Laudato Si, Episode 2: An Ecological Conversion

This is the second episode in which Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Jason Wilde discuss Laudato Si. Pope Francis has said that Laudato Si is not a “green” encyclical, but rather a “social” encyclical. Our first episode set the stage by discussing the long history of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). In this episode, we discuss Laudato Si‘s call for “ecological conversion”.

The Religious Perspective of Laudato Si

In chapter 2 of Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes:

A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.

Pope Francis is not discussing environmentalism as a secular scientist might, from a purely material standpoint. Rather, he is calling for a spiritual conversion. A conversion is a turning, a change of heart. In this case, we are being called to turn away from ourselves and toward God, our neighbors, and God’s Creation. Without such conversion, as Laudato Si put it, we will try to impose our own laws on reality. This kind of pride leads to ecological destruction and social dysfunction. Laudato Si contains the following quote from Pope Benedict XVI: “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.

If Christians do not bring their spirituality to bear on the question of protecting the environment, the response to our current crisis will be based on secular ideologies. These ideologies will prove insufficient for the task, and may create greater harm. It is our duty to lead on this issue.

The Common Good

As we discussed in our earlier episode, this is a social encyclical first and foremost, not a “green” one. And so an important component of an ecological conversion is the CST principle of the primacy of the common good.

The world is not ours. The earth is the Lord’s. He made it for us—for all of us. Whenever we work for the common good, or preform a work of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice. Part of the common good we must work toward is a healthy environment.

Common goods differ from private goods in a crucial way. Private goods diminish when they are shared. For instance, if two people share $10, each of them will have less than $10. Common goods, however, are those things that do not diminish when shared.

The very highest common good is the Beatific Vision. It isn’t a scarce resource we need to compete for; even if there are billions of people in heaven, it won’t “run out”. We should try to mirror this perspective even in our earthy lives. If we won’t be in competition in the world to come, then we should try live out that aspect of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.

Here on earth, the common good of a society is something that all share in. It is not merely a collection of private goods. Nor should the common good of society be seen as an attack on the private good of the individual. We see this perverse understanding of the common good in the Gospel, where Caiaphas says that it is better that one man to die for the people. Rather, the common good of society is something that no one individual can provide and that benefits everyone.

Jason brought up an interesting example of a particular common good. The security and order produced by a stable society benefits everyone. In many societies, however, security is not a common good. In such a situation, each private individual and each business needs to provide their own security in the form of armed guards. Those too poor to afford guards have to do without security.

Clean air is a obvious common good. If the air is clean, it benefits everyone. If your neighbor’s air is dirty, your air will also be dirty.

The Throw Away Culture

A key point in the first chapter of Laudato Si is the danger of a “throw away culture”. This isn’t the first time Pope Francis has used the term. In Evangelli Gaudium, he wrote:

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading.

A “throw away culture” stems from a grave lack of respect. In our society, we are encouraged to see things and people merely as useful. When they are no longer useful, they are discarded. Obviously, it is far more serious to throw away unborn children or the disabled elderly than to treat material things in a wasteful way. Still, the spirit behind these actions is the same. Not only that, but the “throw away culture” applied to goods actually is disrespectful both to human beings and to God. Creation is God’s gift to us, and treating it with disrespect is an insult to the giver. At the same time, our cavalier use of material things can directly impact others, and can lower the dignity of those who produce what we consume.

A good example of this dynamic is the way that companies bulldoze fairly new buildings to put up something new, rather than taking the time to build solidly and remodel buildings for new purposes. This disrespect not only leads to a fantastic waste of energy and resources, but it creates a sterile, ugly built environment that depresses the spirit of those who live within it. It also strips the dignity from the labor of construction workers.

Laudato Si‘s vision of “Dominion”

Quoting St. John Paul II, Pope Francis condemns a view of the world focused solely using it for our own ends. It is right and proper to use the world, but this use can’t obscure the inherent, intrinsic value of the things around us.

The wrong understanding of the Christian concept of “Dominion” can lead to this use-oriented vision. In Genesis, we read that humanity is given charge of creation, to till and keep it. This kind of dominion does not mean that we have absolute control. Neither does it justify the abuse of the world. Rather, it calls us to have a steward’s care of what has been given to us.

In an earlier episode with Augustine Tardiff from Madonna House, we discussed this concept. Augustine described his experience of working on the Madonna House farm, which helped him to gain a proper understanding of dominion. In particular, he talked about feeding a calf which seemed bent on making the process as difficult as possible. By taking care of animals, we can come to a faint understanding of the care God has for us. Exercising such care also fulfills our mission to show forth the image of God in which we were created.

The Interconnected Nature of Reality

We’re connected to all of creation. We couldn’t live without it. As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si:

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

The interconnected nature of reality means that care of creation is inseparable from care for others. We need a consistent life ethic.

The idea of a consistent life ethic is sometimes abused, or seen as a way to downplay the gravity of abortion. In reality, a consistent life ethic is a matter of reverence for all life, even when such reverence is inconvenient for us. All too often, our modern world tries to avoid inconvenience by replacing life with technology, something we can control. Life is God’s, and God’s way is not ours. Technology, by contrast, is our own thought projected onto the world, and so is more convenient for us.

Lack of reverence is a sin that flows through everything else. If we don’t see trees as a gift from God, that sin will propagate, and affect other life, even human life. That is why Laudato Si is a human life encyclical. Environmental degradation eventually affects human life; this is how that sin manifests. Jason talked about seeing first hand how the destruction of rain forest in Costa Rica has led to poverty, forced migration, and conflict. We have to realize that the seemingly small sin of not caring for life will spread.

The Common Destination of Goods

Going back to the idea of the common good: one of the principles of Catholic social teaching is that the Earth was created for all. No piece of property came with a name tag on it. Of course, we’re not communists. As Catholics, we do recognize the right to own private property, but private property is only legitimately owned if that ownership better serves the universal destination of human goods. Ownership is not an excuse for using the earth’s resources for one’s self.

This is particularly true in environmental matters. If someone owns critical aspects of an ecosystem and destroys them, that ownership is not legitimate. The earth is not theirs to destroy in such a way, and this destruction will affect other people. Modern scientific investigation actually supports this idea of the common good. I can’t just tinker with my property without affecting other people. Paving a parking lot increases stream flow. If enough people pave over their private land, it will end up flooding other people downstream.

The idea of unlimited individual freedom is dangerous. Christ gave up his freedom for us, and we should imitate him. Our culture does not understand Gospel poverty, but we must demonstrate this. We must be willing to give up some of our personal freedom for the Common Good; this allows us to treat others as brothers and sisters. Otherwise our relationship will be adversarial, confrontational.

Voluntary Poverty

In our culture, the traditional Christian practices of poverty and fasting and simplicity of life seem illegitimate. Such asceticism, however, is the only way to live out an ecological spirituality. How many social and environmental problems could be solved with a little more frugality!

For Christians, this is much more than just a matter of practicality. Voluntary poverty helps us to de-clutter our lives. It helps us to honor the idea of the universal destination of human goods. We can’t justify holding onto excess when others are starving. Voluntary poverty is not the same as destitution. Rather, without voluntary poverty, there will be destitution. Our voluntary poverty allows us to alleviate the destitution of others. For more on the topic of voluntary poverty, see our episode here.

The Depth of the Christian Message

Even the modern, secular world has come to realize the potential benefits of a simpler life. For instance, various political figures have called for meatless Mondays to benefit the environment. This has led to absurd situations in which some Christians are protesting against calls for material sacrifice. It would be much better if, instead, we saw such situations as a chance to do something in solidarity with those around us, while at the same time giving the practice a deeper, spiritual meaning.

This is a good example of a general theme: the Christian message is deeper than the secular message. That is the point of Laudato Si. The Church is not opposed to the secular concern for the environment; rather, the Church does environmentalism better than the world. This is a healthier understanding than one which sees the Christian message as merely the opposite of whatever the world is saying at a given time.

The Technocratic Paradigm

A good example of this deeper Christian message is Laudato Si’s warning about the “technocratic paradigm”. Pope Francis writes:

 There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; . . . as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.

 It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.

The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.

The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. . . . Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. . . . We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.

Technology, as Pope Francis warns, is not neutral. Every technology has its own inner logic, and imposes a certain shape on society. For instance, the automobile was developed to enable large distances to be covered quickly. It was a luxury item; most people were able to do without it in their daily lives. Now, it has reshaped our cities and our society to such an extent that in most parts of the USA it is a necessity. At the same time, society as a whole is not moving faster; we’re just moving in a different (and more environmentally destructive) way. In a sense, technologies such as the automobile share many of the characteristics of a protection racket. They produce a problem and then claim to solve it, making themselves necessary in the process.

Need for Community

The rejection of the technocratic paradigm is something individuals must pursue as part of an ecological conversion. We need to regain a perspective in which technology is merely a tool, and in consequence, is not allowed to reshape life in a destructive way. Living out this renewed perspective, however, is not possible without a community. In fact, once an individual has experienced an ecological conversion, they will probably find that the concrete change of life they feel called to requires a supportive community.

Closing Advice

For those who are suspicious of Laudato Si, just try reading the first three chapters. Pray and reflect on what Pope Francis is really saying. He’s not asking for some global change from on high, but for us to change our hearts. Converted hearts inevitably change the world. If we want people to “eat well and keep warm” to paraphrase St. James, then we have to be willing to take concrete steps toward that goal. These steps must involve protecting our common home.

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