After today’s post, we will have passed the half way point of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’, exploring the main scientific, social, and theological issues concerning ecology. Just as a refresher of where we have been, in chapter one, Pope Francis drew our attention to specific ecological problems that are in need of being addressed. In chapter two, Pope Francis provided a theological framework to interpret our ecological decisions, drawing heavily upon Scripture, the theological vision of Romano Guardini, and the Sacramental Ecology of Eastern Christianity. This post will reflect upon chapters three and four of Laudato Si’, in which Pope Francis addresses technology’s impact on nature and, lastly, explores a vision of “integral ecology” to move us away from radical anthropocentrism, developing a solidarity with all of creation. Therefore, let’s dig into the meat of these chapters!
Chapter Three: Developing a “Tech Ethic”
At the beginning of chapter three of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis lays out the positives and negatives of what our technological world has produced. This balanced presentation of the relationship between technology and the world is a trademark of social encyclicals going back to Leo XIII’s work, Rerum Novarum. The reason that Church documents have displayed this balance is to avoid the polemical attitude of seeing technology as purely good or purely evil. The tipping point between the poles of technology as gift and technology as curse is something our society is all too familiar with: Power.
There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”, as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us. “The risk is growing day by day that man will not use his power as he should”; in effect, “power is never considered in terms of the responsibility of choice which is inherent in freedom” since its “only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security”. But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint. (Laudato Si’, 105)
This paragraph illuminates a major point that most commentators are glossing over in their presentations of Laudato Si’: the moral and ethical dimensions of how we use technology. Harkening back to my reference to Leo XIII, the Industrial Revolution pushed the “technological snowball” down the hill, leading to advancements in technology that humanity has struggled to keep up with. Often times, the ethical and moral dimensions of these technologies have not been explored due to the speed of which these developments have taken place. Therefore, let us explore some practical applications of how we can look at the ethics and morality of technology.
Instead of exploring the geo-political aspects of what I will call “Tech Ethics,” I would prefer to focus upon the ethical and moral dimensions of technology that impacts people in their daily lives. For starters, let’s explore the ethical and moral questions of the “world” that is allowing this post to exist: The Internet. The virtual world of “cyber space” carries in its very name an “other worldly” or metaphysical implication. However, unlike the metaphysical vision of the Kingdom of God, the world of the Internet came into existence with no real ethical or moral parameters. It became evident to many, including the Church, that cyber space presented an opportunity for an incredible amount of good (check out Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s statement on the 44th World Communications Day for example). However, very sad instances of dehumanization ranging from bullying, financial exploitation, pornography, and predatory stalking have begged for a moral vision in cyberspace to ensure the safety of its users. Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that the world is still “behind the times” in discovering a moral and ethical framework for cyberspace. To this day, many have been hurt, exploited, lost their jobs, or have lost their will to live when embracing the false ethic of, “If I can post it, then I will post it!”
Obsession with cyber space can also lead to social decay as people seek more and more to connect with others in the virtual world, but fail to connect with friends in the real world. As much as the Internet has enhanced the positive aspects of connecting us as a global community, we also must acknowledge that a danger lurks when healthy boundaries on our use of cyber space are absent. Unrestrained use of the Internet can lead to a complete detachment from the natural world in favor of reducing reality to the virtual world, leading to emotional and psychological difficulties. From this standpoint, we can apply Laudato Si’ to help society avoid creating a “neo-gnositcism” in regard to cyber space, wishing to detach ourselves from the natural world to live in an overly idealized metaphysics of video games and social media. Rather, we are to remain grounded in the natural world, discovering a true metaphysics of God’s love that can, in turn, be shared through the tool of cyberspace, inviting people who may be lost and broken to “unplug” for a while and discover healing and peace through God’s love.
This example of the Internet is only one among many practical issues we face when answering the question of how technology impacts the environment in which we live. Pope Francis makes it very clear that technology is here to stay, having interwoven itself into almost ever facet of life, making it nearly impossible for people to “unplug” and embrace a life less dependent upon technology. Reflecting upon this technology laced world, I am reminded of one of the clear tenants of Catholic Social Teaching (CST): humanity does not exit to serve the economy, but the economy exists to serve the people. In a similar tone, Pope Francis implies a similar paradigm, pointing to a question well at home to CST: Does technology exist to serve humanity or is humanity slowly being transformed into the servants of technology?
The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. (A reference to Romano Guardini who I focused upon in my last post) As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished. (Laudato Si’, 108)
The end result of the dominance of technology is a radical anthropocentrism, in which a healthy understanding of the importance of the human person becomes distorted and twisted into an, “Its all about me” mentality. The use of technology ceases to consider the common good, choosing, instead, to feed the appetites of the immediate and sensate. The true irony of this radical anthropocentrism is that the individual becomes so valued that a cultural “natural selective-ism” emerges in which my dignity surpasses the dignity of my neighbor. An example of this would be the owner of an industry who is so fueled by profit and personal gain that they view their employees as being no different than machines that could do the same job. The question, “How can technology enhance the work of my employee,” is replaced with the question “How can I use technology to reduce my workforce and increase my profit margin?” At the time of Pope Leo XIII, the crisis of workers rights during the Industrial Revolution, when combined with socialist and communist ideology, was the false notion of seeing the human person as merely a “cog in the machine” of industry. In today’s society, the Pope warns that industry can make the human person completely unnecessary, being replaced by the cog. Again, this example should not be interpreted as the Pope inviting us to embrace a Luddite lifestyle, radically rejecting technology. Rather, he is calling us to remember our ethical call to solidarity, asking how technology can be used to elevate human dignity in contrast to making humanity the slave of technology.
Chapter Four: Integral Ecology – Solidarity with the World
As I read chapter four of Laudato Si’, the rubric that emerged from Romano Guardini’s writings from my previous post comes to mind: Are we a people who live in and with nature or a people that seeks to dominate nature? When Pope Francis speaks of Integral Ecology, it seems as though he is taking the writings on Human Ecology of his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and grounding them in every day life. Here are the thoughts of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the need for a Human Ecology.
The call by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is developed by Pope Francis by exploring, first, how ecology relates to the environment, economy, and society; second, how ecology relates to culture; and, third, how ecology relates to everyday life. In each section, Pope Francis calls us to solidarity not only with humanity but with the created world itself. This solidarity challenges developed nations to reach out to impoverished nations, always remembering our moral call to build up the dignity of the poorest of the poor in our world.
Ecology in relationship with Environment, Economy, and Society
In the paragraphs addressing ecology in relationship to the environment, economy, and society (138-142), Pope Francis makes three observations that are intimately connected. First, Pope Francis calls upon us to give researchers the academic freedom they need to study the interconnectedness of our ecosystem. Science is showing us, more an more, the intimate connection that exists in the environment and how understanding that connection is necessary to help build up what we can call “Environmental Solidarity.” From this starting point, the Holy Father challenges businesses of the world to develop an “Economic Ecology.” In this vision of economic ecology, the Pope challenges business and industry to not only work toward increasing profit margins, but to do so with an awareness of how their practices are impacting the environment. This analysis then logically leads to a “Social Ecology” to explore how every aspect of human life is connected to and impacts the world we live in, completing the chain that creates Environmental Solidarity.
Ecology in Relation to Cultures
In the paragraphs addressing ecology in relation to cultures (143-146), one need not reach to far to hear an implicit criticism of modernity and the Enlightenment. Many in the environmental movement falsely presume that the Biblical vision of dominion over creation has lead to the exploitation of the environment. Rather, it was the acceptance of the intellectual movement born by Renee Descartes’ famous utterance “Cogito Ero Sum” (I think, therefore I am) called the Enlightenment that lead to disregarding all intellectual and cultural developments that existed before the movement and sought to “rebuild” society based on pure logic and reason. This mentality, which is one of the main social and political “fuels” that drives the “engine” of American and European society, greatly contributed to not only seeing the environment as merely a tool to be used, but also sought to subjugate local peoples and cultures in favor of building a “new world” rooted in Enlightenment ideology. We can hear in Pope Francis a call to remove the Enlightenment ideal from our worldview and embrace a Christianity that, borrowing again from Guardini’s vision, lives in and with culture instead of seeking to dominate and subjugate culture.
Ecology in Relation to Everyday Life
In the paragraphs addressing ecology in relation to every day life (147-155), I was reminded of a simple image put forward by Dr. Denis McNamara who teaches Liturgical Architecture at Mundelein Seminary and the Liturgical Institute. Dr. McNamara starts his course by affirming that architecture is the built form of an idea. This simple idea becomes the backdrop for understanding the sacramentality of Church architecture and how, at its best, it should demonstrate the intimate connection between God and the created world. When Church architecture fails at this connection, we gravitate to spaces that emphasize the functional, but lose the sacramental vision of what the space is trying to convey. Many of Pope Francis’ examples of ecology in every day life express this same characteristic as we should strive to “build” a society that both reflects and respects the intimate connection between God and the created world. In this construction, the poor are to be considered and provided for and not relegated to hide themselves from society. In short, the Pope calls us to develop physical and social structures that provide a clear sense of home: Home with God, home with our neighbor, and home with creation.
An invitation to discussion:
Instead of asking your opinion of my questions, I would invite your comments on the questions the Pope, himself, raises toward the end of his chapter on “Integral Ecology.” Post your thoughts and I will see you in two weeks (I will be on vacation next week) to explore the final two chapters of Laudato Si’.
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn. (Laudato Si’, 160)