Count me among the skeptics. As Hadley Arkes  has recently argued, the strident but precarious affirmation of the reality of “climate change” by its true believers, and their anxious shaming of all dissent, should give everybody pause. On its face, such zeal smacks less of rational conviction or prudential caution than it does of spilt religion. It seems like a chasing after strange gods that seem neatly to combine Christian millennialism and pagan animism with the base philosophical materialism of our day.
Count me among the skeptics for another reason. The suffering of the natural world over which we have been given stewardship is visible to the eye. We bear witness to the extinction of many species (amid, of course, the discovery of many new ones), the pollution of plastics in our oceans, and the general wastefulness that seems to suggest a – pardon the expression – “throw-away culture.”
With many such problems visible to us, each with its local habitation and name, why is the only solution ever advanced by “climate change” enthusiasts an international bureaucratic one? Increasing centralization and bureaucratization is perhaps the central political problem of the last 400 years. The Church’s social doctrine of subsidiarity was conceived, in part, to reverse this lamentable but longstanding trend. It gives me pause, then, to hear individuals and organizations already at home with this ever-increasing centralization of political power warming to an environmental cause that so conveniently would advance those aims.
As one of the skeptics, then, I did not greet the promulgation of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ (2015) with more than a squint. If centralization is the chief political problem of the modern age, the chief moral problem has been the spirit of utilitarianism, which reduces the horizon of human life to active and effective control over our bodily estate, and denies the spiritual aspiration of the soul, culminating in the stillness of the contemplation of God.
Popes Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI were in this respect the perfect successors to Saint Peter for our time. John Paul II confronted the utilitarian spirit of Communism with a Christian personalist vision of the active life. Further, he insisted that the crowning achievement of all human action is contemplative reflection upon it; even our practical life, work in the quarry or the smithy, for instance, foreshadows our destiny as creatures meant to know and love God in contemplative prayer.
Benedict’s long career as a theologian says much the same. But as pope, he issued four encyclicals, each named for one of the theological virtues, Love, Hope, and Faith (this last was published under Pope Francis’s name), or for two virtues together (Caritas in Veritate). Each of those encyclical reflections had its moral dimension and applications for the active life. What most impresses about them, however, is Benedict’s affirmation and elaboration of the essentially spiritual nature and contemplative vocation of the human person.
To hear, then, that Pope Francis’s first original encyclical would be on social issues that seemed to embrace uncritically the spilt religion of our moment, gave me something of a sinking feeling. The Church has to remind a utilitarian and centralizing age that there is more to the world than is dreamed of in the sleep of technocrats. It seemed, however, that the pope had chosen to appear, to use the dreadful word, “relevant” to the accepted pieties of the day rather than to challenge them.
To put it frankly, I was – mostly – wrong. Laudato Si’ has drawn the most attention for its opening chapter, where the pope reviews the environmental and poverty problems of our time, and its late chapters, where he offers general guidelines to redress them. It seemed to put the magisterial stamp on claims of fact that remain in dispute. The pope says, however, that it does no such thing. (§188)
What the encyclical does do, in its central chapters, however, is a great blessing. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes somewhere that “the Christian is called to be the guardian of metaphysics in our time.” This entails the defense of the person as destined for the knowledge of God, as I mentioned above, but it also entails guarding a proper understanding of natural being, that is to say, of the intrinsic and deep meaning and mystery inherent in all created things.
For some religions, this world is a place of illusion or distraction to be overcome so that our souls may be lost in unity with God. But this is not possible for the Christian. We understand that God has created all things and called them “very good.” The mystery of our faith thus entails coming to understand the ways in which created things stand in relation to the One who made them.
This Pope Francis beautifully teaches. Drawing upon the thought of the previous two popes, he reminds us of at least three essential truths. As creatures, we are by nature relational; we know ourselves and realize our destinies through how we live out our relations to our own nature, to other persons, to God, and to the world around us. (§66) Living those relationships properly involves fitting ourselves to the rhythms of nature as a whole, especially its orientation to Sabbath rest and worship. (§71) As Saint Francis reminded us, nature itself also praises God. (§72 and 87) The praise of created things is intended to lead our souls beyond them to contemplate the greatness of God himself. (§77)
Drawing on Romano Guardini’s great book, The End of the Modern World , Pope Francis showed the way in which this Gospel of Creation has been eclipsed, its fruits polluted, by the modern “technocratic paradigm.” (§106) He nests this searing critique of the modern centralizing and utilitarian spirit within chapters that acknowledge and address the environmental problems that agitate those who have succumbed to that spirit. It invites them, therefore, to recover a true humanism, a theological humanism in which man will chiefly understand himself in relation to God.
*Image: Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite  by Albert Bierstadt, c. 1871-73 [North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC]