In our media saturated culture, the staying power of any particular news item is very low. Less than a month ago, Pope Francis’ second Encyclical, Laudato Si’ was released. The amount of coverage it received prior to its release and the week or so after was unprecedented for a papal document. Despite all the publicity, the fact of the matter is that most Catholics will not read it and will draw their “own” conclusions about what he said from other sources. Some may critique the validity of the science that he refers to while others will assume that the Church has now officially been turned over to the liberals. But for those that do read it, they will be struck by the evangelical tone through which the Holy Father smuggles a Catholic vision of man and creation into a document that the secular world can read. The healthy dose of skepticism that you approach the document with will soon fade to the background as you find your own conscience stinging. The “questionable” science to which he refers will become an entirely secondary issue and you will come to realize that there is a method in his apparent tree-hugging madness, even if the science is not solid. But to get there you must do two things, read the document for yourself and understand the “Spirit” in which it is written.
At the end of the Introduction, the Holy Father mentions a number of themes to which he will return again and again, namely “(1)the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, (2)the conviction that everything in the world is connected, (3)the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, (4)the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, (5)the value proper to each creature, (6)the human meaning of ecology, (7)the need for forthright and honest debate, (8)the serious responsibility of international and local policy, (9)the throwaway culture and (10)the proposal of a new lifestyle” (Laudato Si’ (LS), 16). True to his word, Francis centers all of his discussion on these ten themes. But there is one in particular that I think serves as a thread that ties the whole Encyclical together and it is his attempt to offer a “critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology.” I think that the Pope is attempting to teach mankind, who is drunk on power from the unprecedented technological advances of the last 100 years, that if he does not accept his limitations, it will ultimately lead to his own destruction. The destruction of the environment (of which man is the center) is a sign of this.
Ultimately this is what the Fall is all about. Adam and Eve were given everything they needed in the Garden and dominion over all, except one—the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree represents man’s limitation. He is still a creature and eating of the tree is an attempt to remove all limitations and in so doing usurp God.
Although this tendency has plagued man from that moment on, it has become increasingly a problem today for one reason—technology. This is at the heart of CS Lewis’ prophetic classic, The Abolition of Man. In it he contrasts modern man with his predecessors saying, “[F]or the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both in the practice of this technique are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.” To attempt to “subdue reality to our wishes” is “to be like God.”
Pope Francis is pointing out that the techniques (which we call technology) by which we are attempting to subdue reality are in fact both “disgusting” because of the harm that they ultimately do and “impious” because they usurp God and His plan for creation.
Pope Francis goes to great length to point out that he is not advocating a “return to the Stone Age” but to “slow down and look at reality in a different way” (LS, 114). Why must we slow down? Because we have mistakenly believed that an increase in power over nature meant “progress.” But the character needed for exercising this power has not kept pace. With the introduction of so many technological advances in the past century, we have not had the opportunity to examine the moral implications of their use. Some of them are so complicated that only a specialist could possibly determine what it is that is being used. Could the average person actually understand the difference between using Embryonic Stem Cells and Adult Stem Cells and the world of difference morally speaking between the two?
The result is that we assume all that is technologically possible is morally permissible. We even have a quaint saying that we fall back on “if God gave us the knowledge to make X then it must be OK.” We leave the moral question to the “experts” and then criticize the Pope when he attempts to help us weed through some of the morally stickier issues. He is inviting us examine all that we do as moral acts and not just physical acts. He is attempting to form our characters so that we will no longer walk around blind.
Along with Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World also serves as excellent supplemental reading to Laudato Si’. In fact Francis cites this book six times in the Encyclical. Fr. Guardini recognized the great power that man was gaining over creation and sought to examine power philosophically (even though it is a philosophical treatise it is extremely accessible to most readers). The issue that Francis seems to be interested in is related to power and responsibility.
“Power,” properly speaking is unique to man in that it is the ability to move reality towards specific rational goals. This means that there is no such thing as power that is not to be answered for, even if the one responsible rejects responsibility or we cannot answer “who did this?” What he is driving at is that power can be used for good or evil. But it becomes dangerous when it is at the disposal of someone who is morally misguided or, relevant to today’s world, only some anonymous organization is responsible (the dastardly “They” that we all know are the bad guys). In this setting, man develops the sense that power merely passes through him and he personally is not responsible. The Pope is showing us all, even if to varying degrees, that we can exercise responsibility over the power we have access to.
Returning to Lewis, I find the “Spirit of Laudato Si’” summarized perfectly. Lewis answers the often asked question as to why the Supreme Pontiff would write an Encyclical on the Environment:
“Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on.”