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17 March 2017

Pope Francis’s Humanitarian Version of Catholic Wisdom

Pope Francis’s May 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You) is a perfect illustration of these continuities and discontinuities. There is much about it that is thoroughly orthodox and even traditionalist. 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, “which transcends the spheres of physics and biology”, and emphasises our stewardship over the whole of creation. Nonetheless, as Father James V. Schall, SJ, has argued, Francis’s is noticeably more a theology of creation than a theology of redemption and is thus incomplete. Francis’s theological defence of biodiversity probably understates the fact that organisms and species come and go quite independently of the alleged rapaciousness of human beings. This brings us to a fundamental tension in his encyclical: a society 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 also central to Francis’s pontificate.

Francis reminds us that technological progress is not coextensive with moral progress. He recounts the central role that technology played in the murderous rampages of Communism and Nazism. In the best tradition of conservative moralism, he counsels “clear-minded self-restraint” and a “setting of limits”. His critique of a one-dimensional “technological paradigm” 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.

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”. Man is not God and should eschew all projects of human self-deification. 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. Yet he remains tepid on the contribution that markets and technological innovation can make in addressing a problem such as climate change. He almost always identifies markets with greed, inequality, economic imperialism and environmental degradation. Moreover, he is silent about the horrendous environmental devastation that accompanied and characterised totalitarian socialist systems in the twentieth century. 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 fifty years, to question Francis’s identification of capitalist “progress” with the accumulation of debris, desolation and filth”. To be sure, Francis occasionally notes that “business is a noble vocation” that “is directed to producing wealth and improving the world”. But such balanced statements occur relatively infrequently; Francis spends much more time excoriating profit motives and lecturing on the evils of air-conditioning 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.)

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