Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (3)

Having witnessed to the empirical facts of what is actually being observed in the environment of our common home and then having put forward the theological premise from which the Church speaks to address what she observes, the Pope now turns in Chapter 3 to The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis, which the Holy Father locates in "the dominant technocratic paradigm and the place of human beings and of human action in the world" (101).

Whatever our views on technology, few (if any) of us actually aspire to be Luddites. Like most of us, Pope Francis recognizes and appreciates the multiple benefits human life and society have reaped from technological advances. "The modification of nature for useful purposes has distinguished the human family from the beginning" (102). And, in a sure-to-be cited soundbite, he says: "Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age" (114). That said, however, it must be recognized that modern progress has given humanity unprecedented power. Pope Francis quotes Romano Guardini: "contemporary man has not been trained to use power well" (105). It is in this human misuse of the power provided by technological advances that the problem lies, in "the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm." One harmful consequence has been the acceptance by "economists, financiers and experts in technology" of "the idea of unlimited growth" - an idea the Pope bluntly labels as "based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods" (106).

Reading this section transports me back to New Jersey in the mid-1970s. It reminds me of a research project of one of my professors that I was somewhat associated with in graduate school and that pushed me further in my very brief academic career to examine the intersections of religion and political philosophy to articulate alternatives to abundance. In other words, these issues are not new. We are, as a world-wide human community, just very late in seriously addressing them!

Then as now, it has been my experience that, when we talk about such subjects, we easily lapse into mystified language (e.g,, market forces), which obscure human agency and the service of special interests. In contrast, the Holy Father explicitly de-mystifies what ideology and politics have aspired to hide. Thus, he asserts "technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups" (107).

In keeping with the encyclical's style, certain themes are repeated and certain points of controversy regularly returned to. Thus the Pope again defends Christian anthropology from misinterpretation as "a Promethean vision of mastery over the world" (116) and again separates his teaching from imbalanced "biocentrism" (118). Again, he explicitly links healing our relationship with nature with "healing all fundamental human relationships" (119), and adds another explicit condemnation of abortion (120). "Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion" (120). Likewise, when warning against new boundary-breaking biological technologies, he specifically warns against experimentation on embryos, for "the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development" and "technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power" (136)

And again, addressing the value of work and the need to protect employment, the encyclical follows very traditional ground, citing Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes), Blessed Paul VI (Populorum Progressio), Saint John Paul II (Laborem Exercens), and Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate). Personally, I was particularly pleased to see an acknowledgment of the revolutionary character of monasticism's valuing of manual labor (126) and the mention of Blessed Charles d Foucauld's "rich and balanced understanding of the meaning of work" (125).

All in all, the takeaway from this section seems to me to be a very traditional Catholic critique of the dominant technocratic paradigm, enriched by what we might call some pointed political and economic interest-group analysis.

One final observation that struck me rather vividly was the Pope's criticism of much contemporary architecture. "If architecture reflects the spirit of an age," Francis writes in words which might delight that famous critic of 20th-century architecture, the Prince of Wales, "our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony" (113). In that same spirit, what might one say about the multitude of ugly modern churches, more reminiscent of commercial shopping outlets than sites to inspire life-enhancing worship of the transcendent?

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