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The moloch of the future

June 29, 2015

I haven’t read the new encyclical Laudato si‘; I’ll probably post about it here once I have. I’ve read a lot of the coverage it’s been getting, which has been…. mixed, to put it mildly. To start with, a quick link roundup of the articles I’ve thought most worth reading:

Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, is skeptical:

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. […] I prefer that approach of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. […] when it comes to pressing ethical problems, revolution is a dangerous game to play.

But First Things deputy editor Matthew Schmitz praises the encyclical at the Washington Post:

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. […] 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.

And in a similar vein, Alan Jacobs at The New Atlantis writes a number of posts about the encyclical; they can’t quite be summarized, except perhaps by this quotation:

If I had my way, I’d spend the next couple of months preparing to teach a class in which this encyclical — a far richer work than I had expected it to be, and one that I hope will have lasting power — would be read alongside Guardini’s book, with both accompanied by repeated viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. The class would be called “Who Killed the World?”

(By the way, I second the Mad Max recommendation.)

Ross Douthat in the NYT casts this debate as one between “dynamists” and “catastrophists”; Pope Francis, of course, is the latter:

Dynamists are people who see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful civilization advancing toward a future that’s better than the past. […] Catastrophists, on the other hand, see a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled. What’s more, they believe that things cannot go on as they are: That the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis, disaster, dégringolade.

But Douthat also offers a third alternative:

Indeed, perhaps our immediate future fits neither the dynamist nor the catastrophist framework.

We might have entered a kind of stagnationist position, a sustainable decadence, in which the issues Pope Francis identifies percolate without reaching a world-altering boil.

Meanwhile Damon Linker at The Week defends “modernity” against the Pope’s attacks:

After more than a millennium bathed in an ethic of Christian humility, these writers [e.g. Bacon, Descartes, and Machiavelli] argued, European life was marked by oppression, poverty, and passive acceptance of a natural order that showed no sign of guidance by the hand of God. Such a situation leaves human beings subject to powers — fate and malign human will — that can and will destroy them. The proper response isn’t acceptance. It’s standing up for ourselves and taking matters into our own hands.

And, in perhaps the strangest response I’ve seen, Noah Millman at The American Conservative accuses the Pope of “hijacking” climate change for his own purposes:

It seems to me that what Pope Francis is doing is hijacking ecological catastrophism for a pre-determined spiritual agenda. And that agenda isn’t even the one that makes the most intuitive sense as a purely spiritual response to said catastrophism. If I asked myself what religious system is most in tune with the challenges of radically reshaping the world economy to better protect the natural environment, Roman Catholic Christianity would not be the first one to come to mind. Indeed, my first impulse would be to say Buddhism, which preaches moderation, counsels non-attachment to things as the route to inner peace, has a strong tradition of vegetarianism (which, if universally adopted, would probably do more to stretch the carrying capacity of the planet than any other lifestyle change), and is considerably less-invested in fecundity than most religious traditions, Christianity included. If I were looking for specifically spiritual answers, that would seem to be the first place to turn. But the encyclical does not read like the product of a search for answers, because the answers were known in advance. The search was for an explanation of how these already-established answers just happen to be a perfect fit for humanity’s novel situation on the planet.


Again, I haven’t read the encyclical. More thoughts here once I’ve done so.

For now, seven quick points.

1. No one seems to know what to do with the encyclical politically; for example, Reno calls it revolutionary, while Schmitz says it rejects all “solutions,” which would, one would think, include revolution. But why should we seek to do anything with it politically? If we think that “modernity” is the problem, then the problem isn’t the side labeled “modernity,” or even the opposition between “modernity” and “anti-modernity”; it’s the very act of thinking about things in these political terms. Jacobs, the literary critic, seems to understand this better than the others.

2. Can’t one respond to Douthat’s trichotomy of dynamism, catastrophism, and solutionism, by saying that one believes “the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis” but doubts that even “a true revolution can save us”? What if nothing can “save us”—at least, if by that phrase is meant anything other than the salvation Christianity promises?

3. Linker is right to say that the Pope is too quick to dismiss the “modern” understanding of human nature, which has in many ways “improved living standards” etc etc; and Millman is right to say that the Catholic anthropology isn’t the obvious choice for a “solution” to our environmental problems. But to think that these are arguments against the Pope is, I think, to miss the entire point of rejecting “solutionism” (which explains what Millman’s piece in particular reads rather strangely). Francis, from what I can tell, simply does not begin with the premise that living standards / our impact on nature must be maximized / minimized, and then ask what kind of relationship with nature would bring that about. Rather, he begins by asking what kind of relationship with nature would characterize a good life.

4. He does so because “improving living standards” and “reducing our impact on the environment” are, while perhaps things an ethical person would do, not intrinsically ethical. By this I mean that pursuing such goals does not itself count as an attempt to act virtuously, to do good;  both are attempts to bring something good about. When their pursuit is disconnected from a larger picture of what makes a life good, such goals cease to be good at all, and turn into what a previous Pope in a previous encyclical called “the moloch of the future”:

Seen in this way, charity is rejected and attacked as a means of preserving the status quo. What we have here, though, is really an inhuman philosophy. People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future—a future whose effective realization is at best doubtful. One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and wherever we have the opportunity, independently of partisan strategies and programmes.

–Benedict XVI, in Deus caritas est

5. In other words, we cannot look at the world as a problem to be solved—whether that turns out to be through the (“dynamist”) strategy of maximizing living standards, or through the (“catastrophist”) strategy of minimizing our impact on the environment—while imagining that our good lives will begin once we’ve fixed the world’s problems. We cannot be alienated in this way from the goodness of our lives. We need to live good lives now.

6. This line of thought  is not a distinctively Christian one. To put it in Aristotelian language: happiness is not a state of affairs or a quality, but “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”

7. This line of thought tells us very little about what sorts of things we should do in order to establish a happy relationship with nature. The important point is simply that that, not maximizing this or that, is our goal.


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