To call Laudato si’ an ambitious document is a severe understatement; Pope Francis latest encyclical on “the care of our common home” weighs in at a hefty 80,000 words in English (or around 100,000 words in Spanish and Italian), addressing not only ecological concerns on a theoretical level, but also making concrete suggestions (many of which are already much maligned; cf. air conditioners in paragraph 55) in the realm of economic, ecological, and technological policy. Its scope is vast and sweeping. The encyclical certainly bears the style of this pope, who, in his attempts to articulate his mind on a vast array of sub-topics, often exhibits his Italian/Latin American tendency toward verbosity, producing a text which seems at times to ramble and rant more than inform and instruct as an encyclical should. Laudato si’ enjoys not the striking, deft linguistic command which illuminates the documents guided by the hand of Francis’ venerable predecessor, and as a result, this encyclical is at times hard to read— not because it boasts of a hitherto-undiscovered profundity as in the case of many classic Ratzingerian texts, but because its principal author, like so many churchmen today, simply does not possess the unmatched skill of synthesis which, in part, made Benedict XVI a true intellectual giant.
All this having been said, Laudato si‘ stands on solid theological ground.
Because of the text’s wide scope, no poor pundit (much less the undersigned) can write in a single short blog post a suitable commentary which does justice to every matter touched by the encyclical. I will therefore limit myself to the chapter which struck a resonant chord within me. Chapter 3, entitled “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis”, explores the effects of technological progress on the modern ethos, acknowledging the positive contributions of advancements in technology while critiquing the manner by which contemporary society has largely equated technical progress with human progress. This chapter presents a philosophical and theological vision of man and creation which serves as a foundation for the proposals of later chapters. Such a vision is not a Bergoglian novelty; indeed, what struck me about chapter 3 was that, as I read it, I could sense the echo of Joseph Ratzinger who, in his time, also reflected deeply on the mystery of creation and on man’s obligation to care for the world given by the Creator. It is this connection between the two popes which I wish to elucidate, in order to show that, at least on the theological plane, the suppositions of Laudato si’ lie firmly within the realm of Catholic orthodoxy.
In Laudato si’ paragraphs 102 and 103, Pope Francis extols many positive contributions wrought by technology. Citing Benedict’s Caritas in veritate, he writes: “The modification of nature for useful purposes has distinguished the human family from the beginning; technology itself ‘expresses the inner tension that impels man gradually to overcome material limitations.'” From this potential toward the good, however, also comes the possibility of abuse. Paragraph 104 continues:
Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used. We need but think of the nuclear bombs dropped in the middle of the twentieth century, or the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people, to say nothing of the increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare.
Francis cites amply from one of Ratzinger’s theological heroes, the great Romano Guardini, especially from the book Das Ende der Neuzeit (“The End of the Modern World”), and in paragraph 105, we find:
There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”, as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us.
At root of this mindset is what Francis terms “an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm”. This paradigm, the Pope states,
exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation… (par. 106)
It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. (par. 107)
Again, citing Guardini, Francis says that the “technocratic paradigm”, modernity’s preeminent epistemological model,
has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive– a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished. (par. 108)
Already in the mid-1960s, Ratzinger narrated the development of this mindset, demonstrating that it relies on a departure from (or even rejection of) an authentically Christian worldview. In the first chapter of his classic Introduction to Christianity (a true gem of theology), while reflecting on “belief in the world of today”, he traces the origins of what Francis will later call the “technocratic paradigm”.
The High Middle Ages produced a refined theology in which the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans and biblical faith were brought together in a remarkable synthesis; among the many ideas which were born of this intellectual system was the Scholastic axiom verum est ens (being is truth). Against this idea, held to be valid for centuries by the brightest exponents of the Western tradition, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico “advances his own formula verum quia factum. That is to say, all we can truly know is what we have made ourselves.” To Ratzinger, it seems that
this formula denotes the end of the old metaphysics and the beginning of the specifically modern mind. The revolutionary character of modern thinking in comparison with all that preceded it is here expressed with absolutely inimitable precision. For the ancient world and the Middle Ages, being itself is true, in other words, apprehensible, because God, pure intellect, made it, and he made it by thinking it. To the creative original spirit, the ‘Creator Spiritus’, thinking and making are one and the same thing. His thinking is a creative process. Things are, because they are thought. In the ancient and medieval view, all being is, therefore, what has been thought, the thought of the absolute spirit. Conversely, this means that since all being is thought, all being is meaningful, logos, truth. It follows from the traditional view that human thinking is the rethinking of being itself, rethinking of the thought that is being itself. Man can rethink the logos, the meaning of being, because his own logos, his own reason, is logos of the one logos, thought of the original thought, of the creative spirit that permeates and governs his being. (Introduction to Christianity, pg. 59)
Vico, by contrast,
asserts that real knowledge is the knowledge of causes. I am familiar with thing if I know the cause of it; I understand something that has been proved if I know the proof. But from this old thought something completely new is deduced: If part of real knowledge is the knowledge of causes, then we can truly know only what we have made for ourselves, for it is only ourselves that we are familiar with. This means that the old equation of truth and being is replaced with the new one of truth and factuality; all that can be known is the factum, that which we have made ourselves. It is not the task of the human mind– nor is it within its capacity– to think about being; rather, it is to think about the factum, what has been made, man’s own particular world, for this is all we can truly understand. (Introduction, pg. 61)
The switch from verum est ens to verum est factum will later encounter a new development, thanks to another thinker whose legacy has cast an indelible shadow on the modern world. From verum est factum we arrive, through Marx, at verum quia faciendum.
Karl Marx formulated in his classical statement: “So far philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways; it is necessary to change it.” With this the task of philosophy was once again fundamentally redefined. Translated into the language of the philosophical tradition, this maxim meant that verum quia factum— what is knowable, tending toward truth, was replaced by the new program verum quia faciendum— the truth with which we are now concerned is feasibility. To put it another way: The truth with which man is concerned is neither the truth of being, nor even in the last resort that of his accomplished deeds, but the truth of changing the world— a truth centered on future and action. (Introduction, pg. 63)
Verum quia faciendum— this means that the dominance of the fact since the middle of the nineteenth century is being succeeded to an increasing degree by the dominance of the faciendum, of what can and must be done, and that consequently the dominance of history is being supplanted by that of ‘techne’. For the farther man advances along the new way of concentrating on the fact and seeking certainty in it, the more he also has to recognize that even the fact, his own work, largely eludes him. (Introduction, pg. 64)
The structure of the general intellectual situation has been fundamentally altered… ‘Techne’ has become the real potential and obligation of man. (Introduction, pg. 65)
Does this not perfectly describe the philosophical basis of the “technocratic paradigm” which Francis mentions in Laudato si’ 104-108?
An authentic Christian mindset, which considers the world as worthy of care and due protection, is based on the account that creation is fundamentally “good” (Genesis 1), because it reflects the mind of the Creator. By contrast, with Vico’s verum quia factum, nature is robbed of its intrinsic goodness; through Marx, the techne, the faciendum, becomes the ultimate measure of the good; as a result, all things— even human nature— are “absorbed into its ironclad logic”, lose all intrinsic value, and are opened to all sorts of technological manipulation. This in turn feeds the “practical relativism” which Francis denounces in paragraphs 122-123, as well as in Evangelii gaudium.
Reading Laudato Si’ in this manner, through this Ratzingerian lens (“reading Francis through Benedict“, as it were), yields an insight which is sure to ruffle the feathers of politically conservative American Catholics: namely, that if an over-reliance on the comforts or profits provided by technology lies at the foundation of one’s opposition to addressing real ecological concerns, then such opposition is in fact a concession to a Marxist, not Christian, ethos. It would accept the Marxist myth of progress, an overly positive appraisal of human endeavors, with the result that, as Ratzinger says in Homily 2 of In the Beginning:
Creation is of no consequence; it is humanity that must produce the real creation, and it is that which will count for something. This is the source of the change in humanity’s fundamental directive vis-a-vis the world; it was at this point that progress became the real truth and matter became the material out of which human beings would create a world that was worth being lived in. Ernst Bloch intensified this idea and gave it a truly terrifying mien. He said that truth is now what we take it to be and that the only truth is change. Truth is, accordingly, whatever prevails, and as a result reality is “a signal to invade and an instruction to attack.” It takes a “concrete hate-object” to stimulate us to make changes. For Bloch, consequently, the beautiful is not the radiance of the truth of things but rather the anticipated appearance of the future, toward which we are going and which we ourselves are constructing.
This “misguided anthropocentrism”, directly addressed by the pope in Laudato si’ 115-121, is also rooted in this fundamentally Marxist orientation. Bloch, that illustrious student of Marx and Engels, clearly represents the faulty interpretation of the command to “subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:28). Nature, according to Marxist hermeneutics, is simply another piece of data to be manipulated, conceived as “an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape” (Laudato Si’ 115; cf. Guardini, Das Ende der Neuzeit). However, according to true biblical faith, what is meant by the command to “subdue and have dominion” over the earth is not to rule creation as absolute masters, but as ministers of the gifts bequeathed by God.
Sunday thus explains the commission given to man in the account of creation: “Subdue the earth!” (Gen 1:28). This does not mean: Enslave it! Exploit it! Do with it what you will! No, what it does mean is this: Recognize it as God’s gift! Guard it and look after it, as sons look after what they have inherited from their father. Look after it, so that it becomes a true garden for God and its meaning is fulfilled, so that for it, too, God is “all in all”. This is the orientation that the Fathers wanted to express by calling the Day of Resurrection the “eighth day”. (Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, pg. 97)
The Creator’s directive to humankind means that it is supposed to look after the world as God’s creation, and to do so in accordance with the rhythm and the logic of creation. The sense of the directive is described in the next chapter of Genesis with the words “to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). An allusion is made here to the terminology of creation itself, and it signifies that the world is to be used for what it is capable of and for what it is called to, but not for what goes against it. Biblical faith implies in the first place that human persons are not closed in upon themselves: they must always be aware that they are situated in the context of the body of history, which will ultimately become the body of Christ. Past, present, and future must encounter and penetrate one another in every human life. Our age is the first to experience that hideous narcissism that cuts itself off from both past and future and that is preoccupied exclusively with its own present. (Ratzinger, In the Beginning, Homily 2)
In a sense, Ratzinger is far more critical and scathing in his analysis than Bergoglio, for what Francis calls “misguided anthropocentrism”, Ratzinger calls “hideous narcisism”. In a passage which parallels the aforementioned homily excerpt, Laudato Si‘ 105, Francis reminds us that “human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence.” This addiction to the immediate, this inordinate anthropocentrism, must be overcome for the sake of future generations. Both Ratzinger and Bergoglio, in ways proper to each, understand that just as the earth was given to man in pristine form for man’s use, so too must man hand to his progeny a world capable of participating in God’s creative act, in harmony with God’s creative design.
Laudato Si’ is not a perfect encyclical. Its prose is often disorienting. Chapter 5 is quite proscriptive of certain policies which leave one wondering whether the pope has briefly stepped outside his competence. The citation of certain climate models which can hardly claim a broad consensus is not above criticism. While the Church has always warned against the perils of unbridled capitalism, the pope’s strongly negative approach to the free market seems conditioned by his experience in Argentina, without considering the many goods which the free market has wrought elsewhere. Yet while these particular details of prudential judgment can be debated by people of good will, the encyclical has many other strengths which place it in full continuity with the preceding papacies: we find explicit condemnations of abortion/embryonic experimentation (115, 120), contraception (50), as well as a strong affirmation of traditional sexual complementarity (155), and thus, a rejection of gender theory. Above all, as I have hoped to demonstrate, the encyclical expresses the mind of Benedict XVI when it affirms that creation, God’s good gift to man, demands that we be responsible stewards of the natural world. For these reasons, Laudato si‘, especially the third chapter with all its Ratzingerian resonances, will forever remain a highlight of this pontificate.
If being is indeed truth (verum est ens), then then the world as given by God is also truth. It then follows that a wrongheaded and exclusive attachment to the techne, to the faciendum, is not truth, but a lie, for it contravenes the creative will of the Creator. Both Francis and Benedict know this intuitively, and thus both have clamored against the adversarial Marxist mindset which sees the world as something to be absolutely conquered, without regard for consequences. Following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, both popes have taught, each in their own manner, that to live in harmony with creation is to live in harmony with the Creator.
To highlight the affinity between the thought of these two men, I will conclude with two passages, one from the end of the present encyclical, the other from the end of In the Beginning, Homily 2. May the words of the popes stir up in our own hearts the same saintly spirit which caused a poor Umbrian friar to exclaim, Laudato si’, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra, la quale ne sustenta et gouerna, et produce diuersi fructi con coloriti fior et herba!
In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast. In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God, for “if the world has a beginning and if it has been created, we must inquire who gave it this beginning, and who was its Creator”. Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope. (Laudato Si’ 244; cf. Basil the Great)
And so the Christian way remains the one that is truly salvific. Part of this way is the conviction that we can be really “creative” only if we are in harmony with the Creator of the universe. We can really serve the earth only if we accept it under the aegis of God’s Word. Then, however, we shall be able to further and fulfill both ourselves and the world. Operi Dei nihil praeponatur. Nothing ought to be preferred to the work of God, nothing ought to be placed ahead of the service of God. This phrase represents the correct attitude with respect to the preservation of creation as opposed to the false worship of progress, the worship of changes that crush humankind, and the calumny against the human species that destroys the earth and creation and keeps it from its goal. The Creator alone is humanity’s true savior, and only if we trust the Creator shall we find ourselves on the way to saving the world of human beings and of things. Amen. (Ratzinger, In the Beginning, Homily 2)