Laudato Si, last week’s encyclical from Pope Francis, seeks to address a plethora of problems in the modern world—predominately focusing on environmental issues, distributive justice, and perceived problems with consensus developmental economic theory. Pope Francis offers a harsh critique of global capitalism and its externalities, claiming that capitalism has caused both economic harm (Francis writes “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”) and economic injustice (“injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable”).
While much of the encyclical avoids deep theological teaching regarding these issues—and many of Francis’ conclusions will face opposition from social and fiscal conservatives alike—the Pope does offer a useful framework for understanding our current cultural devolution. In Chapter 2, “The Gospel of Creation”, Francis reminds us of the importance of understanding the relationship between Creator, Creation, and us—created creators. Francis pins much of the blame for our current situation on misunderstandings of this relationship: “A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation under foot.” Francis concludes further “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place” is to reaffirm an understanding of a supreme Creator God—“Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.”
Pope Francis is not alone in highlighting the danger of forgetting God. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, accepting the Templeton Prize, said:
“More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened. Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.
Both Catholic Pope and Orthodox dissident agree: forgetting God destines us for disastrous results, at the hands of secular humanism. Francis challenges “the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power”, while Solzhenitsyn provides concrete examples of the deadly outcomes of this paradigm: “The only possible explanation for [World War I] is a mental eclipse among leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them.” Solzhenitsyn offered deep and incisive criticisms of the Soviet regime, through The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and his many other works. In this era, the bipolar Cold War paradigm has been replaced by the dominance of global capitalism, leading Pope Francis to share his reservations regarding the abuses of capitalism. Both authors agree, however, that secular humanism is no savior.
Pope Francis presents a call to action in Laudato Si, writing “All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution.” Regardless of what course of action we take moving forward—be it conscientious capitalism or redistributivist economics—it is imperative that we heed the warning of both Pope Francis and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and not place our trust in human solutions: let us not forget God.
Matthew H. Young is a summer intern at First Things. His writing has been published in Civitas Review, the Carolina Journal, and other publications.