The Return of Catholic Anti-Modernism

pope selfieCommentators are sure to make the false claim that Pope Francis has aligned the Church with modern science. They’ll say this because he endorses climate change. But that’s a superficial reading of Laudato Si. In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era.

Francis describes the root of our problem as a failure to affirm God as Creator. Because we do not orient our freedom toward acknowledging God, the Father, we’re drawn into the technological project. We seek to subdue and master the world so that it can serve our needs and desires, thus treating “other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination.” By contrast, if we acknowledge God as Creator, we can receive creation as a gift and see that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not found in us.”

In short, without a theocentric orientation, we adopt the anthropocentric presumption that we are at the center of reality. This tempts us to treat nature—and other human beings—as raw material to do with as we wish. For Francis, “a spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable.”

Of course, God is exactly what modernity has forgotten, which means that it too is “not acceptable”—exactly Pius IX’s conclusion. The Syllabus of Errors is exquisitely succinct. Laudato Si is verbose. But in a roundabout way Francis makes his own case against the modern world.

One of the signal achievements of modernity has been the development of a scientific culture. It is now global in scope. In all likelihood it will serve as the unifying worldview that will undergird any future global consensus. At one point Francis calls for “one plan for the whole world.” If this comes to pass, the scientists and technocrats will formulate and administer it. The authoritarian consensus about global warming that actively suppressed dissent, as Climategate revealed, is a case in point.

Although he endorses the consensus view about global warming, in what may be an internal contradiction Francis describes “the scientific and experimental method” itself as part of the problem. It “is already a technique of possession, mastery, and transformation.” There’s not the slightest suggestion in Laudato Si that the modern scientist contemplates or savors the truths of nature. Science disenchants, measures, dissects, and otherwise prepares the world for us to dominate and control.

Technology is even worse. For nearly two hundred years, “progress” in the West has largely mean ever-expanding technological achievement from steam ships to trains to cars to the jet airplane. This has a creation-denying, God-denying logic. Technology seeks “a lordship over all.”

Francis allows that science and technology can lead to useful innovations, crucial medicines, and a kind of beauty in airplanes and skyscrapers. One assumes he endorses the use of technology to meet the challenges of global climate change, uses that will amount to an unprecedented attempt to manage and manipulate the earth’s ecosystem. But it remains dark and destructive. “Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic.”

“Everything is connected” is his mantra in Laudato Si. True to this principle, Francis links his suspicion of science with suspicions about other dimensions of the modern world. Progress has often been characterized as ever-greater prosperity. But economic globalization, a signature feature of the late modern world, and precondition for today’s rapid growth in China and elsewhere, is excoriated again and again. Francis never tires of denouncing “finance,” by which he seems to mean modern banking in all its forms. And of course we’re destroying mother earth. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history.”

Another feature of modernity and its faith in progress has been a political commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. To be modern is to believe that, for all our flaws, Western societies are more democratic, more egalitarian, and more inclusive than any in history. This is not the Pope’s view. The West is rapacious. He quotes one source approvingly: “Twenty per cent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.”

In effect, the present world system created by European and North American modernity—the world made possible by Newton, Locke, Rousseau, Ricardo, Kant, Pasteur, Einstein, Keynes, and countless other architects of modern science, economics, and political culture—is an abomination. Francis never quite says that. But this strong judgment is implied in his many fierce denunciations of the current global order. It destroys the environment, oppresses the multitudes, and makes us blind to the beauty of creation.

I must report an odd, disoriented feeling when I finished reading Laudato Si. Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has adopted a largely affirming attitude toward Western modernity. John Paul II denounced the culture of death and Benedict XVI spoke of the dictatorship of relativism. But in their teaching it was clear that they intended these as necessary criticisms to restore the religious and moral basis for modernity’s positive achievements.

Pope Francis seems to be changing course. Laudato Si does not explain how modern science can recover a sense of humility and wonder, nor does it lay down a natural-law framework for the proper development of technology. There’s no application of Catholic social doctrine to help us think in a disciplined way about how to respond to environmental threats, or how to reform global capitalism. That would have reflected the Gaudium et Spes agenda as carried forward by the last two popes.

Instead, Francis has penned a cri de coeur, a dark reflection on the systemic evils of modernity. Like the prophet Ezekiel, Pope Francis sees perversion and decadence in a global system dominated by those who consume and destroy. The only answer is repentance, “deep change,” and a “bold cultural revolution.”

If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity. In the nineteenth century, the Church regarded modernity’s failure to acknowledge God as damning. It led to usurpations of authority, disrespect for hierarchy, and other signs of anthropocentric self-regard. Francis’s concerns are different. He’s worried about the poor, environmental disasters, and the complacent rich indifferent to both. But his analysis is the same, and he shares a similar dire, global view of modernity as the epitome of godless sin.

Yet modernity has changed, which is why so few readers of Laudato Si will think of Pius IX when they read Francis. Today’s progressives are often critical of the West, and in that sense critical of “progress.” Europeans can be hysterical about genetically modified food. They have renounced nuclear energy, the only feasible large-scale alternative to a hydrocarbon-based energy system. Democracy was the signal political aspiration of modernity, but the EU is a post-national political project, a technocratic, post-democratic project. Here in the United States, many are now educated to believe that the history of the West is one long story of oppression and injustice. Optimism has waned, which means that the pope’s pessimism may be received warmly.

Perhaps, therefore, the most accurate thing to say is that Francis offers a postmodern reading of Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II’s desire to be open to the modern world. He seems to propose to link the Catholic Church with a pessimistic post-humanist Western sentiment rather than the older, confident humanism.

There may be a strange genius in this. For more than two hundred years Catholicism has resisted a self-sufficient humanism confident in the triumph of reason and science. Now there are powerful forces in the West that regard the modern project of the West as a failure, and the worst-case accounts of global warming encourage us to draw this conclusion. Thus the encyclical’s apparent focus, which is quickly superseded by a wholesale critique of every aspect of the current global system. Francis encourages the humiliation of modernity and the West, seeing in its failure the seeds of repentance and return to God.

Count me a skeptic. I prefer that approach of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. If global warming poses a dire threat to humanity—and it may—we will need all the moral strength, scientific integrity, economic vitality, and political legitimacy that Western modernity can muster. The same goes for the pressing problems of poverty and development. Instead of the voice of denunciation, we need the Church’s counsel and guidance. We all need to repent. But when it comes to pressing ethical problems, revolution is a dangerous game to play.

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    Harry Dale Huffman

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    You don’t get it. First, there is no, can be no, dangerous global warming, so you are simply wrong-headed to write that it may be a dire threat. But second, the political and propaganda wars now being fought over what everyone thinks is a competent, and even expert, climate science, WILL bring on a revolution, and the danger WILL become the tragic reality you fear (only it will come from whole populations who will come to know themselves victimized by the tyrannous climate policies now being pushed upon us all).

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