In the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic decision legalizing “gay marriage,” I spoke with a friend who was, as she put it, “numb.” About all she could voice was a frustration: “I wish the Holy Father had been speaking more about this and less about climate change.”
In the moment it was hard not to sympathize with her complaint, which many others have already expressed on internet forums. It could seem hard to justify attention to matters like global warming when what is imminently at stake is the legalized annihilation of a two thousand-year old institution at the bedrock of human society. And conspiracy theories aside, one can wonder what the two issues have to do with each other.
Yet further reflection shows that the terrain of the recent encyclical bears greatly on SCOTUS’s landmark ruling. Others have analyzed Laudato Si’ and shown the connections itmakes between reverence for the environment and for the human person. (See the columns by Fr. Robert Barron, Christopher Morrissey, and Thomas Hibbs, among others, already posted on CWR).
I simply wish to point out three reasons why Catholics should take seriously the encyclical’s subject matter, precisely in view of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage.
Be fruitful and multiply
The first reason comes to us from Genesis, which somewhat mysteriously presents the meaning of marriage in the immediate context of man’s relationship to the natural world. What is “very good,” in God’s eyes, is the whole of his creation at the summit of which is the union of man and woman in “Our image.” Commenting on Genesis in the Theology of the Body, John Paul II examines the first man’s realization of his own identity. Initially he is aware of himself as the recipient of God’s gifts of life and the surrounding creation; he is aware of himself as integrally part of this creation and yet as solitary within it, since he alone can reflect on the world, on himself, and on God. Then, in the creation of woman, specifically as revealed in her bodiliness, the human being becomes aware of himself as the recipient of God’s gift of an “other”, a person for whom man himself can be a gift.
The first command given to humanity is a joint command given to the man and woman together: be fruitful and multiply, and steward the earth. The “procreative” task of man and woman extends both to the human race and to the creation around them. Not surprisingly, God’s punishment for their sin includes both a distancing of the man and woman from each other, and a distancing of man from the earth and from his ability to steward it well. Although Genesis doesn’t explicitly relate why, it clearly presents a “human ecology” in which marriage and relation with creation jointly constitute the human vocation.
Technology and dualism
The second reason offers, via negativa, one glimpse into why God’s word joins marriage and ecology. Let us look to the course of modern technology. For the technological outlook and uses that have become grave threats to our natural world are the same ones, in principle, that have allowed man to distance himself from his bodiliness, with its sexuality, as never before. If man crowns nature, it should be no surprise that perverse efforts to master nature will entail perverse efforts to master man, especially in his physical dimension.
While both effects stem from a view of reality as stuff to be manipulated according to human will, they have only become effects because this view has been greatly realized. Dualism—which holds that mind and matter are radically disparate principles in man—has been around a long time, but mostly as a conceptual force with its effects in the philosophical, religious, and ascetic realms. We think of Gnosticism and Puritanism, to name just two dualistic forms. Today, dualism enjoys an explosive heyday in the realm of day-to-day living, thanks largely to our technological permissiveness and ability to make actual what before were only hypothetical (if not unimaginable) possibilities. See, for instance, Caitlyn Jenner.
Scientism and technological prowess have shrugged off the “mind” pole of dualism to the realm of the unknown, such that materialism effectively wins the day. In his recent book Waking Up, Sam Harris insists on the radical identity of the human being with consciousness, which Harris interestingly calls a mystery. Even the physical self is simply an illusion. According to such a view, what in the world should prevent us from treating our bodies and bodily relations with others however we—and they—wish? Mutatis mutandis, how does Harris’s stance not endorse a wholly foreign and therefore manipulative view of the natural world?
Not only do we view the natural as matter for manipulation, our technological distancing from the natural precludes our ability to learn from it. We should heed an insightful parallel from Remi Brague: as Christianity inherits its identity from the Old Covenant, so man in his technology inherits an identity from nature. And as Christianity fulfills and universalizes the Old Covenant, so man the technologist ought to perfect and share nature’s goodness in the twofold procreative task commanded in Genesis.
Boredom vs. contemplation
The third reason to take ecology seriously in the context of marriage and sexuality comes from the realm of cultural psychology, specifically, the psychology of contemporary Western culture, if that term is still relevant. The deepest concerns of Laudato Si’ are appreciable by all, but most proximately applicable to the West, or rather, to the extension of the West: the First World.
It is no accident that the debates over gay marriage occur in the same places. Some hold that the current mania over gay rights, and more broadly, the obsession that Pope Francis calls gender ideology, could never occur in a society that wasn’t fundamentally bored. The very notion of boredom, Walker Percy maintains, coincides with the modern technological age. In The Logic of Desire, Fr. Nicholas Lombardo articulates boredom in terms of the inability to find something worth desiring. On two counts the advance of a materialistic consumptive mentality, bolstered by technology’s dominance, provides ripe conditions for this frustration.
First, as Fr. Lombardo notes, the sheer number and kinds of manufactured goods at our disposal can present a sham promise of happiness wherein we supply ourselves indefinitely with one finite good after another. The sham is exposed in light of man’s innate longing for the infinite. He realizes, if only subconsciously, that the wealth of goods stretching endlessly before him is unable to answer to his deepest desire. And yet what else is there to desire, if materialism and technocracy stand tall? Only desperate attempts at further novelty. See, for example, the SCOTUS decision.
Second, to the extent that man is removed from the created order and faced exclusively with his artificial extensions, the possibility of a contemplative stance dissolves. The realm of the interesting departs, and the realm of the instrumental becomes an end in itself, which is a contradiction. Boredom is inevitable. The flipside of wonder, engagement with our own devices elevates the power of the instrument to the point where the desirable is indefinitely deferred. This is boredom: might as well try everything, forever, especially when it comes to our most intense pleasures.
Creation and evangelization
The concerns of Laudato Si’ are not foreign—indeed, they are closely akin—to the age-old concerns hubristically dismissed by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges. In a pre-Christian world, the normative goodness of the natural world and of human sexuality could be recognized. The Incarnation elevated these goods, revealing them in light of the greater whole.
In a post-Christian world dominated by the will to power, the love of money, and an increasing enslavement to technology, rejection of Christ includes rejection of that greater whole, with all its parts, down to things as fundamental as nature and nature’s stewards: man and woman. Any work of evangelization today has a greater job than it did in the days of the early martyrs, for it has to be as much concerned with the natural as with the supernatural.
Perhaps, as in Genesis, man’s place in the created world is not a bad place to begin.