Cosmos, Crisis, and Thanksgiving: A Reflection on Laudato Si’

In his encyclical, Pope Francis offers an explicitly sacramental response to the danger of the modern person being lost in the cosmos.

Reflecting on Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si’, Alan Jacobs notes that the encyclical’s third chapter, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” calls to mind an influential essay by Lynn White, entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” White’s thesis is that the roots of the current crisis can be found in the Christian teaching that it is “God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” Surprisingly, White detects an alternative, healthy model of religious ecology in Francis of Assisi, whom he dubs a heretical exception to “orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature.” By focusing on Francis as both an orthodox Catholic and as the embodiment of the ecological virtues of asceticism, gratitude, joy, and praise in the presence of creation, the Pope offers a double rejoinder to White.

Laudato Si’ is an ambitious document, one that seeks nothing less than the re-imagining of the place of human persons in the entirety of the created cosmos. Francis discerns beneath the contemporary ecological crisis a crisis of the human person, who is now lost in the cosmos, increasingly alienated from self, others, nature, and God. Ecological threats are but one symptom of a much broader crisis: “If the present ecolog­ical crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural, and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot pre­sume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamen­tal human relationships” (119). The most audacious claim in the encyclical is not the affirmation of the reality of climate change, but the insistence that to have a coherent and effective environmental philosophy requires both an anthropology and a cosmology. 

Of course, the American media has focused almost exclusively on the climate change portion of the document. Time fatuously goes so far as to label the prayers at the end of the encyclical “the prayers on climate change.” A careful reading of the encyclical belies easy categorization. Replete with paradox, it affirms the scientific consensus on climate change even as it insists on the limitations to science and casts a wary eye on the notion of unqualified technological progress. More than perhaps any recent encyclical, it seems very much of the moment, yet it articulates a metaphysics of creation whose inspiration can be found in medieval authors such Francis and Thomas, Bonaventure and Dante. 

Technology

Francis’ views on technology are complex. He is no Luddite. He observes, “Technology has reme­died countless evils,” and celebrates the genuine progress it has effected, “especially in the fields of medicine, engineering, and commu­nications” (102). Indeed, it is natural to the human species to modify “nature for useful purposes” (102). Moreover, he notes that the Christian insistence on divine transcendence “demythologized nature” (78) and paved the way for modern science’s investigation of the intelligibility of the natural order.  

But he echoes the mid-century worries of a Catholic author like Jacques Maritain concerning the way technology leads us to prize means over ends. The means have become so impressive that we lose sight of the ends to which technology should be ordered. In a similar vein, Francis writes, “The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable” (108). We lack “a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.” Thus, “we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it.”  

At times, Francis’ rhetoric, heavily influenced by Romano Guardini’s End of the Modern World, approaches the sort of nightmare vision of humanity found in modern science fiction films, in which the typical plot features human power giving rise to a technology that operates by its own logic of progress, liberates itself from human control, and eventually returns to plague the inventor. Thus Francis writes, “Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic”; “in the most radical sense of the term, power is its motive—a lordship over all” (108). 

The very popularity of this science fiction plot line indicates that suspicions and fears about technology are just beneath the surface of everyday life. But Francis does not leave us adrift in a nightmare world. Without repudiating science or technology, he argues that “an integral ecol­ogy calls for openness to categories which tran­scend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be hu­man” (11). In explicitly theological language, he urges that while “nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood, and controlled…cre­ation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion” (76).

The vindication of the Catholic ecological vision

The document moves back and forth between secular and theological evidence and argument. Francis reflects on the way the teachings of faith offer “motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters” (64). But Francis is not simply saying that Christians have additional motives to care for creation. Given his critique of modernity, he is implicitly posing the question whether contemporary environmentalists can sustain their vision without the sort of philosophical and/or theological vision of the cosmos and the human person that Laudato Si’ articulates.

The strategy here resembles that of John Paul II in Fides et Ratio, which attempted to rescue reason from its contemporary dissolution. The question that encyclical posed was whether modernity, which prides itself on rationality unencumbered by faith, could sustain a commitment to reason. Here the question is whether the crisis of ecology can be resolved without reference to something like the Christian vision of the created order.

When Francis writes that “there can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (118), he echoes the work of his two most recent papal predecessors, both of whom offered a biblical anthropology as a basis for integral ecology. The problem for modernity is that it vacillates between two extremes—between envisioning humanity as lord and master over the raw material that is nature and seeing the human animal as the enemy of the rest of the natural order. Francis focuses on the former error: “Modernity,” he writes, “has been marked by an exces­sive anthropocentrism” (116). Separating the human from the natural, one strain in modernity invites manipulation of nature without limits (118). Reacting against the destructive consequences of such unbridled human autonomy, another strain sees humans as the chief threat to the cosmos. Thus, Francis observes, we find ourselves in a “constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings.”

But, Francis urges, we can neither ignore nor simply castigate humanity. There can be no renewal of our re­lationship with nature without a renewal of hu­manity itself. But this raises crucial questions that the contemporary world seems ill-equipped to answer: renewal by what means and in light of what vision of humanity?

Francis thinks we need to hold on to a proper understanding of human dignity. He suspects that, in its absence, “our overall sense of responsibility wanes.” In contrast to certain influential modern views of the human person as “simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical deter­minism,” the Christian faith recognizes the unique human “capacities of knowledge, will, freedom, and responsibility” (118).  

The Christian understanding of human dignity does not isolate or separate persons from the whole of nature. The human person is the most peculiar, the strangest, animal in the cosmos, an animal that is open to the whole and capable of assuming a position of mastery over the whole or of adopting a position of receptivity to the gift of nature and being. Francis calls for an aesthetic education that would foster a receptive appreciation of beauty and thus curb the human proclivity to self-interested pragmatism. The poverty and ascetical self-denial of St. Francis open him to wondrous awe in the face of creation, and to the practice of the virtues of gratitude, joy, and peace.

To White’s accusation that Christianity is the source of our ecological crisis, Francis offers a twofold response: the origins consist rather in a certain strain of modernity, and a proper understanding of St. Francis suggests a thoroughly orthodox alternative to the modern model of autonomous control over nature.

Divine art, human response

In a connection that echoes Chesterton’s surprising association of St. Francis and St. Thomas, the Pope links St. Francis’ praise of God as creator of the elements and the animals to St. Thomas’ metaphysics of creation, understood as divine art: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, name­ly God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end” (80). Francis conceives nature as an organic whole. “In this universe, shaped by open and inter­communicating systems, we can discern count­less forms of relationship and participation.” From a theological perspective, “nature as a book, organically connected one part to another” reveals “for those who have eyes to see signs of the creator.” Bonaventure, the great pupil of St. Francis, teaches that “contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves” (233).

The source of the ecological crisis is a misconception of human freedom as autonomy from anything that is external to the self. By contrast, Francis sees human persons as parts of a larger whole. We have for­gotten that “man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature” (6). Francis echoes Benedict: creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our prop­erty and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves” (6). Francis elaborates: “Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.” Francis insists upon an integral connection between ecology and morality, between care for the environment and receptivity to human life at its most vulnerable and most neglected. The “throwaway culture” that infects our attitude toward the environment finds its correlate in the advocacy of abortion and euthanasia. 

Here there is a surprising application of the meditation of John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor on the danger of the modern opposition between autonomy and heteronomy. The modern emphasis on autonomy grounds dignity in freedom from external rule. Any external constraint is viewed as a kind of heteronomy, an alienation of reason and freedom. John Paul II argues that, as participants in a created order, human reason and freedom participate in God’s law and wisdom. Instead of alienation, true freedom results from obedience to the limits and order of the whole and from the cultivation wonder and gratitude for the author of the whole. What John Paul II calls, in the moral order, “participated theonomy,” is precisely what Francis counsels in the ecological order.

Cosmic thanksgiving

Participating in an order not of our own devising, human persons as makers are, as Tolkien puts it, sub-creators. With few exceptions, contemporary Christian thought and art has focused on the human drama without attending to the shape of the created cosmos or to the way in which we are to perceive and praise God through the created world. The Pope’s encyclical calls for, and offers a guide to, the renewal of the Christian imagination. It overlaps with what the artist Makoto Fuijumura calls “culture care” and with what a filmmaker like Terence Malick aspires to in his challenging and inspiring film The Tree of Life. With visually arresting imagery and a mesmerizing musical score, a lengthy opening sequence traces the history of the universe, from initial explosion and expansion through the formation of galaxies and planets to the formation of earth and the development of life on what the Catholic philosopher Charles DeKonnick calls a “poor little planet born of a catastrophe.” The film is an ambitious artistic exploration of questions rarely formulated by religious believers: How are we to think about cosmology, about the place of human existence in the capacious orders of time and space? What matter to us, to the universe, or to God is our occupying of a speck of seemingly insignificant space in an incomprehensibly vast universe? How are we to understand and appreciate the order of nature as a reflection of divine art? What we know of modern cosmology and paleontology makes the Psalmist’s question even weightier: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4).  

Francis poses the question of the Psalmist, a question much of the contemporary world fails even to articulate, let alone answer. Hence we are lost in the cosmos. In response, the Pope offers a rich and complex account of created nature. John Paul II’s notion of participated theonomy is a nice way to talk about creation, which Francis alternately depicts as a book, a system of interconnected parts, and a set of signs of the creator. In this way, the final, richly theological sections of the encyclical, particularly on the Eucharist, are intimately connected to the ecological vision articulated in the body of the text. The Eucharist marks the greatest union among creation, human persons, and God, even as it embodies the virtues of sacrificial gratitude, peace, and joy. The word itself means “thanksgiving.” Francis thus offers an explicitly Catholic sacramental response to the danger of the modern person being lost in the cosmos. In the Eucharist, as in the Incarnation, God comes to us “not from above, but from within,” in this case “through a fragment of matter” (236). In the Eucharist, the whole of creation “finds its greatest exaltation.” In the sacrament, “fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God…in an act of cosmic love” (236).

About Thomas S. Hibbs 16 Articles

Thomas S. Hibbs is Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.  His most recent book is Wagering on an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy.