Midst the multiple insights and exhortations of the recent Papal Encyclical Laudato Si, one statement stands out as a compelling and troubling window onto the Pope Francis’ present theological enterprise. ‘Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which today, under another guise, continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society’ (LS 116). Such a statement is compelling for it reveals the exquisite meta-level at which Laudato Si attempts to make its central arguments. Thus, the encyclical is not merely a theological statement concerning the present ecological crisis, but a Catholic counter-history. According to its broad outline, the rapid environmental destruction we have witnessed since the industrial revolution, is not the sole product of greed or personal vice, but the result world-view which denies that the world is ‘a creation’. In a culture unmoved by the reality of God, says Francis, ‘the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”’ (LS.117). Understood through this expansive lens, we can understand Francis’ complaint as one of spiritual poverty. It is almost as if the present Pope wants the realm of nature to be read as poetry (as ‘Mother Earth’) yet modernity insists that nature must be read simply as metaphysical prose; factual, unadorned and without deeper meaning. In this post I want to suggest that this anti-modernist reading of the ecological crisis, no matter how appealing is a conceptual mistake because of its tendency of leading us to romantic, anachronistic or one-dimensional readings of complex problems. I will begin this discussion by considering the structure of the historical account at the centre of Laudato Si and then go onto reflect on its limitations and deficiencies in relation to the Church’s ongoing thinking and engagement with environmental matters.
What Big Story Does Laudato Si Tell?
First, let’s first turn to the foundations and internal structure of the encyclical’s central historical narrative. Following the logic of previous encyclicals, Laudato Si understands the contemporary world through the language of modernity and its various crises. But what is ‘modernity’ and why does it concern the Church? A useful summation of the meaning and function of the term ‘modernity’ in recent Catholic thinking is provided by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate, where the modern has both physical and philosophical manifestations. At the physical level modernity is characterized by interlocking systems of communication and production, which are guided by a series of utilitarian logics which tend to reduce social, economic and cultural activities to their individual parts. Efficiency and control are important corollaries of this social experience; culminating into diverse cultural forms, including, Capitalism, individualism and cultural relativity. While not all these developments are necessarily deleterious (for instance Catholic Social Teaching insists that Capitalism can serve spiritual ends) there has been an anxiety in recent encyclicals that modern turns to a technological society have now transgressed healthy moral and material boundaries. On the personal level such transgressive tendencies lead to a reduction and atomization of the human self. Instead of being a deep and loved creature, humans become as mechanical as the technology they devise. As Benedict expresses such reductionism:
One aspect of the contemporary technological mindset is the tendency to consider the problems and emotions of the interior life from a purely psychological point of view, even to the point of neurological reductionism. In this way man’s interiority is emptied of its meaning and gradually our awareness of the human soul’s ontological depths, as probed by the saints, is lost. The question of development is closely bound up with our understanding of the human soul, insofar as we often reduce the self to the psyche and confuse the soul’s health with emotional well-being. These over-simplifications stem from a profound failure to understand the spiritual life, and they obscure the fact that the development of individuals and peoples depends partly on the resolution of problems of a spiritual nature. (VC 76).
This has a corresponding effect in attempts to understand humans as existing midst communities and in the midst of ecosystems. Lacking an appreciation of the inherent worth of the human beings and the world (the unity of the cosmos sustained by God) we tend to strip the world of meaning or higher purpose; making our environment and our fellow humans instruments for technological goals. In this latter mode, the creation of a loving God is reduced to so much ‘stuff’, to be molded, produced and packaged. Building on these trajectories, Laudato Si reaffirms a theologically informed suspicion of modernity a terrain of destructive moral vacuums which place the integrity of people and planet in danger. In moment of significant overlap with his predecessor’s concerns, Francis reflects: ‘Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? ‘(120).
One cannot deny in the case of Laudato Si and its immediate precursors that these texts display a deep coherence at the level of philosophical argument. Yet, in their often magisterial tones, these dissections of modernity obscure some important ambiguities; most notably the Church’s own situatedness in the modern context. The notion of the Church revealing the deep structure of modernity makes it sounds like the Church stands in a place beyond the modern. There are key moments in the encyclical when the Church becomes not merely a prophetic voice condemning environmental degradation, but a port in the modernist-Capitalist storm. Take for instance the cluster of commitments Francis regards as countercultural: ‘On Sunday, our participation in the Eucharist has special importance. Sunday, like the Jewish Sabbath, is meant to be a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world. Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, the “first day” of the new creation, whose first fruits are the Lord’s risen humanity, the pledge of the final transfiguration of all created reality’ (LS 237).
Here we see the Sabbath and Eucharist are the key foundation stones of another social project; transporting us into another cultural setting, where the sanctity of the living earth is respected. Yet, there are several problems with this Church as ‘lighthouse’ strategy. In the first place the Church cannot pretend to stand outside processes and structure of ‘the modern project’. As a global organization, employing contemporary technologies of mass communication and persuasion, the Catholic Church is not a transcendental moderator. It exists and is caught up in the various systems of modernity. Even when gesturing at pre-modern conditions, the Church does so as a modern inheritor of these forms. The repeated word ‘dialogue’ in the encyclical reveals, as nothing else can, the internal modernity of the Church and its theological voice. The sense that Christianity is a mode of experience among others, a networked and conflicted community, refuses us the possibility of any act of conscious return to an earlier mode of thought or sensibility. In this spirit we must be very cautious at postulating point in the past when we were more faithful to nature; faithfulness we can regain. When Francis says, ‘the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity’ (119) there is an implicit suggestion that there is a diametric mode of past stability- perhaps in the form Francis of Assisi or Bonaventure. But it would be more intellectually honest to say that the concerns of the Catholic Church at this moment are not repeats of a sacred past but generated by modernity and the cultural conversations which are made possible by questions of technology. The same instrumental reason which leads our civilization to cut down forests and poison our soil is the same instrumental reason which produced the experimental data of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It is this ecological consciousness (as modern as the mobile phone or the skyscrapers) from which the present encyclical draws.
St Francis or Silent Spring?
How might this insight help us access the arguments at the core of Laudato Si? At the very least we should be skeptical about any anachronistic or romantic appeals to the past in order to analyze the present. Instead of running away from the suggestion that the Church stands above culture as the judge of modernity, it would use its theological energies better by working within modernity for the betterment of its own insights and integrity. A case in point can be found in Francis’ reading of his namesake. Reflecting on the Saint’s manner of life, the Pope suggests that: ‘I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically’ (10). And yet, while our cry against the clearing of the forests or the pollution of our streams finds a pleasant gloss through this Italian holy man, it is only empirical science which has allowed us to fully grasp (materially and measurably) the interrelationships of living organisms and the true fragility of their dependence. Francis may have appreciated mystically and intuitively the wholeness of things, yet only the data-driven ecologists, the laboratory scientists and the computer modelers, have shown us practical methods of caring for nature. Ecology as we know it cannot exist without knowledge of the carbon cycle and the effects of deforestation on the fertility of soil. The Medieval mind did not know of these things and it is a mistake to permit the pre-modern world to carry the agendas of problems and dilemmas of which they were wholly unaware. The Catholic Church of Pope Francis not the Catholic Church of Francis of Assisi and it would be disingenuous to imagine any simple continuity.
Given that the Church has nowhere else to stand but the modern, it is also foolhardy to suppose that, even if the past can teach us about ecological practice, we can simply revert to a pre-modern way of seeing things. An image of the world of which Pope Francis is evidently fond is the High Scholastic notion of the ‘book of nature’. And yet this vision of nature is as distant from us now as the modern airplane would have been from the mundane experience of a 17th century English farmer. The ‘book of nature’ hypothesis is sustained by a whole series of poetic, metaphysical and astrological associations of which few now believe. Christianity has demythologized nature so well that we couldn’t become automatic readers of nature’s text without a significant rupture in our scientific and technological practices. Could the Church sponsor such a break? It seems unlikely. It was after all the Church which have cultural nurture of the great desacralizes of modernity. The great disruption and reduction of the self, much mourned by Caritas in Veritate was pioneered by the Jesuit-trained Rene Descartes. The very instrumental reason which allows us to cross oceans, pollute the air and surf the internet, is in fact rooted in this Church-sponsored Cartesian revolution. In its aftermath, it became apparent that the world could no longer we automatically understood as a sacramental unity. God was reduced to that ‘Great Other’ divorced from the world of facts. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this move, we cannot go back. We simply have become too invested, too dependent upon this way of seeing, to make any alternative immediately possible. The truth of this statement can be discerned in the glaring silence of the encyclical regarding alternatives to instrumental reason. While Francis condemns a technological paradigm which ‘tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic’, he admits that the ‘technological paradigm 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’ (108). Alternatives to instrumental reason are hard to imagine because the modern condition claims all of us who live in the West and its cultural colonies.
The Richness of Romanticism
If modernity is a red-herring in the Church’s struggle with environmental destruction, what alternatives might there be for conceptualizing a Christian cultural mission in a changing climate? Two words seem key here- dialogue and generosity. In his previous encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, Francis encourages his readers to engage in a deeply incarnational task. He tells us that Christians must be both global and local in their aspirations: ‘We need to pay attention to the global so as to avoid narrowness and banality…. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighbourhood, but with a larger perspective (E.G. 235:6). By bringing the particular into the universal light of faith, suggests Francis, we can deepen our practice of the Christian life and the promulgation. In the orbit of these concerns is a desire to maintain the validity of local culture, folk tradition and collective memory, which are ‘manifestation of a theological life nourished by the working of the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts’ (E.G. 125). What might such a formulation mean for the Church’s cultural response towards the environmental crisis? What cultures maybe nourished by the Holy Spirit today?
Instead of standing apart from the modern world, the Church should endeavor to dig down into the heart of modernity; excavating its internal depths. Part of this excavation-process is recognizing the rich and contradictory cultural impulses of which lie at the heart of modern approaches to nature. Both of the best and worst of modern environmentalism can be summed by the word ‘romanticism’. Ever since the beginning of the 18th century industrial humanity has felt a growing distance between itself and the non-human world. Once humans had seen nature as the ultimate personification of the strange, the threatening and deadly. No-one, even in pagan antiquity really worshipped the land and the wood for its own sake. Pan was vividly present in the pre-Christian imagination, but always kept at a respectful distance. Preferred were the gods of civilization, Zeus the judge, Athena the goddess of craft and Hermes, the god of trade and travel.
Yet in the era of mills and factories, sensitive souls began to fear the loss of the living, the spontaneous and the wild, poets began to wax lyrical about the spirits of the wood. Of course this unleashed much nefarious culture as it did terrible theology. A reverence towards the woods invited the reimagined old gods of blood and tribe back into the structure of modern thought with disastrous consequences. We have learned through much pain and turmoil the ways in which sublime moods of Heideggerian naturalism soon turn to racism, idolatry and violence. In more recent reflections on this subject, Pope Benedict has condemned those who ‘in the name of a supposedly egalitarian vision of the “dignity” of all living creatures….end up abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings. They also open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms’ (Benedict: World Peace Day 2010, 13). Yet for all the perils of blood and soil, the romantic urge has also attempted to reinstall our technological culture with a sense of worship and wonder. It has challenged us, to Benedict’s dismay to think seriously about the equality of all creatures. What this means in practice is a journey, but the effects are already rippling through our contemporary lives. Should the Church really be standing in its way?
And what of the esteemed religion of the nature walker? Can we simply condemn it as materialistic or in some way denying the divine? Whether we like it or not, nature and its depths now offer a poetic mysticism and sense of awe for many in the West who feel alienated from Christianity. This is not the resurrection of ‘paganism’ in the strictest sense, much as its adherents call it such .The ‘paganisms’ of Babylon, Greece and Rome were hierarchical, civilization-centred and sacrificial. The new pantheists are resourced not only by the webbed vision of modern ecology but the legacies of hospitality and justice predominately borrowed and reworked from the folklore, poetic imagination and ad hoc ceremony of the Christian past. As the Sociologist of religion Linda Woodhead once observed of Gerald Gardener’s Wicca, the movement is best understood, not as a revival, but as a reformation within a Christian-shaped culture. If it is a new phenomenon (with links to Christian pasts) it should be treated in a new way. It is not as a resuscitated enemy, but a contemporary manifestation of the modern spiritual search. Framed in these terms, a pressing challenge for the Church is hearing these appeals to soil and place in the same respectful manner as Francis urges sensitivity towards folk culture in the Old Catholic countries. For those Wordsworthians, romantics and spiritual ecologists are seeking to assert their own vision of themselves as ‘folk’, honouring the past and securing the future. By widening the scope of dialogue partners in this way, the Church may yet find fruit ways of conversing with the modern which refuses simplistic anti-modernist, insular or overly anachronistic posters.