In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes: 'There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology' (§118). Arguably this is what makes Pope Francis’ approach to ecology different from other modern forms of environmentalism: at its heart, there is an abiding respect for the value and dignity of human life, from conception to natural death.
One of the primary reasons why ecology is important, he argues, is because the debasement of the natural world inevitably results in the debasement of human life (§5). Ecological movements that do not value human life and happily justify experimentation on living embryos, for instance, do not have the moral credibility or ethical principles necessary to deal with the real problem (§136).
The real problem is the way in which humanity has allowed its understanding of itself to be shaped by the power of technology. Pope Francis refers to it as a globalised “technocratic paradigm”. Let’s break this idea down.
The development of technology has inarguably benefited humanity as a whole. So many of the advances in medicine, engineering, communications and techno-science have improved the quality of human life and eased the burden under which people have languished for millennia. We no longer wait for the earth to give to us but we have the power to adapt the earth to our needs in extraordinary ways (§106). Gratitude for this time in history is not only warranted but necessary.
Yet, we have told ourselves a lie. That lie, Pope Francis writes (quoting the great Catholic writer Romano Guardini) is this: 'that every increase in power means "an increase of progress itself" . . . as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.' What advances in power need to be accompanied by is conscience: awareness of the moral norms that govern human life. Our 'immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.' The lack of a 'sound ethics, a culture and spirituality' means technology ceases to be an exercise in freedom and becomes something we hand our freedom over to (§105). The result of this is that technological prowess becomes the moral norm that governs our life, as if there is nothing outside of that.
And that is technocracy: the human person standing before creation as if it is a formless void, using technical and scientific and experimental methodology to gain mastery over it with no other ethical principle at play except for the methodology itself (§106).
This mentality is so entrenched that even the pope admits thinking outside of it seems almost impossible, especially since we rely so heavily upon its resources (§108). The way technology works is subtle, too. Nothing is neutral.
Pope Francis writes:
'We have to accept that 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 Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build' (§107, emphasis added).
Because this way of thinking is so entrenched, partial responses won’t do the trick either. Somehow, there must be a combination of multiple things: 'a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm' (§111).
But what kind of spirituality could possibly reshape the way we think about the world?
Pope Francis dedicates the final chapter to exploring the Catholic spiritual tradition and what it has to offer this immense topic. There is one particular aspect of Catholic spirituality he discusses that can help remedy the way we see ourselves and creation as a whole: the Eucharist.
Properly speaking, there is a cosmic dimension to the Eucharist. It is 'the living centre of the universe' (§236). It is an act of cosmic love. He quotes Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia:
Yes, cosmic! . . . It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing . . . the world which comes forth from the hands of God the Creator now returns to him redeemed by Christ (§8).
No account of the created, natural world is complete without seeing Christ as its centre: the one who redeems physical life in its entirety and is the end towards which everything tends.
As St Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: 'But creation still retains the hope of being freed, like us, from its slavery to decadence, to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God' (8:21-22).
The Eucharist is the pledge and promise for us of this final transfiguration of everything that exists (LS, §237). It should therefore shape everything about the way we live. We should live as if the world is going to be transfigured by Christ. Acting with justice towards creation, which inevitably involves justice towards the human person, is integral to acting as if creation itself is caught up in the redemptive work of Christ.
The fact that the Eucharist is a new Sabbath celebration is significant, too. In the Old Testament, the day of rest was an opportunity to heal people’s relationship with God and with each other and with the land (Exodus 23:12). It wasn’t simply about personal rest but had economic and political implications, too. It meant that there was restraint on 'unfettered greed and sense of isolation which makes us seek personal gain to the detriment of all else' (§237). It opened people’s eyes to the bigger picture of what creation was all about.
To renew this sense of Sabbath rest in our own time will be essential to cultivating a Eucharistic spirituality that can speak to today’s ecological questions.
Social Justice Sunday 2021
Each year, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference produces a Social Justice Statement focusing on a key area of importance to the Church. This year's Social Justice Statement Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor provides theological foundations to ground and inspire efforts to care for creation while responding to the needs of the disadvantaged and excluded. The Statement can be downloaded online along with other multimedia and liturgical resources.