As Laudato si’ week draws to a close, Pater Edmund Waldstein O.Cist. reflects upon Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care for our common home.
Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ can best be understood as a contribution to a centuries-long papal response to “modern” ideas of freedom and progress, which began in the papal response to the Reformation’s rejection of papal authority in the name of Christian freedom, and was further developed in responses to the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and 19th and 20th century liberalism and socialism. While the papal response changed over time — both because the modern world changed, and because Catholic theology developed — one can detect certain constant themes.
The “modern world,” understood as what came after medieval Christendom, has seen many different forms of political and cultural life, based on different and incompatible ways of understanding reality. But one theme, variations of which are played out again and again, is that the progress of human freedom depends on limiting the ways in which human life can be directed by authority, by separating authority from concern with the ultimate goals of life, and by separating life itself into different systems that are not meant to interfere with each other.
Thus, the Protestant reformers taught that the freedom of the Christian demanded a freedom from the authority of the Apostolic Church in interpreting scripture. The interior kingdom of Christ had to be kept free of the directives of authorities of all kinds, which were concerned almost exclusively with the outer man.
In the “scientific revolution” of the 17th century, natural science was separated from the contemplative philosophy that looks at creation as filled with the purposes that God has put into His creatures, and which reveal his wisdom. Thinkers such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and René Descartes (1596-1650) limited the project of science to the consideration of the aspects of the natural world that could be measured, the only aspects relevant to technological control. Bacon thought that science could thereby restore the dominion over creation that man had lost through original sin. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in the encyclical Spe salvi, Bacon played a key role in bringing the idea of progress to the fore. The hopes of modern societies were from now on to be focused not on salvation through Christ, but on the freedom that science would bring from all kinds of natural dependency.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment thought that human freedom demanded a separation of political life from the Church. Politics should be a matter not of directing human social life toward integral human happiness, but rather of creating the conditions for the pursuit of happiness according to arbitrary choice. Their vision took violent form in the persecution of the Church in the French Revolution. Pope Pius VI responded to the Revolution by condemning the false “philosophical liberty,” which sees freedom and authority as opposed, and therefore attacks popes and kings as conspirators against human freedom.
In the industrial revolution, a long-standing tendency to separate economics from other spheres of life was accelerated. In medieval times, the production of goods had (at least in theory) been seen as being subordinated to social and religious visions of the good life, and therefore as demanding a complex order of mutual social obligations. But now it was increasingly seen as an autonomous sphere in which maximal efficiency could be achieved by ignoring everything except increase in profits. In his great encyclical Rerum novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII recognized that this was a carrying over into economic matters of the same false understanding of freedom that had been at the root of the French Revolution: “It is not surprising that the lust for revolution, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world, should have passed beyond the sphere of politics and made its influence felt in the cognate sphere of economics.”
Some interpreters have read Vatican II’s document on the church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes, as reversing the negative attitude toward modern freedom and progress found in earlier Church teaching. Gaudium et spes has positive things to say about progress and “the autonomy of earthly affairs.” But I think that Gaudium et spes is best understood as continuing the tradition, with a more conciliatory rhetoric. Thus, Gaudium et spes teaches that modern atheism “stretches the desires for human independence to such a point that it poses difficulties against any kind of dependence on God.” And that the atheist position is encouraged by “the sense of power which modern technical progress generates in man.” The council does not mince words in condemning “those poisonous doctrines,” and sees the solution in a reintegration of spiritual and temporal life, in which faith can “prove its fruitfulness by penetrating the believer’s entire life, including its worldly dimensions.”
Laudato si’ is thus a deeply traditional document in its mistrust of the technocratic paradigm, and its reductive ideology of progress and freedom. The natural and social environments are deeply connected, and the damage being done to them has its roots in “the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.” The solution is to be found in a new idea of human progress, one that is “healthier, more human, more social, more integral,” an idea of progress rooted in the recognition of the wisdom of God, who created all things.
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