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“Laudato Si” Athwart Modernity

The “Fox News vs. CNN” hermeneutic just won’t work if we are reading Laudato Si in full.

Photo by Samson Creative on Unsplash

In preparation for my participation in a USCCB sponsored symposium for the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si, I reread the famous and controversial document with some care. Many of the themes that struck me five years ago stood out again, but on this reading I was particularly impressed by the pope’s sharply critical assessment of modernity. I think it’s fair to say that the Church has had a complex relationship with the modern, coming out strongly against it at the First Vatican Council and in a plethora of statements throughout much of the twentieth century, but affirming many elements of it very enthusiastically at the Second Vatican Council. One has only to consider here Vatican II’s document on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, or of its magisterial document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, to see the Council’s favorable assessment of many key features of modernity. And certainly in the years that I was coming of age in the immediate wake of Vatican II, a positive attitude toward “the world” or the “modern world” was pretty much expected of all right-thinking Catholics.

Modernity is a multifaceted phenomenon, marked by qualities both good and bad, and hence the Church’s ambivalence toward it is understandable. To take just two of its principal accomplishments into consideration, I don’t know any serious person who wants to reverse the advances that modern thinkers made possible in the physical sciences or in the development of democratic political institutions. On the other hand, as an army of postmodern philosophers and cultural analysts have pointed out, modernity carries with it a shadow—that is to say, emphases and assumptions that are, to say the least, questionable. Though he clearly celebrates the achievements of Vatican II and though he applauds much in the modern project, Pope Francis is also skeptical of modernity, and nowhere is this skepticism on clearer display than in Laudato Si.

Front and center in his analysis of our present situation is a trenchant critique of what the pope calls a “technocratic paradigm” (para. 101). By this he means a worldview that privileges technology and what it makes possible over practically any other consideration—over the good of the human family, the needs of the poor, the cause of peace, etc. The effects of this mindset are ubiquitous, but they are especially evident in the rape of the environment and the turning of God’s beautiful creation into “an immense pile of filth,” in the pope’s vivid expression (para. 21).

But this paradigm, he reminds us, is made possible by a more fundamental shift in attitude—what Francis terms “modern anthropocentrism” (para. 115). This is the tendency, on display in practically all of the great philosophers from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, to place human subjectivity at the center of things, both epistemologically and metaphysically. The consequence of this Copernican revolution is the emergence, the pope argues, of a “Promethean vision of mastery over the world” (para. 116). It is instructive in this context to consider the difference between Aristotle’s and Descartes’ understanding of the purpose of science. For the ancient Greek thinker, philosophy commences in wonder and ends in contemplation of the intelligibilities on display in the world; whereas for the modern French thinker, philosophy begins and ends in a passion to “master nature.” No one, including Pope Francis, would want to go back on the real attainments that followed from the Cartesian paradigm shift, but the pope does indeed worry that the turn to subjectivity, at least in its extreme forms, has produced something wicked and dangerous. If nature simply lies before the dominant human subject as a thing to be manipulated, then the integrity of creation is compromised and the objectivity of values that are embedded in nature are disregarded.

Practically every commentator on Laudato Si five years ago remarked that this was the pope’s “global warming” encyclical, and indeed that issue is amply discussed in the pages of the text. But what almost every pundit missed was Francis’ extraordinarily rich development of the point just made regarding the objectivity of moral values. The same technocratic and anthropocentric prejudice, he says, that gives rise to environmental disaster gives rise as well to population control through artificial contraception and abortion: “Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’” (para. 50). Moreover, the setting aside of intrinsic moral values and the concomitant placing of the individual and his needs at the center conduce toward what the pope calls practical relativism: “Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism that sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests” (para. 122). And finally, the domination of the ego over nature also finds expression, says Pope Francis, in a gender ideology that would give to the individual the right to define him or herself even at the physical level. Moreover, there is a clear link between this extravagant claim to freedom and the abuse of the physical environment: “Thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation” (para. 155).

What this brief survey demonstrates is that the “Fox News vs. CNN” hermeneutic just won’t work if we are reading Laudato Si in full. Pope Francis takes positions that annoy both standard-issue liberals and standard-issue conservatives. This is because his overarching opponent is the philosophy of modernity, which in fact has produced both the “conservatism” and the “liberalism” that we know today. His appeal to a worldview that antedates the modern is what makes this encyclical particularly intriguing.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 184 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

13 Comments

  1. Is it fair to ASK whether “the Church [actually came] out strongly against [the modern] at the First Vatican Council [….]”? Or, did it come out ahead?

    ANOTHER LOOK AT HISTORY

    Vatican 1 (1870) dealt with internal ecclesiology. Notably the exact nature of “papal infallibility”—as distinguished from BOTH Ultramontanism and modernity’s secularist democracy. The Council was only “suspended” (not adjourned) from work on an integral collegiality, due to armed invasion of the Vatican itself by the Italian army. The bishops fled home to safety.

    In defense of his own sovereignty, Pope Pius IX was defended by only 200 Papal troops (without artillery) against an invading army of 12,000. His troops stood down under his instructions: “The signal was in obedience [not an apparent treachery] to the positive and predetermined order of the Pope, who would not suffer resistance to be prolonged one minute beyond what was essential to the purpose—that of making the most unmistakable protest against the violence offered to his sovereignty” (Pontificate of Pius the Ninth, Maguire, 1870, p. 478).

    Then, the papacy, now with a clear self-understanding in the works, holed up as a “prisoner of the Vatican” RATHER THAN be reduced by “modernity” to a paid employee of the Italian and secular nation-state (the proposal of King Victor Emmanuel II). The suspended Vatican I was continued in Vatican II, not superseded.

    ANNIVERSARY ROADMAP

    The upcoming USCCB sponsored symposium for the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si could actually be interesting, truly. It anticipates the Vatican’s Laudato Si 12-point roadmap. Here are the points plus a few counterpoints, perhaps cavalier or some perhaps not:

    (1) Catholic Climate Movement (anointing an infallible “Catholic” science?),
    (2) “Partnership” with other groups (the entire Brundtland Commission sustainability ideology?), (3) operational “guidelines”(?),
    (4) Laudato Si Awards (may corporate or private initiatives apply, i.e.,“subsidiarity”, or only skewed models of “solidarity”?),
    (5) Documentary film,
    (6) Tree initiative (inclusive Pachamama-II spread from the Vatican Gardens?),
    (7) Read the Bible Contest (fundamentalism with our sola scriptura Protestant brethren?),
    (8) In 2021 a seven-year program for Catholic institutions(the “integral ecology” fully in step with the squinty-eyed Catechism, and the distinct “human ecology” of Centesimus Annus and Veritatis Splendor?),
    (9) Ecumenical Season of Creation (surprised acquiescence to a possible Earth Day eclipse on Easter Sunday?),
    (10) Reinventing the Global Educational Alliance (“vertical, horizontal and environmental”—integration based on clarity, or a kitchen-blender editing overnighter?), and Economy of Francisco,
    (11) January 2021 World Economic Forum in Davos, and
    (12) Gathering of religious leaders (uncontexted “pluralism” again, in effect maybe an eco-conscious update—aggiornamento!—of the 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions?).

    Not to defend here the box-canyon Technocracy, nor to dismiss the novelty of what is needed. . . and yes, fully in step with Bishop Barron, it is most profoundly and soberly “not about any “standard-issue conservatives and standard-issue liberals.”

    But First, how to FRAME “it” right—-“A WORLDVIEW THAT ANTEDATES THE MODERN,” and then

    Second, how to GET “it” right, or, at least, not wrong?

  2. Prudence dictates that the USCCB is best being ignored. When I saw the title if this article linking Laudate si and the USCCB, I was most interested in who penned this article. I was not surprised that it was Bp Barron.

  3. “…especially evident in the rape of the environment and the turning of God’s beautiful creation into ‘an immense pile of filth'”. Pope Francis

    “How much filth submerges this poor humanity, urged by me to set itself free from sin. Do you see how, every day, many of my children remain defiled with this filth which is spreading more and more and dragging countless numbers of souls to their death?” Our Lady

    Why is this Pope’s emphasis on saving the environment instead of the salvation of souls?

  4. I was just reading the CNA piece regarding the sustainability office of the Diocese of Atlanta and its 60-70 parishes with sustainability programs, and now the USCCB symposium…not to mention all the “experts” hired and supported by the Vatican to generate the encyclical.

    Your contributions to the Church at work, folks. Catholics clueless on how to experience God, Catholics dying alone and afraid in parishes across the country, but we sure know how to save the world.

  5. As always, a fine analysis and discussion by the bishop, but I must take issue with one statement’: “No one, including Pope Francis, would want to go back on the real attainments that followed from the Cartesian paradigm shift,.” This implies that the true goods of modern science could not have been reached without the perversion of thought brought about by Descartes. This is highly debatable and likely false. Just as material goods can be obtained by theft or by lies, or instead by hard honest work, so our understanding of the created world and our ability to husband and make fruitful that endowment, could have been reached by a more Christian, even “Franciscan” (referring to both the saint and the pope), approach to science and nature without the damaging fallout to our understanding of nature, of ourselves, even of God, inherent in the distortions of Descartes and others.

    • IT MIGHT WELL BE that the true Catholic response to Technocracy IS to go “back” to a world “before” Descartes. That is, NOT to set the clock back, BUT to set it right…

      Our cultural predisposition is to divorce the material from the spiritual. This mindset traces to the geometric (self-isolated) research method of the 17th-century Descartes. At the same moment, Francis Bacon advanced the legitimate inductive scientific method, BUT he also spoke of inducing Nature—as a sort of harem—to betray her secrets so that these could be used to advance technical control even against Nature (!).

      The ecological abuses of Technocracy (NOT technology) have captivated Pope Francis’ attention. The New Evangelization needs to FULLY rethink this entire trajectory—in order to remember/affirm a world of irreducible human wonder, a created and wonder-filled world within which even the sacramental use of material signs are no longer branded as antiquarian (the Eucharistic Presence, not simply our diluted “cultural tradition”).

      Even Laudato Si is not radical enough. What we are getting is:

      (a) A Polygon collage—Amazonia and Germania, and a well-funded (?) Anniversary,
      (b) Unclarified messaging about an equivalent third option, enabling infiltration into the Church itself—the active homosexual lifestyle/subculture and clericalist/managarial mindset,
      (c) An intergenerational “compass paper” received at the Youth Synod, but then accented with a Wiccan stang, and overall,
      (d) An undifferentiated “pluralism” of religions, obscuring among (expressive) natural religions the (supernatural) self-revealing (!) and incarnational God who IS love—neither Islam’s remote (anti-Trinitarian) monotheism nor Technocracy’s quantified (also anti-Trinitarian) god of Intelligibility and utility, e.g., quantum mechanics, resource exploitation.

      In thanksgiving for his extraordinary intuitions (three dreams) about method, in November 10, 1619 Descartes made a vow to make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady at Loreto, Italy (fulfilled in 1623). But who remembers that part of his real story? Instead, we get in bed with Bacon’s Nature/harem and then actually do go “back,” to Mother Nature/Pachamama.

  6. Thank you , had missed out on this good news , in the midst of the floodwaters of news about the death virus , thus , His mercy , being given for all of His children all around , through a beloved son of the Bl.Mother too and to be celebrated through
    May 2021 ! 🙂
    The praise for the gift of creation – most likely there in every life , from the tiniest to the old – unless it gets muffled through the spirits of fear and despair and such …
    Those who owe it to The Father , those who know of His goodness the most , esp. us of The Church , praising Him with ever deeper gratitude , to help undo the knots that deprive many of that grace , possibly related to even generational effects of Masonic ties and such , even in work places and such as well .

    http://www.sensustraditionis.org/Freemasonic.pdf – One good activity to incorporate could be the above , to be rid off the effects of the curses and related fears , the spirit of greed and control , the darkness and emptiness , leading to the need for voracious appetites of the flesh , its need to bite and tear and gorge , having lost all sense of the sacred – not unlike the traits of the virus !

    May the praise to The Father rise from many hearts , we in His gracious priestly roles through baptism , commanding and exhorting the creation itself , along with the Fathers in The Church , that the song of that praise be there from the very ends of the earth , far more powerful than the Far U V , for the glory of a Father whose marvel is such as in the creation of tiny creatures that can smell from miles away , to thus give us a glimpse of our roles and its effects as well .
    Glory be !

  7. The good Bishop, Robert Barron, as well educated and spiritual as he is, somehow totally forgets that “Laudato Si” is a complete study in ambiguity, shaming, distraction and replacement of all Authentic Truth with the very MODERNIST, socialism-communism-symphatizing ideas, that it seems in appearance to detract and combat.

    Here’s the definition of Modernism in the Catholic Encyclopedia (https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10415a.htm): “Etymologically, modernism means an exaggerated love of what is modern, an infatuation for modern ideas, “the abuse of what is modern”, as the Abbé Gaudaud explains (La Foi catholique, I, 1908, p. 248)… Such are the fundamental tendencies. As such, they seek to explain, justify, and strengthen themselves in an error, to which therefore one might give the name of “essential” modernism. What is this error? It is nothing less than the perversion of dogma. Manifold are the degrees and shades of modernist doctrine on the question of our relations with God. But no real modernist keeps the Catholic notions of dogma intact. Are you doubtful as to whether a writer or a book is modernist in the formal sense of the word? Verify every statement about dogma; examine his treatment of its origin, its nature, its sense, its authority. You will know whether you are dealing with a veritable modernist or not, according to the way in which the Catholic conception of dogma is travestied or respected”.

    Pope Francis is eroding Dogma not by open rejection, crass apostasy and brazen heresy (that would be too obvious) but by his Modus Operandi of WEAPONIZED AMBIGUITY and pretending to attack what he really favors and favoring what he pretends to attack. MODERNISM is such a WEAPONIZED AMBIGUITY system itself, pretending to be the great reconciler, pacifier and uniter of all humankind, while eroding, diluting and destroying Catholic Dogma. It is a “Mother Theresa of Calcutta” Satan-Edition!!

    Capitalists, both good and bad, Nature-respecting and non-Nature-respecting are not by definition Modernists, even if they can contain some or many of them. On the other hand, Radical Environmentalism, as preached in Catholic disguise by “Laudato Si” is choke-full of the most RADICAL MODERNISTS that absolutely hate Catholic Dogma (the ONLY TRUE Guardian of Peace, Love, Reconciliation, Progress and Truth), and it’s ever more evident that you can’t be a part of their destructive movement if you dare to disagree with them in the very least (you can pretend to disagree to fool others, just like “taqiyya” lying permitted by the Muslims).

    “Laudato Si” should be called “Taqiyya Si”, as it deceives with an attack on “Modernism” by putting that MASK on Capitalism, Technocracy, etc. (material advances that have lifted humankind out of misery and destitution better than any other, very imperfect as it is) and then promoting Radical Environmentalism. IT APPEARS as if it were a legitimate “Catholic” attack on Modernism, which it DOES NOT attack it but PROMOTE IT! Like another commenter said recently, our Clergy is to proclaim and stand for JESUS not Ecology.

    JESUS heals ALL Ecology: social, economic, political, scientific and natural but Radical Environmentalism is a TOTAL impostor and so are all those that promote it. The Church’s Saving and Redeeming Ecology is under attack and that’s the one we must defend with our very lives if necessary. The rest is just shaming, distraction and replacement imposed by the naively deceived, the deviously deceiving or both. Beware and obey only JESUS!!

  8. News reports about lot of food having to be wasted now a days , yet , also news such as how Infrared technology is helping in fast food drying , thus , such being put to good use at much larger scales , with the aim to help the poor too – may such too be the blessings that help many world over , to add their praise to The Father .

  9. The idiotic claims masquerading as official church teachings concerning global warming would have been enough to discredit the entire bloated document, but there were many other problems with Laudato Si. Yes, the it said the right things about abortion, but like on so many occasions, the statements have a perfunctory feel to them. Indeed, Francis’s pronouncements and actions since the release of the encyclical, indicate that “climate change” is indeed a far more important issue to him than ending the mass slaughter of the unborn. What other conclusion can one draw from his close collaboration with Jeffrey Sachs, the UN and other globalist promoters of population control?

  10. JMJ
    Bishop Barron says blah, blah, blah, and we say NO “BLAH, BLAH, BLAH–JUST ANALYZE IF BERGOGLIO’S PRONOUNCEMENTS CONFORM TO THE HOLY MAGISTERIUM. What we have been able to
    read respecting Bergoglio’s orthodoxy says that he is a typical Jesuit astronomer, a dreamer, and nothing more–if you can, Excellency, help us understand his wishi-washines, if that is possible.
    What would be wrong with that, Excellency?

  11. Pope Francis’ “overarching opponent is the philosophy of modernity”, which as Bishop Barron reads is the polarity of liberal and conservative extremism. Vat City 2018 Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences said that “at this moment, those who best realize the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese”. Laudato Si must be read in context of policy. Most here as I do respect Bishop Barron, even his noble effort to elicit the best from a trying scenario. Nonetheless an accurate read of Laudato in context needs at least some agreement with Phil Alcoceli that, “it deceives with an attack on Modernism by putting that MASK on Capitalism, Technocracy”. Advance of the ‘spirit’ of Vat II is a well known object of this pontificate. If that spirit is not Modernism nothing is. Pious exhibition, the Pontiff’s recent dedication of China to the Blessed Mother doesn’t cut it. Surely this is a euphemism. Catholicism in China the child of historic missionary effort has been immolated by the Vatican to the gods of global atheistic socialism. If we don’t address the moral truth of current issues, as a matter of course with due temperance nonetheless accurately and truthfully I respectfully urge that we reassess our Catholicism.

  12. From my lifelong work on environmental projects and study of the environment, I offer the evidence that free societies operating under the rule of law and accountable to their citizens, albeit imperfectly in all of these respects, have the cleanest environments in the world in terms of water, air, and habitats. Not top down, command and control states, like China. Investigate for yourself. This should be a consideration (at least) in any discussion about the environment and competing economic/political systems.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “Laudato Si” Athwart Modernity - Catholic Mass Search
  2. Some reading material, 23.05.20 – RC Largs and Millport
  3. Laudato Si’ Five Years Later: Archdiocese of Atlanta’s Sustainability Efforts – Current Affairs Today

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