Laudato Si’ and the Catholic Social Tradition

Pope Francis has borne admirable Christian witness, but also raised many questions.

Pope Francis is widely acclaimed today, less for his Catholic wisdom, I would suggest, than for the fact that he is perceived by secular (and some religious) opinion as some kind of “progressive.” People who have never deferred to papal authority or shown any interest in the rich tradition of Catholic social thought have endorsed his proclamations in the spirit of secular ultramontanism. Whether this will lead many to return to the Church or reconsider “the truth about man” that it proffers is highly doubtful. There is, alas, an element of the bien-pensant in Francis’s papacy, a tendency in his utterances and self-presentation to confirm widely held left-liberal elite opinions about politics and the world. (Theodore Dalrymple is particularly good on this subject.)

The consensus around Pope Francis is selective and tends toward the ideological. His admirers, and the pope himself sometimes, too, confuse Christian charity with secular humanitarianism. Francis’s ill-disciplined off-the-cuff remarks are treated with utmost seriousness, and the (considerable) part of his thought that is in continuity with his great predecessors is largely ignored, if not explained away. Among conservative Catholics there is deep and, I would suggest, excessive suspicion of the pope and a growing sense that he confuses his personal judgments, largely shaped by the Argentinian experience, with the full weight of Catholic wisdom.

How does one find one’s way in the midst of this confusion? How does one separate the admirable Christian witness of Pope Francis from what resembles a secular cult of personality? I would begin by suggesting that we take Pope Francis at his word and respectfully (and frankly) engage his thoughts and assumptions in the light of the tradition of Western political philosophy and the rich trove of wisdom inherent in the Catholic social tradition. We need a “hermeneutic of continuity” that forthrightly confronts Francis’s ample continuities and equally ample discontinuities with the great tradition that preceded him. We owe the pope both respect and the full exercise of the arts of intelligence.

Pope Francis’s May 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You) is a perfect illustration of these continuities and discontinuities. It has largely been received as a secular intervention in political life and one that has undoubtedly cheered the hearts of those committed to draconian measures to address climate change. This reading of the encyclical does not do justice to what is specifically Catholic about Laudato Si’. There is much about it that is thoroughly orthodox and even traditionalist in orientation. One does not have to be completely enamored of Saint Francis’s romantic personalization of the natural world (“Brother Sun, Sister Moon”) to be moved by the poetic theologizing about the created order that informs the first parts of the encyclical. Pope Francis repeats old Christian wisdom of a decidedly anti-modern cast when he laments the project of modern mastery which reduces human beings to “lords and masters” of nature. He affirms human uniqueness, a uniqueness “which transcends the spheres of physics and biology” (#81), even as he emphasizes our stewardship over the whole of creation. For Francis, that is the true meaning of human “dominion” and responsibility to Creation. Pope Francis enhances the very rich ecological reflections of his immediate predecessors, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI (see chapter 4 of Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate [Charity in Truth]), by providing the full theological grounds for a “deep communion” (#91) between human beings and the rest of nature. His regular reminders of human uniqueness (#81) prevent a drift toward pantheism or a mere romanticization of nature. However, as Father James V. Schall has noted in a commentary on the encyclical, Francis’s is more a theology of creation than a theology of redemption and is thus incomplete.

Pope Francis’s theological defense of biodiversity, which takes up much of the early part of the encyclical, probably understates the fact that organisms and species come and go quite independently of the alleged rapaciousness of human beings. Perhaps this shows the limits of a “Franciscan” personalization of nature, where nature and the living things of the world become our more than metaphorical “brothers” and “sisters.” Such thinking encourages stasis and ignores the dynamism inherent in nature and in human societies. This brings us to one more tension in the encyclical: A society that aims to be static, that simply rejects human mastery over nature, that attempts to preserve pristine nature as it is, all in the name of not “sinning” against creation, cannot meet the goal of providing “sustained and integral development” for the poor, a goal that is so central to Francis’s pontificate.

The best part of the encyclical is Part Three, on “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis.” There, Francis reminds us that technological progress is not coextensive with moral progress. This is a theme that goes back to Rousseau and Sismondi and that was repeated with eloquence and grace by 20th-century anti-totalitarians such as Solzhenitsyn and Havel. Francis reminds us of the central role that technology played in the murderous rampages of Communism and Nazism (#104). The pope draws on the insights of the conservative German Catholic theologian and philosopher Romano Guardini to the effect that an increase in power does not necessarily entail progress and cannot inform “the responsibility of choice that is inherent in freedom” (#105). In the best tradition of conservative moralism, he counsels “clear-minded self-restraint” and a “setting of limits.” Do his progressive admirers appreciate just how traditional these themes are? Francis’s critique of a one-dimensional “technological paradigm” (#108) that assumes that economics and technology can solve all our problems, without the help of virtue and self-limitation, is salutary and consistent with the best Catholic and conservative wisdom (here, I do not use the word conservative in any partisan American sense but refer to the broader moral tradition of the West that the Church — and men of good will outside the Church — wish to conserve).

Pope Francis is not wrong when he argues that “modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism” linked to a “Promethean vision of mastery over the world” (#116). Man is not God and should eschew all projects of human self-deification. He should not confuse the progress of the human soul with limitless technological or economic progress. All social progress demands respect for limits and efforts at self-limitation. These are words of wisdom that the secular world desperately needs to hear. At the same time, the Church needs to be open to the contribution that markets and technological innovation can make in addressing a problem such as climate change. The pope almost always identifies markets with greed, inequality, economic imperialism, and environmental degradation. His judgments about capitalism are far from equitable.

Moreover, he is completely silent about the horrendous environmental devastation that accompanied and characterized totalitarian socialist systems in the 20th century. This is a theme that Solzhenitsyn, who can be fairly described as a conservative green, repeatedly emphasized in writings such as Letter to the Soviet Leaders (1974) and Rebuilding Russia (1990). The concentration and centralization of state power went hand in hand with a brutal exploitation of nature and a complete lack of political accountability. Democratic capitalist systems, in contrast, have remarkable powers of self-correction. As George Will has argued, one has only to compare the levels of pollution in Dickens’s London with those in today’s London, or look at the remarkable transformation of the Thames over the past 50 years, to question Francis’s identification of capitalist “progress” with the accumulation of “debris, desolation, and filth” (#161) These are empirical judgments, and the pope has no special authority in this realm. He should avoid such invective, which stirs up passions rather than enlightens. He needs to exercise his judgment with the appropriate measure rather than assuming the truth of “doomsday scenarios” that automatically lead to “catastrophes” (#161). Occasionally, Pope Francis notes that “business is a noble vocation” that “is directed to producing wealth and improving the world” (#129). But he spends much more of his time excoriating the profit motive and lecturing his readers on the evils of air-conditioning (#55) and the full array of consumer goods. He even has a good word to say about subsistence farming, a way of life the poor are so desperate to escape that they flee to monstrously large, and dangerous, cities.

I want to say something about the place of the poor in Pope Francis’s reflections. He loves the poor and reminds us of our special duty to be concerned with their fate. At his best, he is a poet and theologian of charity. He can only be admired in that regard. Still, the biblical conception of the poor is not reducible to material poverty. One only has to think about the tension between the “poor” and the “poor in spirit” in the synoptic Gospels’ accounts of the Sermon on the Mount. The poor are not always victims (Aristotle argues they can be as rapacious and despotic as the rich), and terrible crimes were committed in the name of the poor or the “proletariat” in the 20th century. This summer, The Economist called Pope Francis a “Peronist,” correcting those who see in his social reflection a softness toward Marxism.

The characterization is apt. But as one observer has noted, Peronist populism created a “rancid political culture in Argentina,” one that emphasized class struggle and redistribution above lawful wealth-creation. Argentina went from being the 14th-richest country in the world in 1900 to the 63rd today. Sadly, one sees some evidence that Pope Francis is rather indulgent toward despotic regimes that speak in the name of the poor — his recent silence about the persecution of mainly Catholic dissidents in Cuba was deafening (the Cuban-born Catholic scholar Carlos Eire of Yale even wrote on the First Things website about a “preferential option for the oppressors”), and he was remarkably affable both with Cuba’s tyrant emeritus, Fidel Castro, and with the ever more dictatorial Evo Morales in Bolivia. This is disappointing, to say the least. The poor need political liberty, too, and the opportunities that come with private property and lawfully regulated markets. It is striking that Pope Francis has never reiterated the Church’s defense of private property, a central concern of Catholic social teaching going back to Pope Leo XIII (read the very forceful defense of private property — and trade unions — in Rerum Novarum [Of New Things] as well as that encyclical’s absolute condemnation of socialism). I will put the matter bluntly: A faithful Catholic is not obliged to be a Peronist. We are obliged to live the Gospel and to exercise prudential judgment, rooted in reality, and reflecting the best secular and Christian wisdom.

The pope should also be more careful about endorsing “a very solid scientific consensus” (#23), as he calls it, on the causes and likely results of climate change. As Father Schall has noted, “his is an opinion backed by some evidence.” But “satellite readings of the planet’s temperature are different from U.N. computer-generated statistics. The planet’s temperature has not changed in recent decades.” Climate change has always been a reality. Think of the “Little Ice Age,” which brought ice and bitter cold to North America and northern Europe for centuries. Some Russian scientists believe the global warming that has existed is attributable to changes in solar spots. One should also note that a considerable “scientific consensus” existed in support of the Club of Rome’s 1972 report that predicted, in dramatically apocalyptic tones, that the earth would run out of crucial resources by the year 2000. That model was also computer-generated. The “ecological conversion” (#216) recommended by the pope must avoid the secular apocalypticism that informs a good part of the environmental movement. As Pope Francis knows, and as the beautiful prayers that conclude his encyclical attest, we Christians worship the Triune God and not “Gaia” or Mother Earth.

Francis does not break with his predecessor, but he shows remarkable faith in the capacity of an elite of international technocrats to govern the world.

Pope Francis is admirably critical of abortion and population control as means of addressing our ecological “crisis.” He even criticizes “gender theory” (have you heard that reported in media accounts?). But the apocalyptic dimensions of the encyclical have won him some strange bedfellows. The Vatican invited the German scientist John Schellnhuber to Rome as one of the speakers when the encyclical was released, even though he is on record as saying that the earth can sustain only a billion people. There is a totalitarianism lurking in this German scientist’s assumptions. It is not one shared by Pope Francis — far from it. But why does the Vatican associate with scientists and publicists (the pro-abortion Naomi Klein also comes to mind) who are openly committed to an anti-Catholic and anti-human agenda? This is disheartening for faithful Catholics who also oppose political extremism.

Pope Francis mentions “subsidiarity” only once in his encyclical, but he waxes poetical about a “ true world political authority” (#175). When Pope Benedict raised the same issue in Charity in Truth, he cautioned against the potentially despotic effects of centralization and wrote about subsidiarity at great length. Francis does not break with his predecessor, but he shows, as First Things editor R. R. Reno has argued, remarkable faith in the capacity of an elite of international technocrats to govern the world. Will they be friendly to the Christian vision of the human person? Will they respect human liberty and the requirements of subsidiarity, of decentralization, and of a kind of self-government worthy of man? Shouldn’t Francis’s thought-provoking critique of “the technological paradigm” apply to the vision of a world state itself? These and other questions persist in an attentive reading of Laudato Si’.

To his credit, Francis has invited true debate and discussion from Catholics and all people of good will. Catholic social thought did not begin with this encyclical, nor will it end with it. We owe this pope our respect and our judgment. That’s what I’ve set out to offer here.

Daniel J. MahoneyMr. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., and is a National Review Institute trustee. He is the author, most recently, of The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity