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