permeated with bureaucratic management-speak. This means it is necessarily fundamentally dishonest; and therefore (although there is plenty of admirable stuff as well as the dross) it cannot be trusted, and there is really no point in reading further.

    This kind of dishonesty is inexcusable. By contrast, Benedict XVI was honest (at least in those of his books and articles which I have read) – and indeed one of the greatest religious figures of recent decades, and he wasn’t from *that* long ago…

    Of course, it is likely that the dishonesty mostly comes from somewhat lower down the hierarchy, from the same people who sabotaged Benedict as much as and wherever they could (e.g. all but spiking the astonishing the astonishing and wonderful end-run of the Anglican Ordinariate), and who chose Francis to succeed him.

  11. @brucecharlton: This means it is necessarily fundamentally dishonest; and therefore (although there is plenty of admirable stuff as well as the dross) it cannot be trusted, and there is really no point in reading further.

    Or, as Pascal notes, it could mean that God speaks through Laudato Si in a way that is sufficiently clear for those who want to see the truth and in a way that is sufficiently obscure for those who don’t…which is not the same as saying there aren’t problems, some serious, with the document.

  12. Bruce, please just shut up.

  13. Bruce is right. It’s difficult to imagine the Catholic Church any time since Vatican II posting a straightforward, forthright statement like this. (Did you notice the LDS even affirmed male headship? We Catholics didn’t even have the guts to put that in the Catechism buried somewhere in the middle. In fact, it seems to be one of those doctrines that’s been quietly dropped and repudiated, Bible and tradition be damned.)

    Is bureaucratic-speak always dishonest? Not in the sense that it always aims to convey falsehoods. In a looser since, it is dishonest in that it does not aim to clearly communicate, but to placate or impress. It’s certainly sad to see the Vatican falling back onto it more and more. It is hard to believe a religion is the one true faith if it won’t even state forthrightly what it would have us believe.

  14. I don’t mean this as an insult Bonald, you really come across as a poster boy for Vatican II in your online interactions with other religions.

  15. I don’t mean this as an insult Bonald, you really come across as a poster boy for Vatican II in your online interactions with other religions.

    Yes and Bruce too, with all of the ecumenical nonsense.

  16. Michelle Malkin says he does a Jimmy Carter and writes that we should turn up the thermostat on our AC in summer and put a sweater on in the winter. If he makes that infallible, I’m moving up near you Bonald. I live in Florida and hate the heat much more than I do the cold.

  17. > you really come across as a poster boy for Vatican II in your online interactions with other religions.

    Don’t I get any credit for being a nasty anti-semite (one who kind of admires the Orthodox, but still, that’s not most Jews)?

    It comes down to tribalism. Whether another group is attacking or defending mine is my primary category for evaluation.

  18. Bruce – Buy a house built before air-conditioning was invented. Naples is notoriously hot and humid, yet I spent one July there in an old palazzo. The thick walls (5 feet or more), high ceilings, tessellated floors, marble-pannelled walls and with large windows on the North side made it cool and airy.

    Many modern buildings by contrast would be uninhabitable without air-conditioning.

  19. Your words say tribalism, but your actions say aggiornamento. Again, not an insult, not even a criticism, perhaps rather something to admire.

    I see that you think Charlton is defending the Church somehow. It makes more sense now.

  20. I completely agree with ISE that we should never criticise other faiths for being insufficiently liberal. That plays into the Enemy’s hands, and it’s a betrayal of our beliefs anyway. I also evaluate differently criticisms of Catholicism depending on whether they’re pushing us toward or away from liberalism. A Protestant criticising the Catholic Church for holding back freedom and equality is clearly an enemy, an agent of Satan, and should be dismissed as such. Criticisms of Catholicism for being too liberal, on the other hand, may be useful or not. People who claim that Catholicism is inherently emasculating and egalitarian are enemies in the employ of Satan, albeit more interesting and intelligent ones than the liberals. These are the type of criticisms I write posts to refute. I try to keep the argument polite because my experience is that these people will actually listen to you if you make good points and show some courtesy. (I also feel friendly toward the occasional atheist liberal who stops by just to learn more about antimodern belief systems–it does occasionally happen. I want to praise and encourage that sort of curiosity.) On the other hand, if a Protestant says that Catholicism has gone off the rails since Vatican II, I can hardly object to that. I can’t even get offended by it; it’s almost a compliment to true Catholicism.

  21. “(Did you notice the LDS even affirmed male headship? We Catholics didn’t even have the guts to put that in the Catechism buried somewhere in the middle. In fact, it seems to be one of those doctrines that’s been quietly dropped and repudiated, Bible and tradition be damned.)”

    I recently had to undergo a marriage prep retreat with my fiancee. The Archdiocese uses one program reputed for its orthodoxy, and it was, in most areas, pretty solid. Male headship was not one of them. The class proper skipped that discussion entirely; the study manual we were given glossed over it with extensive discussions of what headship isn’t (including quotes by the execrable Christopher West, who somehow managed to twist patriarchal headship around into a perverse doctrine whereby husbands lovingly submit to their wives); worst of all, we were required to watch Fireproof, which Dalrock correctly identified as gussied-up divorce porn for putatively Christian women. I noted my general disapproval of its obvious dodge of the issue on my evaluations and am presently in the process of drafting a letter to the Archbishop, which I expect will be ignored.

  22. “I don’t mean this as an insult Bonald, you really come across as a poster boy for Vatican II in your online interactions with other religions.”

    Bonald is usually harsh with perverts and Protestants in theory (i.e., when discussing their ideas) and gentle and mild-mannered with them in person, which seems to me to be exactly what charity demands of us. I much prefer it to the simpering CAF-type Catholic who can’t find a nasty word to say about Protestantism but are happy to funnel sewage down the throats of traditionalists (who are, after all…. Protestants, don’t’cha’know).

  23. Michael Paterson-Seymour,
    You mean Naples, Italy not Naples, Florida right? Aren’t you a Brit (Scotsman?)? It’s hard for people not from here to understand how hot & humid it is. I doubt Italy is anywhere near as hot and humid. White people do not have the genetics to be non-miserable in hot & humid weather.
    But you’re right about houses. The old houses down here were much better designed for the heat.

  24. Thanks Bonald for the generous explanation – and always good to hear from Proph also.

    Criticisms of Catholicism for being too liberal, on the other hand, may be useful or not.

    Aside from other large issues in which I consider Charlton, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to be an enemy of the Church (such as downplaying the importance of submission to Christological ecumenical councils for which the average Christian–myself to be included in this category–couldn’t even begin to grasp what was the heresy being condemned), his touting of the LDS document above for its clarity strikes me as part-and-parcel with the modern and liberal let-me-see-it-in-black-and-white positivist spirit. It looks good at the moment, but it’s shallow in the long run.

  25. >It comes down to tribalism. Whether another group is attacking or defending mine is my primary category for evaluation.

    Every other religion is at odds with the Church, in that they try to keep people from the true faith. There were enemies of the faith before liberalism was around.

  26. with my fiancee

    Congratulations Proph!

  27. Bruce – Yes, Napoli. It is on the same latitude as Charleston, but without the moderating Atlantic influence.

    The Sirocco, a hot southerly wind blowing from the Sahara and picking up moisture from the warm, land-locked waters of the Mediterranean produces very high humidity and temperatures in the mid-30s.

    Tiberius built his villa on nearby Capri; most of his successors favoured mountain retreats.

  28. @Bonald – The problem still remains about how to be a real Roman Catholic if or when someone regards the leadership as corrupt and getting-worse.

    This is not insoluble (I hope – because I very much want to see the traditional RCC thriving) but it is unfamiliar in the West; because the past several generations of Western Catholics have been ‘ultramontaine’ in perspective – often looking ‘over’ the local Bishops and Priests to the Pope himself, or the senior Cardinals, for guidance.

    Also, this type of RCC life was built around the ideal of daily Mass (e.g. as exemplified by JRR Tolkien – his generation would often choose their residence on the basis of proximity to a church providing access to early morning daily Mass.)

    This, at least, is how I interpret the likes of Belloc and Chesterton and their contemporaries, the neo-scholastics, and was the usual practice in the Republic of Ireland until a generation ago.

    Of course, this is a delayed recapitulation of what happened from two or three generations in the Anglo-Catholic art of the Anglican Communion. And the current situation among Anglicans is appalling; so there is really nothing to be learned from them! This was superbly and prophetically analysed by William Oddie in the Crockford’s File – Oddie later became a Roman Catholic priest and editor of the Catholic Herald – and still seems to be ploughing a traditionalist furrow after the tide turned against him in the RCC.

    But, I reiterate, I think there may be something to be learned from the Orthodox – in terms of what are the basic options.

    I think there has to be either a withdrawal into becoming a church of oneself (continuing to participate frequently in the sacraments within a corrupted mainstream church, but psychologically insulated from the corrupted teachings etc); or else a withdrawal into small groups within the church – accepting that the sacramental life will then usually become infrequent.

    This was often the case for Western Catholics at some points in church history – so it is not without precedent – but it is unfamiliar over the past several generations.

  29. Thank you Michael and Bill for the correction. I confused deism for pantheism in my post; I do not know why, for I know I’ve understood the distinction before. I’ll blame the heat and humidity for the error!

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