The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pope Francis wants to roll back progress. Is the world ready?

Pope Francis delivers his speech at the Presidential palace in Ankara, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

This opinion piece is by Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor of First Things.

Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment, is the work of a profoundly pessimistic man. John Paul II may have spoken of the “culture of death” and Benedict XVI of the “dictatorship of relativism,” but not since the publication of the Syllabus of Errors in the nineteenth century has a leader of the Catholic church issued a document so imbued with foreboding. Critics will seize on his dark tone, but Francis’ letter offers a challenge worthy of serious consideration.

“People no longer seem to believe in a happy future,” he writes. “They no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history.”

[Pope Francis’s historic encyclical on climate change]

Despite these portents, we “do not grasp the gravity of the challenges before us,” nor the “spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.” “We stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it.” There are no clear solutions. “Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster.”

As evidence of the coming disaster, Francis adduces environmental calamities—climate change, pollution, deforestation, monoculture, extinction—and yet he leaves no doubt that the crisis is fundamentally a spiritual one. Its source is our desire to master and manipulate nature, which leads us to use technology that ends up mastering us.

Francis’ broadsides against technology are loaded with quotations from “The End of the Modern World,” a book written by the midcentury German priest Romano Guardini. Francis has a longstanding love of the German thinker who, like him, was the son of Italian émigrés and studied chemistry. Drawing on Guardini, the pope denounces the excessive use of air-conditioning, broods over genetically modified crops, worries about automobiles “causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy,” and pans “megastructures” that express “the spirit of a globalized technocracy.”

[10 key excerpts from Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment]

Fully realizing how anti-modern he sounds, Francis takes pains to praise the creativity of scientists and engineers. “Nobody is suggesting a return to the stone age.” His reassurance notwithstanding, Francis would not mind calling a halt to technological progress—or even beginning a rollback. “Given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late.”

Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas delivers in English a presentation on Pope Francis's environmental encyclical. (Video: The Vatican English)

What are the limits—and possible reversals—that Francis proposes? He calls for a “true world political authority.” Fossil fuels “need to be replaced without delay.” We should also consider taking public transit, car-pooling, planting trees, turning off the lights and recycling. Alongside these practical suggestions appear a few spiritual ones: saying prayers before and after meals, resting on the Sabbath, reconsidering Jubilee.

Where does the encyclical leave those skeptical of environmentalist diagnoses and prescriptions? “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” Francis writes. Nonetheless, Christians who with “the excuse of realism and pragmatism . . . tend to ridicule expression of concern for the environment” need “an ‘ecological conversion.’” This document may be remembered as the first time a pope has called for conversion to something other than Christianity, but for Francis there is no opposition between an ecological outlook and the Christian faith.

Indeed, Francis’ notion of “human ecology”—one of the document’s guiding terms—is hardly your standard-issue environmentalism. Part of respecting nature is “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity.” He also states that “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.”

* * *

In the nineteenth century, Pope Gregory XVI banned railroads from the papal states, calling them chemins d’enfer, or ways of hell, a play on their French name, chemins de fer, or ways of iron. His fear was that they would spread bourgeois and republican ideas subversive to papal authority and right faith. Gregory’s belief that technology profoundly shapes belief and so must be carefully weighed and, at times, resisted is the central conviction of Francis’s new encyclical. Whatever one thinks of any particular condemnation from Gregory or Francis—be it of planes, trains, or automobiles—this is not a foolish view of technology.

[What you need to know about Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical]

One of the books Francis cites most frequently is Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World. The dystopian novel imagines a future in which religion has nearly disappeared but the Pope now reigns in Rome, having exchanged all the church’s other properties in Italy for sovereignty of the city. One of his first acts is to ban technology, reasoning that “on the whole the latter-day discoveries of man tended to distract immortal souls from a contemplation of eternal verities.”

He admits that the banned technologies are “good in themselves, since after all they gave insight into the wonderful laws of God.” Nonetheless, he judges “that at present they were too exciting to the imagination.” His conclusion, one very close to Francis’ in Laudato Si, leads him to remove “the trams . . . the laboratories, the manufactories.” And so, Benson writes, “the trains ceased to run.”

Francis’ encyclical synthesizes the great cultural critiques of his two most recent predecessors—Benedict XVI’s “dictatorship of relativism” and John Paul II’s “culture of death”—in terms of opposition to the locomotive of technological rationality. Francis writes that “We should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm, the rise of a relativism,” which leads to sexual exploitation, abandonment of the elderly, and the taking of innocent life. Francis identifies a “throwaway culture,” what John Paul II called the culture of death. In Laudato Si, Francis reframes the philosophical points of his predecessors in more technological and ecological terms. He is opposing modernism—that old antagonist of the Church—not just as a philosophical proposition but also as a material reality.

Of course, neither a one-world authority nor a thriftier use of electricity nor a ban on trains can solve the spiritual crisis Francis foresees. In one of the best moments of the fascinating, sprawling encyclical, he rejects solutionism—that false belief that life is a series of problems that we must solve rather than live—as yet another aspect of technological rationality. This does not mean that his many suggestions are in vain, for they all aim to goad the reader—believer or unbeliever—toward a life of self-sacrifice. Whether or not this kind of ecological conversion can be sustained without a Christian conversion, one can be grateful that Francis has offered not so much a set of solutions as a great challenge.

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