PAUL COLLINS. Back to Nature

May 28, 2020

It is five years this week since Pope Francis published perhaps the most radical and important papal encyclical ever issued, Laudato si’, mi’ Signore (‘Praise be to you, my Lord’) on ‘care for our common home.’

Laudato si’ [LS] is a challenging and critical reflection on the whole structure of life and culture in the contemporary world, while still confronting some deeply held, but destructive Christian traditions. LS moves theology away from the notion that we are stewards of the earth to use as we decide, because we alone are made in the image and likeness of God, to an all-embracing sense of our biological embeddedness in the earth and our intimate connection with it.

In a post-modern age of fragmented thought, Francis takes an integrated approach that essentially calls us to a kind of cultural revolution. ‘Rather than a problem to be solved,’ Francis says, ‘the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.’ Much more important than Francis’ repudiation of much of the politics, economics, technology, capitalist theory and denialist rhetoric of the post-modern world, is the theological, philosophical and ethical revolution that he points towards. He radically questions anthropocentric human dominance over nature and he reintegrates humankind back into the biological matrix from which we emerged by emphasising the connectedness of all reality.

LS gives no comfort to a boring bevy of contrarians like global warming deniers, or technologies ‘based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal,’ or environmental wreckers who strip the earth of natural forests, destroy wetlands or marine environments, or those who have ‘blind confidence in technical solutions.’ Francis is critical of thinking ‘of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves.’ He says that we are biologically intimately connected to the world because ‘a good part of our genetic code is shared by many living things.’ Nature, he says, ‘cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves, or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature.’

We are part of nature: this is a message that runs right through LS as Francis radically re-situates and re-roots humankind in the natural world.

He is also critical of short-term politics and is openly contemptuous of the lack of vision of the world’s leadership cadre. Politicians, he says, are besotted with ‘the mindset of short-term gain.’ What is needed, he says, is ‘a healthy politics…capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming… bureaucratic inertia.’ Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has critically, but correctly understood that the encyclical is far more than just an attack on climate change deniers. He sees it as a critique of ‘the whole “technological paradigm” of our civilization, of all the ways (economic and cultural) that we live now.’ That’s right, because Francis is unequivocally saying that we cannot continue along the trajectory on which we are now headed because it will lead to environmental and human catastrophe.

The final chapter of LS is a profound meditation on the Christian contribution to ecological spirituality with Francis highlighting the call to ‘ecological conversion.’ He says this conversion ‘entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift… [and] a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.’ He sets out a process that begins with abandoning the consumerist lifestyle and ‘taking an honest look at ourselves [acknowledging] our deep dissatisfaction and embarking on new paths to authentic freedom.’ Christian spirituality, he says, ‘proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little.’

He also says that ‘the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.’ The word ‘anthropocentrism’ crops-up regularly in LS, usually in a negative context. He re-enforces this negativity by saying that ‘nowadays, we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures…[Rather] this implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.’ Thomas Berry says that anthropocentrism is rooted in ‘our failure to think of ourselves as a species, interconnected with and biologically interdependent on the rest of reality.’ He says that we have become besotted with ‘the pathos of the human’ and take ourselves and our needs as the focus, norm, and final arbiter of all that exists. What Francis has done is undermine 1750 years of anthropocentrism. For most of its history Christianity denigrated the body and matter; materiality was seen as antithetical to spiritual growth and the search for God.

Francis also says that ‘anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to resolve present problems and adding new ones.’ I’m not so sure of that. There will always be tension between humans and the environment, especially when we become greedy, or when there are too many of us. To protect the natural world, I would argue that the primary ethical principle has to be biocentric, that is the earth comes first; without it, we will be homeless. As Francis says, the natural world is not derived from us and, I would add, transcends us. We have to move beyond an anthropocentric to a biocentric ethic.

But on the topic of population Francis sadly reverts to the stances of his papal predecessors. Speaking about global inequality, he says that some people narrow our environmental problems to ‘a reduction in the birth-rate … To blame population growth instead of extreme… consumerism…is one way of refusing to face the issues.’ That’s unfair, given that those concerned about over-population also strongly support lowering consumerist living standards. He is also critical of ‘reproductive health’ and claims that ‘demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.’ He then seems to moderate that by saying that ‘attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels’ and concedes that a rise in consumption in developing countries, would result in environmental pollution, as well as ‘loss of resources and quality of life.’ Francis says we must hear “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” [italics in original]. He sees the two as intimately interconnected.

The dismissive reference to ‘reproductive health,’ casting it as a kind of UN-inspired, Western plot to stop the poor having children is particularly unfortunate. It may reflect his Argentinian background, it may be there to bolster various African bishops’ conferences, who claim it is ‘cultural’ for Africans to have big families. This is an unfortunate stance because it is precisely at the local level where religion plays an important educational role. In many developing countries churches provide a supportive and caring community where reproductive information can be made available and where women and couples can discuss moral issues with informed people.

If there is one glaring omission in an otherwise impressive papacy, it is Francis’ failure to recognize the contribution of women. While he has talked condescendingly about the so-called ‘feminine genius,’ he has done nothing structural about acknowledging women’s absolute equality as human beings and baptised members of the church. This is a major blind spot for him.

Nevertheless, LS signals a major shift in Catholicism away from its obsessive anthropocentric preoccupation with gender, sexual and reproductive issues, towards a biocentric focus that helps us begin to see ourselves as part of a wonderful creation and not inhabitants of a ‘vale of tears.’

Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer and former head of the religion and ethics department of the ABC.

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