Embracing Our Limits

Lord Williams of Oystermouth on Laudato Si’: Part 1

Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment is that it is an entirely natural development not only of the theology of Evangelii gaudium but also—as the extensive citations show—of the theology of Pope Benedict XVI, especially as found in Caritas in veritate. Both the Pope's critics and his supporters have often missed the point: Benedict's Christian humanism, his consistent theology of the dignity of the human person, his concern for a culture in which there is no longer a viable understanding of any given order independent of human will—all this is reiterated with force and clarity by Pope Francis.

This encyclical is emphatically not charting a new course in papal theology, and those who speak as if this were the case have not been reading either pope with attention. What is uncomfortable for some is that a number of points, clearly but briefly made by the previous pontiff, have been drawn out in unmistakable terms. The fact that we live in a culture tone-deaf to any sense of natural law is here starkly illustrated by the persistent tendency of modern human agents to act as though the naked fact of personal desire for unlimited acquisition were the only "given" in the universe, so that ordinary calculations of prudence must be ignored. Measureless acquisition, consumption, or economic growth in a finite environment is a literally nonsensical idea; yet the imperative of growth remains unassailable, as though we did not really inhabit a material world.

It is this fantasy of living in an endlessly adjustable world, in which every physical boundary can be renegotiated, that shapes the opening reflections of the encyclical and pervades a great deal of its argument. The paradox, noted by a good many other commentators, is that our supposed "materialism" is actually a deeply anti-material thing. The plain thereness of the physical world we inhabit tells us from our first emergence into consciousness that our will is not the foundation of everything—and so its proper working is essentially about creative adjustment to an agenda set not by our fantasy but by the qualities and complexities of what we encounter.

The material world tells us that to be human is to be in dialogue with what is other: what is physically other, what is humanly other in the solid three-dimensionality of other persons, ultimately what is divinely other. And in a world created by the God Christians believe in, this otherness is always communicating: meaning arises in this encounter, it is not devised by our ingenuity. Hence the pope's significant and powerful appeal to be aware of the incalculable impact of the loss of biodiversity: it is not only a loss of resource but a diminution of meaning. "Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us" (33).

The argument of these opening sections of Laudato si' repeatedly points us back to a fundamental lesson: we as human beings are not the source of meaning or value; if we believe we are, we exchange the real world for a virtual one, a world in which—to echo Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty—the only question is who is to be master. A culture in which managing limits is an embarrassing and unwelcome imperative is a culture that has lost touch with the very idea of a world, let alone a created world (i.e., one in which a creative intelligence communicates with us and leads us into meanings and visions we could not have generated ourselves). The discussion in Chapter III of the obsessive pursuit of novelty in our lives draws out very effectively how the multiplication of pure consumer choice produces not greater diversity or liberty but a sense of endless repetition of the same and a lack of hope in the future. Once again, the underlying issue is the loss of meaning.

It is fully in keeping with this general perspective that what Pope Francis has to say about the rights and dignities of the unborn (120) is seamlessly connected with the dangers of a culture of ‘disposability' in which the solid presence of those others who do not instantly appear to contribute to our narrowly conceived well-being can so readily be forgotten. Ultimately, as the Pope lucidly puts it, ‘when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided' (123). Battling about legal controls is pointless unless we are able to persuade people of the human richness of a culture informed by that radical openness to meaning that is ready to leave behind the calculations of profit and public utility as the only tests of success and political viability. The encyclical makes various points in its later sections about the need for a robust international legal framework for addressing our environmental crisis, but its focal concern is that we should face the need for à bold cultural revolution" (114).

This article was first published in Commonweal on 23 September 2015, and appears here by permission. It will be continued next month. ND

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