Lost in the Cosmos

On a visit last week to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I watched a documentary film on the Nazi’s rise to power. I was struck by the opening montage. The filmmakers had decided to begin their story, not in Germany, but in Paris, using real footage from the 1900 World’s Fair. Accompanying the jerky, black-and-white images of fair-goers was a voice narration extolling the Paris exhibition’s promotion of tolerance and understanding among nations, and the spirit of invention and progress that characterized the new 20th century.

“The 20th century began much like our own,” the narration asserted, “in the hope that education, science, and technology could create a better, more peaceful world. What followed, soon after, were two devastating wars.”

In marking this contrast between the optimistic spirit of 1900 with the wars that would soon engulf the world, the documentary showed no sense of irony about the tolerant, progressive attitude that ushered in the new century. It was as if the filmmakers saw no connection between the hope in the secular trinity of “education, science, and technology,” and the horrors that followed.

In themselves, education, science, and technology may be good things. But when “emancipated” from their proper service to the true flourishing of human beings, they become dangerous instruments, at the extreme, even tools of genocide.

The great virtue of the Holocaust Museum is its power to expose the deadly virus hidden in a desire that has defined the modern world for the past 500-odd years: to be, in Descartes’ phrase, “masters and possessors of nature.” The Museum functions as a vivid reductio ad absurdum. Its films and exhibits tease out the incoherence in progressive presumption, and reduce that presumption to a terrifying absurdity.

What the Holocaust Museum reveals, in other words, are the devastating consequences of a lack of humility toward nature.

And so it goes. Even now as the 21st century unfolds we are still struggling to learn this humility. Consider, in this light, the two big issues that have gripped Catholics, especially American Catholics, in recent days: Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, and the United States Supreme Court’s declaration of a right to same-sex marriage.

As Father Robert Barron has pointed out, in Laudato Si’ Pope Francis seeks to retrieve for humanity a “cosmological vision” rooted in a profound and humble understanding of our place in God’s creative order, that is, within nature. Why does the pope think such a retrieval necessary?

In modernity’s drive to dominate nature through distorted versions of education, science, and technology, human beings have experienced, for the most part unreflectively, a profound dislocation. We have, in the words of Catholic novelist Walker Percy, lost our place in the cosmos.

Dante's Ptolemaic universe [Click to enlarge]
Dante’s Ptolemaic universe
Open up pretty much any translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and you will find a map of the Ptolemaic Universe, the astronomical backdrop to the poem’s vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. On the Ptolemaic model, the earth is at the very center of the cosmos, as if Creation were saying that this relatively tiny orb, and the rational animals given dominion over it, were its whole point and purpose.

Human dominion over Creation, however, is not absolute. It is a gift of God. We have been given the dignity of rule over the earth, but our rule must be exercised with both nature and super-nature as our guides.

We are not meant to be proud masters and possessors, but only humble stewards of nature.

As Romano Guardini describes it in his marvelous little book, The End of the Modern World, however, our recent attempts to master nature come at a high price, one aspect of which is our loss of “place” in the creative order. We no longer see ourselves as members of a community of beings, our “ontological siblings” as Father Barron calls them. We no longer regard with wonder our Brother Sun and Sister Moon. We see nature, including our own human nature, as raw material to manipulate. Yet we fail to see that in this lust for power we exile ourselves from community, from our natural home.

So we drift, tyrannical but ghostlike.

And even though the Ptolemaic picture of the universe has been replaced by a new cosmology in which the earth appears a mere accident and human beings the quintessence of dust, divine order still undergirds the cosmos and human nature still longs for the community from which it is estranged.

This is why Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ so urgently calls us back to a humble recognition of the limits of human dominion over the earth. He knows that without such humility we will destroy God’s Creation and doom ourselves to an anxious wandering in the cosmological desert.

But it is very important not to lose focus on the fact that in talking about nature the Holy Father means human culture as well as the physical environment. He quotes Pope Emeritus Benedict:

[He] observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible,” and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that the “deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human existence.”

There is an intimate connection between a respect for the natural environment and, for example, respect for marriage understood as the union of one man and one woman. The one and indivisible nature is manifested in land, sea, sky, as well as in the family household. And it is the same impulse at work, both Francis and Benedict teach us, that seeks either to destroy the environment for material gain or to redefine marriage.

Climate change or no climate change, this is wisdom that can spare us the gas chambers.


Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.

  • Michael Dowd

    Thanks Daniel. The way things are going we are heading towards a repeat of history and it is Pope Francis himself who is leading us in this unfortunate direction. In Laudato Si, while sprinkling his remarks with pius phrases and sentimentality he is really advocating One World Government as an implied solution to “climate change” which itself is unproven. He decries Capitalism. His political philosophy is Marxist. The program to implement his ideas will have to be totalitarian. The results will be horrific. Save the climate, kill the people. Let us pray that Pope Francis will soon get back to his assigned task of saving souls. There a plenty of other folks who are concerned with the climate.

  • Joe Indelicato

    This is treason, to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason…
    Thank you for a hopeful, and wonderful interpretation of Laudate Si.
    However, for whatever reason the Pope decided to get into the political fray,
    And opine on Climate Change authoritatively, his motives are suspect,
    And therefore a cloud hangs over Mr McInrrneys’ well written and hopeful

  • Francis Miller

    I am just finishing “Perelandra” by CS Lewis for the 3rd or 4th time over 20 years. In the final scene on Venus, Ransom is confronted by the fully awake and empowered king and queen (his vision of the potential never realized by Adam and Eve) and he struck by how perfectly they fit in and how much they are mother and father to all.
    “Animal rationale – an animal, yet also a reasonable soul:such, he remembered, was the old definition of Man, But he had never till now seen the reality. For now he saw the living Paradise, the Lord and Lay, the resolution of discords, the bridge that spans the chasm in creation, the keystone of the whole arch. By entering… they had suddenly united the warm multitude of the brutes behind them with the transcorporeal intelligences at his side. They closed the circle, and with their coming all the separate notes of strength and beauty which that assembly had hitherto struck became one music.” (Perelandra, p. 178)

  • Rosemary58

    Is it not very strange, though, that an ostensible connection between environmentalism and population control is implied by the Pope in the man who presented the document, Schellnhuber? Does that not make the dogma wedged into the document seem to be an afterthought? Or perhaps “window dressing”? Or even a type of legal qualifier?

  • RufusChoate

    Didn’t Gore also believe that Descarte was the source of evil? Sorry but I am sticking with Marx and Engels along with Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Tudor and Continental Freemasonry as the sources of evil in the modern world.

  • grump

    Drive an SUV and burn fossil fuels and we face the perils of the ovens of Auschwitz? I’ve all for a clean environment, but come on. Man should worry about saving his soul first before the planet.

  • creatingbliss

    Yea. No thanks.

  • Alicia

    I remember the Liberation theology and Marxist guerrillas in South America. In the late 60s my father was transfered there. My arguments with students at the universities there. They all bought into the well rooted mentality of ‘ poor defenseless victims of Yanky Imperialism and Capitalism ‘
    Corruption was, and still is, rampant and accepted as normal. Billions, in aid and loans which were later forgiven, were being sent , and still are, to countries in Latin America and Africa. Billions that came from taxes paid by hard working ‘ Yankees ‘ and Europeans. Where is the money? We can’t ask because it is foreign interference. Yes, but it’s our hard-earned money! Mexico is a big country, has been there for quite a while, has coasts on two oceans, agriculture, minerals, oil, has received billions in aid and loans. Where is the money? Why do millions of Mexicans and Latin Americans feel the need to come over to survive and help their starving families back home ? Corruption-pure and simpke.
    The Pope knows this. He grew up in it. But, I wonder how much the ‘ victim ‘ mentality, the Liberation theology, and the Communist propaganda, which made young people feel guilty, influenced him. He was obviously a good man who left everything and followed Jesus. This week on EWTN Nightly News was a conference, sponsored by the Vatican, with Mr. Schellnhuber and several other guests. I was horrified, and scared, when I heard them. All 100% communists and sponsored by our Vatican !!!
    The encyclical has beautiful things in it, but the undertones, the implications sound familiar and bring back memories.
    I don’t want to, but I can’t help feeling uneasy about it and the Pope. Should I just pay attention to the beautiful messages in it ? Probably, but I can’t help thinking I’ve heard this song before and it scares me, coming from my Pope.

  • Manfred

    The Holocaust Memorial Museum? What could a race of people who severed their relationship with God by rejecting His Son, who the long promised Messiah, ever say to an informed Catholic? Their religion ended two thousand years ago and was superseded by Catholicism?
    Mr. McInerny, this climate change and the Vatican jumping into it, demonstrates a tremendous loss of Faith in the Pope and the Vatican itself. Atheists such as Naomi Klein, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber and others are counselling the Vatican on these topics. The reason for all horrors,such as WW I and WW II, is the Divine punishment for sin.
    Msgr. V. Paglia, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, just announced that this Fall’s World Family Meeting in Philadelphia will be open to homosexual couples.
    There has been a change in the leadership of the N.Y. St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Next year more LGBT groups will be allowed to march.

    These are the issues the Pope, if he were really the pope, would be addressing. It is not a sin to not accept climate change. It has continuously been taught going back to the Torah that homosexual acts are “abominations”,

  • Bro_Ed

    Thank you for the positive view of Laudato Si. It is, I believe, the first supportive review it has received in TCT. I await reader comments. Your thoughts, I suspect, will be suspect.

  • monica

    Thank you for this article. Many people are digging around in Laudato Si looking for a nugget to discuss in solid Catholic articles.
    The quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict, “Deterioration of nature is closely linked to the culture which shapes human existence,” seems pretty straight-forward. Human culture dictates how humans use/abuse the natural world. But care should be taken in drawing conclusions. Here in the U.S. we l protect many species of wildlife, yet we kill innocent babies. We have emissions laws that keep our air quite clean compared to other parts of the world, yet we approve sex-change operations. Our culture is a complicated one. All cultures are, aren’t they? It seems to me that there SHOULD be an “intimate connection” but it is not manifesting itself in our world today.

  • Paul Michael

    It is only natural to want to defend Laudato Si, after all we Catholics have much to protect coming on the heels of the Court’s Obamacare and Marriage decisions. But, the Pope has now gone too far and in light of his other egregious missteps, such as the shameful demotion of Cardinal Burke, lifting the suspension of Fr. Brockmann who claimed Ronald Reagan was a “butcher”, and his stacking of the deck with allies of Cardinal Kasper at last year’s family conference, we must see the man for what he truly is, a left wing South American socialist who has no appreciation or understanding of how free market capitalism is the best hope for the poor. In Laudato Si he berates air conditioning and then hypocritically blasts the Sistine Chapel with a new super charged conditioner put in to protect Michelangelo’s art. Rather than berate capitalists for discovering air conditioning why doesn’t he speak truth to his words and order all cooling closed down in Vatican offices. Then he makes some truly inane comments which defy logic or explanation, he says, “Finance overwhelms the economy”. This is comparable to saying, “The Church overwhelms the magisterium”. What would that mean, it’s innately illogical as apparently is the Pope’s financial acumen. Ask yourself, would John Paul or Benedict ever let an atheist lead the charge on explaining one of his encyclicals, or for that matter would any Pope let such a thing occur. Francis is showing himself to be right in line with some of the destructive Jesuits of the recent past such as Arthur McGovern, SJ, Karl Rahner SJ and Francis Carney SJ. His words and actions should be of great concern to all of us and is all the more reason we pray harder for him.

  • RecoveringLibt_rd

    Maybe the less said the better.

  • Paul Michael

    You know, come to think of it, you’re probably right.