It’s nearly been a month since Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, and it’s taken me a while to digest it. One of the most profound things that lies behind his analysis for me is his attacks on the myths of “a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market).” The encyclical rightly notes that climate change and other aspects of what is now being called the Anthropocene are symptoms of us swallowing Enlightenment myths of progress and an epistemology shaped purely by science and technology.
Not that science and technology are bad, but that in following Francis Bacon as seeing the world around us as nature rather than creation, we have abused it. As Francis notes, “nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all.”
This attack has drawn heavily fire. Catholic Republican Rick Santorum is on record as saying “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.” Yet scientists are supportive of the Pope’s encyclical. As Neil deGrasse Tyson has said “Yes, it’s possible to be a supreme holy figure yet still know what you are talking about regarding the Climate.” This is because he is not listening to the small number of climate change denying climate scientists, or the large cadre of denialists, but the vast majority of climate scientists and environmentalists who can see clearly we have become a destructive force on this planet.
In Australia, former Jesuit and Prime Minister Tony Abbott, continues to live out the lie of limitless growth. His government continues to wage an apparent war on any view that does not cohere with its ideology. This is made clear in recent ban on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation funding new wind power projects. Such a ban can be nothing but an ideological decision, based neither on science, nor a theological allegiance to the Pope. And if conservative within the Catholic Church have been trenchant in their denial, Fox News has declared the Pope the most dangerous person on the planet.
The Pope makes a powerful critique of the dangerous ideas of others, including the “idea of infinite or unlimited growth” as being “based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” While he praises science and technology, he warns of the Babel like view where science and technology shape our way of seeing the world in a reductionist manner, and he sees this as the cause of “the deterioration of the environment” and which also “affects every aspect of human and social life.” Reductionism might solve simple problems, but it destroys the very things we value most in life; truth, beauty and spirituality.
What is on offer instead is a holistic ecology, a rich view “which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings”. Humans are unique from a theological point of view. Modernism has produced an “excessive anthropocentrism” while “Christian thought sees human beings as possessing a particular dignity above other creatures.” This recognises our difference while enabling us to remember our connectedness and our mission to care as made clear in Genesis 2:15.
Our very physicality ties us to everything else. Our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings.” This connection is spiritual, for we have communion with the rest of creation, and must avoid being reduced either to a material/spiritual dualism or a scientific detachment that views the world from the outside: “we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within.”
It’s not as if we are to go back to life in the trees, for “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way.” The lens for this different way is a gospel centred one. Francis extols the simplicity of his namesake and notes to date that “to blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” If Christians are going to join Pope Francis in this prophetic call rather than simply wait for the market to sort out climate change, it will require some bold vision, myth deconstructions and lifestyle choices.