Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ of May 2015 is the first major document of the magisterium devoted to our material environment, “on care for our common home,” as the formal title of the encyclical runs. But this hardly means that the document or its contents constitutes an innovation in Catholic thought. Speaking only of magisterial documents, we find numerous pronouncements of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI devoted to the subject, including large sections of Benedict’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, as well as several sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that set forth the fundamental principles for a Catholic view of the natural environment.1 But well before the Church had officially taken notice of the damage that mankind was afflicting on its God-given home, individual Catholic writers of note had already called attention to environmental degradation. Christopher Dawson, for example, wrote as long ago as 1935 of “the very face of nature [being] changed by the destruction of the countryside and the pollution of the earth and the air and the waters.”2 And the Irish priest, Fr. Denis Fahey, in his 1953 book, The Church and Farming, devoted considerable space to what he called “the ravages of agri-industry,” and included an entire chapter which discussed in considerable detail the benefits of organic farming and the deleterious effects of chemical fertilizers. Indeed, Fr. Fahey explained the Cartesian roots of modern farming, and contrasted the philosophy underlying these destructive practices with principles drawn from the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.
It is hardly surprising that it took some time for the Church herself, on an official level, to turn her attention to these problems, since they were not widely recognized until the 1960s. Pope Francis, however, has done a service to the Church and put together in one document so many of the principles, drawn from both reason and revelation, that should guide us in thinking about the environment, and as such serve as the ethical basis for our behavior toward the created world.
There is much of interest in Laudato Si’, including a restatement of the fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching as enunciated by popes from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, that economic efficiency, as that is understood by most economists, still less the interests and profits of the powerful, cannot rightly override the economy’s primary function of serving mankind. For the most part Pope Francis discusses Catholic social doctrine here as that pertains to man’s impact on the environment, and so I intend to focus on what seems to me the encyclical’s major achievement, its penetrating critique of what he calls the technocratic paradigm, the fundamental way that our civilization, including its economic system, thinks about and makes use of technology in its attempt to dominate the natural world. This discussion is centered in sections 106 through 114 of the encyclical.
Section 106 presents the basic points of this critique as follows:
[H]umanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery, and transformation…. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers, and experts in technology.
Modern man is almost drunken with his ability to dominate and control nature with the “technique of possession, mastery, and transformation.” According to this understanding of man’s relationship with his environment, the latter exists solely in order to be used by us, but not only used by “receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand,” but by exploiting and “attempting to extract everything possible from [nature] while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.” It is not a matter of working with nature, but of twisting her and wresting from her not only what is in accord with her natural potentialities, but of anything and everything which our technique can manage to extort.
This has affected even the way we think. Section 107 notes the “tendency…to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm….” It not only becomes very difficult for many people to imagine ways of dealing with the dilemmas of human existence which do not involve exploitative technology, but even worse, too many think that it is by technology alone that such difficulties can be dealt with. “Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom, and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished”.3 Both those who look favorably on the consumption of genetically modified food and those who support the use of drugs or surgery to alter a person’s sexual characteristics according to the supposed demands of his “gender identity,” are equally slaves of this technocratic way of thinking. To both groups there is nothing strange about human actions which directly mutilate or distort what nature presents to us. In the former case we show how little we respect the varying natures of created things, their natural capacities and inclinations, the possible dangers inherent in interfering with them,4 and in the latter we subordinate the created bodily structure of the human person to an act of human hubris and will, showing not the slightest interest in finding out why anyone might feel so alienated from his own body as to wish to violently alter it chemically or surgically, nor what such alienation might indicate about his psychic health. It is impossible or very difficult for those enslaved to the technocratic paradigm to think that there is any other way of providing for man’s needs than by “a technique of possession, mastery, and transformation.”
Francis also points out the cumulative effect of our technological decisions on our ways of living.
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.5
We have built our entire society upon these technological premises, especially in North America. Multi-lane highways and ever more numerous parking lots are only two of the more obvious ways in which we have altered the physical environment itself in accord with the perceived demands of our technology, in blind and unthinking obedience to its demands. Instead of asking whether it is a healthy and wise use of land—a gift from the Creator which is irreplaceable and strictly limited—to pave over farmland or woods or meadows for an ever-growing number of automobiles, we take the path of least resistance, and refuse to consider the possibility of making any far-reaching changes in our way of living. Thus with every decision we become more dependent on the structures and limits created by our previous decisions, so dependent that we cannot imagine any other way of living and organizing society. We forget that every technological decision tends to create a way of living, or strengthens one already in existence, which then becomes all the more difficult to undo or reverse later on. “The effects of this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life”.6 Of course, none of this is to say that technological development as such is evil, but rather that technology, like all products of fallen humanity, must be judged on more than its ability to do something faster, cheaper or easier, but rather according to its impact on human life, individually and corporately, and that an attitude of mind which sees the created world as simply raw material for man’s exploitations is wrong.
In section 110 Francis takes up one of the ways of thinking which is in part a direct result of this technological paradigm.
The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant.
Technology and the kind of science upon which it is built are very adept at breaking down a perceived difficulty into its constituent parts, and at devising methods of overcoming these difficulties. But as to whether or why the difficulty should be overcome, such science knows nothing and can know nothing. It simply assumes a technocratic solution to the difficulty. Thus any difficulty becomes simply a “problem” to be solved by the invention or application of technology, in the cheapest and fastest way possible. Any effects such use of technology has on mankind, on our culture or even our physical health, is of little or no interest.
In response to this oppressive technocratic reasoning Francis proposes nothing less than “a distinctive way of looking at 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”.7 What such a “resistance” might mean, the Pontiff suggests later in the encyclical in section 191. “But we need to grow in the conviction that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development.” For many people any suggestion that “a decrease in the pace of production and consumption” could ever be a rational choice seems simply madness, but that is because such people have already surrendered to the logic both of technology and of the market. While it is true that many in the world exist in poverty, it is not primarily they who are consumed with the desire for ever more and more goods. The ordinary materialist American way of looking at this is well expressed in the following by the well-known economist, the late Paul Samuelson.
An objective observer would have to agree that, even after two centuries of rapid economic growth, production in the United States is simply not high enough to meet everyone’s desires. If you add up all the wants, you quickly find that there are simply not enough goods and services to satisfy even a small fraction of everyone’s consumption desires. Our national output would have to be many times larger before the average American could live at the level of the average doctor or big-league baseball player.8
It is simply assumed here that the claimed desire of everyone to “live at the level of the average doctor or big-league baseball player” must be accepted without demur. This in itself is a good example of how a social or human science such as economics, modeling itself on the technique of technocratic physical science, simply assumes its aims as given and considers its task simply as generating means to satisfy those aims. Economics, as understood by the majority of its practitioners today, looks upon the world with a kind of tunnel vision, never asking what the point is of piling up stuff and more stuff, other than the fulfilling of man’s limitless desires. (This is to omit mention of its blindness toward the fact that those who possess economic and political power will almost always shape an economy in the direction of fulfilling their limitless desires, at the expense of the rest of us.)
In section 114 Francis repeats with a slightly different emphasis what he said earlier, “Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions are in play and can take on distinct shapes.” The intentions of those who hold power almost always affect not only the use of technology, but the very inventions themselves. It is not an accident, for example, that expensive research, much of it funded by the government, has gone into creating farm machinery unsuited for small farms, but designed to increase the profits of agri-business. This fact might remind us of one of the major themes of C.S. Lewis’ novel, That Hideous Strength. There Professor Filostrato avows to Mark Studdock, “All that talk about the power of Man over Nature—Man in the abstract—is only for the canaglia. You know as well as I do that Man’s power over Nature means the power of some men over other men with Nature as the instrument.” And as Lewis points out as well in his book, The Abolition of Man, the kind of science that has created the technocratic paradigm is not content to work upon the external world. Man himself is its next and perhaps last object. Another writer puts it, “But, since man, too, had become an object of science like all the rest, why would what was true for the external world be any less true for man himself?”9
Once the human mind is shaped by the technocratic paradigm it looks upon everything it surveys as simply material for manipulation. There is no logical reason to say about any portion of the created world, “Hands off!” What is required in order to resist and reverse this way of thinking is to realize that it is poisoned at its root. If we think of any part of nature as merely material from which “to extract everything possible,” then we will soon think that way about everything, including ourselves. Let us seek then, however impossible it might seem, to “generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm,” to propose another way of thinking and living to our fellow men, a way that for Catholics at least ought to be the natural and obvious way of living, consistent with the deepest insights of our philosophical and theological tradition. That there are environmentalists whose principles are anything but those of sound philosophy need not disturb us, for we can champion this resistance based on our own traditions, on the thinking of St. Thomas, on the settled teachings of moral theology, and perhaps we can even teach others that there are better principles than those they know by which to promote “care for our common home.” In any case, both present exigencies and the moral demands of our Faith leave us little choice: We must resist the technocratic paradigm or become victims of it ourselves.
- On environmental teaching in the Catechism, see my article, “Catholicism and the Natural World: A Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 337-344 and 2415-2418,” originally published in The Catholic Faith (November/December 1999).
- “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind” in Dynamics of World History, 203.
- Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 108.
- But see sections 133-34 for a specific treatment of genetically modified food. For an excellent discussion of this issue, see Peter Kwasniewski, “Genetically Modified Organisms: a Catholic’s Animadversions,” originally published in Second Spring, 2006.
- Laudato Si’, no. 107.
- Ibid., no. 111.
- Paul Samuelson, Microeconomics (17th ed., 2001), 4.
- Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, 406.