I was waiting for the release of the most recent Papal Encyclical, but not because I expected to enjoy it. I was expecting lots of moral exhortations and maybe some platitudes wrapped in Catholic theology. And Laudato Si certainly did not disappoint on that front.
I was also expecting the inevitable wave of opinion pieces on the Encyclical, anticipating widespread confirmation bias from all perspectives. Per usual, people exercised the power of confirmation bias to read it as an endorsement of whatever they like or a stinging critique of whatever they don’t like. Or in the case of Mr. Ferrara over at the Remnant, as a stinging critique of whatever they like. Ferrara was joined in his dissent by Lawrence Krauss over at Scientific American. Both seemed rather dismayed by what they see as the ideological perspective of the Encyclical, albeit for very different reasons.
For Ferrara, Laudato Si is an ideological exposition which sets the Pope firmly in the camp of secularists and Neo-Catholics who believe all that climate change stuff, a camp full of 60s and 70s era hippie nonsense whence came a tsunami of heresy to turn the barque of Peter over on its side, barely staying afloat. It’s the camp of the crunchy environmentalist types who believe everything Teilhard de Chardin ever wrote (to the extent that they have even bothered to read his work, which it’s fair to wager that many haven’t).
For Krauss, Laudato Si is an ideological exposition as well, the good part of the ideology being the acknowledgement of climate change and the human role in causing the changes, the bad part of the ideology being the opposition to using contraception and abortion to slow down the human use of planetary resources. It sets the Pope firmly in the camp of reactionary religious types who just want to control women’s bodies no matter what the cost to the environment. It’s also the camp of folks who don’t think that we can just improve our technology to resolve the issue.
These sorts of seemingly anachronistic elements of Laudato Si for the modern reader are why it was suggested that this is a return of Catholic anti-modernism. To be fair, it fits with other behaviors of Pope Francis, such as his frequent mentions of the devil as a real and active influence on the world, mentions which can be very unsettling to many in the West who don’t like talking about evil and evil spirits. While some are proposing that it’s Catholic anti-modernism, the view of Catholic Traditionalists seems to be that it is precisely an exhortation to embrace modernism, which they understand to be a synthesis of errors.
And to be fair, the positive response from quarters in which there is usually little love for the Catholic Church has given Traditionalists reason to think that it’s a modernist treatise, though it’s not as if they were not already primed to believe that. So is Laudato Si an exemplar of modernist heresy in the church, or is it infected with anti-modernist notions? I can’t really conclude that it’s a case of either anti-modernism or modernism.
Even the word cloud evidence seems to suggest that it is primarily a statement of Christian anthropology, an alternative to the juvenile anthropology that plagues the post-industrial modern world with its rejection of virtue. The biggest focus of Laudato Si is the ways in which human beings must take moral responsibility for how we spend our money, for how we treat our planet, how we work, and how we live out our perspective on the value of human life, (though that last part isn’t necessarily mentioned often by the National “Catholic” Reporter).
Is the Encyclical a good one? I’ll get back to that question after the dust has settled, but what I can suggest is that Laudato Si is probably not the ideological droid any of the usual suspects is looking for. It’s an anthropological statement which takes a deeper and more mature understanding of what it is to be fully human as its starting point to oppose other anthropological visions which are almost always reducing human beings to merely one part of what it is to be fully human.