Please enjoy this excerpt from “The Public Square” of the forthcoming August/September issue of First Things. To read more, subscribe here.
Laudato Si addresses global warming and other environmental issues, as well as global development and economic justice. The conjunction of concerns is fitting. The end of the Cold War has allowed global capitalism to develop as the world’s dominant system. Capitalism has many virtues, but there are “externalities,” as economists call them—social and environmental harms and costs that may end up being very significant. Global capitalism also resists political control, posing a challenge to existing governmental and regulatory institutions. Most important of all, perhaps, this global system requires and encourages a technocratic elite that now dominates political and cultural debates. As a result, it’s increasingly hard to imagine an alternative.
Pope Francis discusses these issues and more. He makes a much-needed effort to grasp and respond to today’s global realities. But, taken as whole, Laudato Si falters. Francis advances strong, often comprehensive criticisms of the secular technological project that drives modern capitalism. Yet many aspects of the alternative he proposes draw upon the achievements and methods of that very project.
Chapter 1, “What Is Happening to Our Common Home,” outlines Francis’s take on environmental issues. “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” If it were just a matter of landfills, industrial waste, and the failure to recycle, we’d be okay. The past fifty years have shown that industrial and post-industrial societies can reduce pollution. The issue is much larger, however. Francis addresses the mother of all problems—and the central ecological issue today—which is global climate change.
The position put forward is the worst-case consensus. It holds that the fossil fuel–dependent economies of the developed and developing world have set in motion a process of global warming that will accelerate. “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.” Those consequences are not spelled out, but the tone of Laudato Si is dire. The rhetoric of crisis runs throughout the document. “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”
The encyclical then turns to a diagnosis of the theological and social-cultural roots of the ecological crisis, spelling out its social dimensions. Chapter 2, “The Gospel of Creation,” calls for us to acknowledge creation as a gift from God, our Father. This orientation encourages us to adopt a disposition of gratitude. If we forget that God is the all-powerful Creator, we can end up “usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot.” God-forgetfulness tempts us to trust in our own creative powers, leading to “the modern myth of unlimited material progress.”
This failure to acknowledge God also leads to violence and oppression. The same mentality that sees nature as mere raw material to be used can also treat “other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination.” This includes other human beings. Francis warns that many are now suffering unprecedented injustices. God-forgetfulness is at the root of our global problems today: social, economic, and ecological.
This line of criticism follows a long tradition. Nineteenth-century Catholicism warned that a denial of the divine authority of the Church leads to social disorder and other ills. Twentieth-century Catholicism shifted to a claim that a God-denying culture lacks a basis for genuine humanism. Francis suggests something similar. Without an acknowledgement of God, there can be no deep, lasting solution to the ecological crisis and the pressing need for global justice.
Chapter 3, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” analyzes what Francis takes to be the perverse spiritual logic of a scientific-technological culture. When we speak of technology, we typically are referring to the useful machines at our disposal. Francis acknowledges that many have improved the quality of human life. Some are quite beautiful. He mentions airplanes and skyscrapers. But technology is also a mentality or paradigm, and here Francis sees problems.
The technological mentality seeks “control.” It wishes to dominate nature. Science is implicated, for it “in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation.” In today’s world, science and technology have become the ideologies of godless modernity. A “Promethean vision of mastery” and “excessive anthropocentrism” lead to the same ecological and social disasters as God-forgetfulness.
At this point, Francis develops his fullest account of the crisis he believes we face. We may hold that global capitalism promotes economic development and that, in the long run, this best serves the common good. Francis thinks otherwise. As he says at one point, “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history.” We must reverse course immediately: “Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster.” Global capitalism is a Shiva-like force in human history—the Great Destroyer driving global warming.
Francis sees the “global system” as more than economic. A “technocratic paradigm” dominates. The system discourages us from discussing “the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth” and instead fixes on how to maximize wealth. Francis is keen to point out that this suppression of larger ethical and spiritual questions allows the rich and powerful to disguise their unjust advantages and ratchet up still further their global oppression of the poor.
Given this dark picture of the global system, it’s not surprising that Francis calls for “a new synthesis,” “radical change,” and “a bold cultural revolution.” “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age,” he writes, but we need to step back from “our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” Instead of improving life, the last two generations of global development—perhaps the entire modern technological-economic project—have led to a crisis. We cannot remain blind to “the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.”
There’s something to be said for his particular suggestions in Chapters 4 (“Integral Ecology”) and 5 (“Lines of Approach and Action”). Calls for action to address climate change are needed, as is a spiritual alternative to consumerism. But my concern is with the cogency of the encyclical as a whole. A great deal of what is commended as an alternative to the global system sounds to me like just another version of it.
Environmental debates, especially debates about global warming, are contentious. That’s because they involve difficult trade-offs. We need scientifically informed conjectures about climate change—and experts to estimate the costs of avoiding or remediating the worst outcomes. Then we need to balance these factors with judgments about how best to reduce global poverty, and how to do so in a way that promotes human dignity. It’s a never-ending, always-contested balancing act.
Francis seems to endorse this approach without qualification. Quoting from another Vatican document, he writes, “In the face of possible risks to the environment which may affect the common good now and in the future, decisions must be made ‘based on a comparison of risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives.’” Yet, given the strident criticism of modernity’s signature achievements of scientific and technological mastery, it’s more than a little odd that Francis turns in this direction. Risk–benefit analysis is one of the main planks in the technocratic platform.
At one point, Francis calls for “one plan for the whole world.” We need “a politics which is farsighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis.” Such a dream (which is to me a nightmare) requires armies of technocrats with reams of data-laden reports. It presumes a global bureaucracy of unprecedented size and power. It’s a vision of human self-mastery on a global scale—technocracy on steroids.
Moreover, in this section Francis adopts signature phrases from today’s technocracy—not just interdisciplinary approaches and calls for “honest and open debate,” but also inclusion, transparency, raising awareness, diversity, and dialogue. There’s even a section promoting “best practices”! These are buzzwords used by McKinsey consultants. And they’re not innocent. All are formal, procedural gestures. They are designed to avoid substantive moral and metaphysical questions. They represent late modernity’s desire to shape the common good without any reference to the nature of the human person, his proper ends, or natural law. It’s embarrassing that this encyclical makes such heavy use of these familiar, technocratic conceits. So much for the bold cultural revolution.
The final chapter, “Ecological Education and Spirituality,” also works against earlier analysis in the encyclical. Chapter 2 makes a strong claim that the failure to acknowledge God is the root cause of the ecological crisis and our captivity to the technocratic mentality. But Francis here allows that those who do not believe in God can rise above their selfish, consumerist lifestyles to commit themselves to ecology and global justice.
In this spirit, he endorses the Earth Charter, a secular initiative. Its goal: “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.” Apparently, God-forgetfulness need not lead to anthropocentrism, or at least not to a pernicious, destructive anthropocentrism.
Francis ends with meditations on the Church’s spiritual tradition and dogmas. The Eucharist “motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor.” The doctrine of the Trinity encourages a spirituality of “global solidarity.” There’s little suggestion that Christian revelation, or even belief in God, judges and corrects the ecological movement and its consensus views about global warming. At most, it seems, our faith enriches the Earth Charter.
This may be uncharitable to Francis and may wrongly discount his light touch as an evangelist. One can read the final sections as a gentle enticement designed to draw the ecologically committed unbeliever into the Church. This more generous reading reduces but does not eliminate the tension one feels between the substance and tone of the concluding material and the sharp, even strident, language of the earlier chapters. After having drawn a direct line from God-forgetfulness to the destructive modern technocratic spirit of mastery and domination, warm and uncritical endorsement of the Earth Charter seems odd.
There are many noble and fitting exhortations in this encyclical. Most of us need to hear pointed words condemning our captivity to consumerism, neglect of the poor, and sinful tendency to make idols out of ideologies. The modern encyclical tradition, however, is a teaching tradition, not a homiletic one, and Laudato Si provides too little teaching.
This is a serious defect. The modern encyclical tradition began with Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century. It has consistently combined vigorous theological criticisms of modernity with affirmation and encouragement of those aspects of secular modernity that promote human dignity. It could do so without contradiction because this tradition of papal teaching developed guiding principles for social engagement, often derived from natural law reasoning that applied to believers and unbelievers.
Laudato Si seeks to continue in that tradition, offering both theological critique and endorsement of a coalition of the well-intentioned. But it falls into contradiction because there are no clearly articulated principles guiding analysis of the ecological and social crises precipitated by global capitalism.
Consider, for example, the call for “one plan for the whole world.” If global warming precipitates an unprecedented global crisis, as Francis seems to think, then global action of unprecedented scale and scope may be necessary. Such an endeavor begs for analysis in terms of the classical notions of solidarity and subsidiarity. I can’t see how either can be sustained in “one plan for the whole world.” Perhaps I am wrong. I would like to be instructed—but no instruction is forthcoming.
The same goes for the discussion of the common or universal destination of goods. This key principle of Catholic social doctrine teaches that our productive activity is, finally, ordained by God to serve the common good. This places an important limit on the right of private property. Given the strong language of crisis used by Francis, one would expect reflection on the degree to which governing authorities can justly override individual property rights to address the crisis and on how to prevent those rights from being extinguished in the process. This is what Leo XIII did in Rerum Novarum. Yet again, no reasoning from principles of social doctrine is forthcoming.
This absence leads to the evangelical deficit a reader feels at the end of Laudato Si. Analysis based on principles of Catholic social doctrine is the opposite of technocratic. (James Kalb makes this point well in “Technocracy Now,” in this issue.) It involves reasoning about the nature and ends of things—anathema to our dominant technocratic mentality, and thus genuinely revolutionary in the present global system. Without this kind of teaching, a vacuum develops. It gets filled with the technocratic process-language (“open and honest debate”) and the standard talking points of ecological progressives (Earth Charter). The conceits of the world dominate, not the wisdom of the Church.
Let me be clear. I’m not criticizing Laudato Si for its substantive claims. I’m not competent to contest claims about global warming, nor am I an expert in the economics of development. In any event, I agree with Pope Francis’s main point. Although I would put the substantive issues differently, I share his view that the triumph of global capitalism poses significant and fundamental challenges that we must address—and that are going to be difficult to address because of the technocratic domination of our moral imaginations and the very terms of public debate.
All the more reason why we need teaching, not just exhortation and denunciation. It won’t do to blame our difficulties on “those who consume and destroy,” or to insinuate, as Francis so often does, that the rich and powerful stand in the way of ecological ideals and a just social order. This is cheap populism that falsifies reality. The global ecological movement is a rich-country phenomenon funded and led by the One Percent. And it’s beside the point. If global warming presents such an immediate and dire threat, then we need clearly enunciated principles to guide our participation in debates about what’s to be done, not rhetoric. The same is true of the pressing need to encourage economic development that promotes human dignity.
Laudato Si may well have important and influential strengths as a spiritual meditation on the perversions of our age and as a global wake-up call. Smart theologians need to apply themselves to redeem the hints and suggestions of a cogent argument. I hope that happens. But as it stands, the encyclical is a weak teaching document.
This weakness reflects a reality about today’s Catholic Church. After Vatican II, the intellectual life of the Church was profoundly affected by the Great Disruption. The old scholastic systems were superseded by a wide variety of experimental theologies. I don’t gainsay the need for and value of some of those experiments. But we can’t deny the debilitating consequences. The theological formation of church leaders became eclectic at best, incoherent at worst. This has especially been true in the area of social justice. In that domain, which came to the fore after the council, the urgent need to advocate has often overwhelmed the need for patient, disciplined reflection. We see exactly this dynamic in Laudato Si.
So if we, as Catholics, are to be honest with ourselves, we must allow that we face a difficult season, at least as far as theological cogency is concerned. The men trained in the coherent old theological systems of the pre–Vatican II era have passed from the scene. The Church is now led by men who came of age during the Great Disruption. This will have an effect on Church teaching, I’m afraid, and it won’t be in the direction of consistency and clarity.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.