Laudato Si': Hearing the cry of the world in the Anthropocene

By Lieve Orye

Last Thursday we had the pleasure at the faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at KULeuven to welcome and listen to a public lecture by theologian and biologist Celia Deane-Drummond: 'Laudato Si’ and Pope Francis as prophet and priest in the Anthropocene'. Her lecture was part of a two day interdisciplinary expert seminar on ‘Laudato Si' and progress’, organized by the Centre for Catholic Social Thought in collaboration with CAFOD, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development.

Channeling a cry, Speaking into the heart of the Anthropocene

Photo by  Christus Rex .

Photo by Christus Rex.

Laudato Si’ is receiving much attention. Its audacity, philosopher Bruno Latour writes, “is equaled only by the multiple efforts to deaden as much as possible its message and effects”(251). He sees two major innovations behind this audacity, the link between the ecological and injustice and the recognition that the earth itself can act and suffer. Both these innovations, he notes, are associated with the strange word cry: to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, writes Pope Francis, a true ecological approach must always be a social one, integrating questions of justice in debates about the environment (§49). A cry, Latour notes, is not a message, a doctrine, a slogan, a piece of advice or a fact but rather something like a signal, a rumor, a stirring or an alarm. Something that makes you sit up, turn your head and listen. 

Deane-Drummond recognizes this deep cry of the earth in Laudato Si’  as a cry in the epoch of the Anthropocene, our current geological age, characterized as a period in which human activity emerges as the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Unlike scientists who see the human impact on climate and environment as a problem that can be fixed by means of a technological solution, Pope Francis speaks from a different imaginary that gives science its proper place but invites a cultural revolution, a shift in lifestyle. He has, Deane-Drummond noted, given us a sketch of a different and open social imaginary, one that resists an imaginary in terms of human dominance through a call to inner transformation and the nurturing of ecological virtues.

Listening to birds in the Anthropocene

Though Pope Francis does not use the term, hearing the deep cry of the heart in Laudato Si’ as a cry in the Anthropocene is illuminating. Though scientists still discuss the particulars of the Anthropocene, it is already more than just scientific fact. As anthropologists have started showing, it is what people hear and sense and worry about, for instance in their listening to the birds.

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

Saint Francis of Assisi spoke, preached to the birds. It is said that he preached to a flock of almost a hundred sparrows, which only left when he said they could. They were as much a part of his brotherhood as the pope. But if, as Andrew Whitehouse suggests, the Anthropocene started with the industrial revolution, ushering in the epoch of anthrophony in which human sounds and human-made sounds of industry, machinery, electronic amplification and so on started drowning out the biophony and geophony in many parts of the world, Francis’ speaking to the birds was clearly still an anthrophony of the pre-Anthropocene kind. We can understand his speaking, in other words, as characterized by an attentiveness that made resonance possible. It integrated more closely with the sounds and attentiveness of other beings rather than disrupting or dominating these (57).

In his article ‘Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World’ Whitehouse’s informants do not so much speak, nor preach to the birds. They do listen attentively and respond in resonance. But unlike Saint Francis they listen in the Anthropocene and, in the silence they hear more and more, the cry of the earth resounds. Whitehouse points out that the concept of the Anthropocene simultaneously draws humans and non-humans together and separates them out:

According to Lorimer, “The recent diagnosis of the Anthropocene represents the public death of the modern understanding of Nature removed from society.” Human and non-human worlds can no longer be conceived as existing in separate realms, and nature, at least in the sense of that which is separate from society, struggles to be convincing as a concept. And yet, as Crist has argued, the Anthropocene also appears to place humans on a pedestal as the only species in the history of the planet powerful enough to be deemed the primary Earth-shaping force (54).

The notion furthermore emphasizes anxieties that we humans have caused the ‘end of nature’, the disappearance of birds, butterflies and bees. That we are responsible for silent springs, for springs no longer announced by birds singing. The notion indicates both the interconnectedness of human and non-human lives as well as the potential for their destruction and silencing by humans.

Anxious semiotics and ethical relating



Though there is nothing inherently new about the experience of anxiety in relation to environmental conditions, the Anthropocene, Whitehouse notes, brings with it particular configurations. It “relates to real and observable changes in the local worlds people perceive around them and to semiotic elaborations on those perceptions that draw together local and global, human and non-human, present and future, into anxiety-laden narratives” (55). Though there is growing desire to attend to and to care for birds and their ecology, these seem continually outstripped by our capacity to disrupt and endanger.

To hear the cry of the earth in the Anthropocene, attentiveness is key. Whitehouse’s point is that it is to those least alienated from other forms of life that the wounds caused in the Anthropocene become more apparent. It is in them that these wounds provoke a moral disquiet (63). The anxious semiotics, Whitehouse notes, only emerges through active listening.

“The more we care about our world and the more we pay attention to it, the worse things seem to get… the more we listen to birds the more we notice the loss of birds from pesticides, the destruction of habitat, the encroaching dominance of Anthrophonic sounds, the sounds that are out of place and ecosystems that are dissonant”(69).

photo by  James Brush

photo by James Brush

“All ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation” wrote Donna Haraway (50). This is an ethical relating that, as Whitehouse points out, is importantly grounded in the same kinds of semiotic processes through which birds listen to their own world. Through listening, through paying attention, we can no longer think, indifferently, of birds as part of a separate mindless Nature. Rather, Whitehouse notes, such listening should ground the development of relations of companionship. “It elicits not simply a narrative of encroaching loss and the ever present threat that humans pose to non-humans, but one of enskilment, of how we learn to listen to birds and to the rest of our world…”(70). Precisely in our worrying, in our hearing the cry of the earth, lies hope. In those little daily actions, as little as listening to the birds and worrying about them occurs the nurturing of a different relation.

The song of birds, the song of fellow humans

 As Latour notes,

Laudato Si’ is a funny kind of text – wordy, busy, contradictory, repetitive – but this is because it is itself channelling this immense cry, which is impossible to decode rapidly, which makes one prick up one’s ears, turn one’s head toward those other actors, so different from nature and from humanity: a Sister Mother Earth whom we had almost forgotten was herself capable of suffering, like the poor who are tangled up with her. It is up to the readers now to channel, in turn, this immense cry (255).

Dark-eyed Junco (Photo: William Majoros/Creative Commons)

Dark-eyed Junco (Photo: William Majoros/Creative Commons)

Laudato Si’  is speaking into the heart of the Anthropocene, urging those indifferent to live attentively. It emphasizes moreover that we should not pay attention to the wounds of the earth as if these could be separated out from the wounds of fellow human beings. Just as we care about the singing of the birds and worry about their disappearance, we must care at least as much about the singing of fellow human beings, being attentive, listening to what their sounds are telling us. Do we hear the sounds and silences of dominance and suffering or the lively chatter of everyday attentiveness, care and hospitality, the songs of human flourishing? Do anxious semiotics also arise from our listening in and do we allow this anxiety to encourage our enskilment in ethically relating to them?


Haraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 50.

Latour, B. (2016) 'The Immense Cry Channeled by Pope Francis', Environmental Humanities, 8(2), 251-255.

Whitehouse, A. (2015) 'Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World', Environmental Humanities, 6(1), 53-71.



Pope Francis' Apocalyptic Vision & the Anti-Christ in Benson's Lord of the World

By Patrick Ryan Cooper

As a young Catholic theologian with relatively few laurels to rest upon, I nevertheless consider myself wise enough to have critically eschewed the media's partisan Doppelgänger portrait of Pope Francis, preferring instead to pay close attention to what the Holy Father himself has said and done over these utterly remarkable and unprecedented first few years of his papacy. Given the tired and woeful inadequacy of labels such as "right/left", or "traditionalist/progressive", how should we understand Pope Francis? Perhaps we should look at his library and the book recommendations that he has made as Pontiff.  After all, it was at his very first Angelus (March 17, 2013) that Francis would recommend Cardinal Kasper's work on "mercy" – and we all know the centrality this theme has taken, and how it continues to play itself out, in both the Extraordinary and upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family later this year.

However, there is another trajectory to Francis, one that is clearly less-publicized, though arguably just as relevant and defining. Veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen  captured it in his interview (November 17, 2014) with the ailing Archbishop emeritus of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, wherein George notes that

It’s interesting to me that this pope talks about that novel, “Lord of the World.” That’s one thing I want to ask him. How do you put together what you’re doing with what you say is the hermeneutical interpretation of your ministry, which is this eschatological vision that the anti-Christ is with us? Do you believe that? I would love to ask the Holy Father. What does that mean? In a sense, maybe it explains why he seems to be in a hurry. Nobody seems interested in that but I find it fascinating, because I found the book fascinating. I read it quite by chance when I was in high school. It was written in 1907, and he has air travel, he has everything modern. It’s really eerie because it seems as if he was looking at our time, meaning right now. Does the pope believe that?....I hope before I die I’ll have the chance to ask him: How do you want us to understand your ministry, when you put that before us as a key?[1]

On more than one occasion[2], Francis has indeed referenced Benson's dystopian novel, which today is largely forgotten (illustrated by the fact that the only extant copy available for my recent purchase was a cheap, photographic imprint edition). Most notably, this past January, Francis cited Benson as providing the key to explaining what he means by the "ideological colonisation of the family". "There is a book that was written in London in 1903, called “Lord of the World”, by Benson: I recommend it to you" Francis said to reporters upon his return trip from the Philippines. "If you read it you’ll really understand what I’m talking about.”[3] However, Francis' comments about "ideological colonisation" specifically in terms of the family are largely enigmatic. For Benson pays little attention to the state of the family (or gender theories) in his apocalyptic drama. Rather, the forced association that Francis is communicating by such references appears to have another intention: namely, as code for speaking about the "Anti-Christ" within  public media, cleverly without mentioning the word itself, as well as communicating something fundamental about himself and his papacy. So what then is Lord of the World all about?

Benson's apocalyptic novel itself takes place at the dawn of the 21st Century and it begins amid fierce tension and the threat of cataclysmic war. Then all of a sudden, a relatively unknown junior senator from Vermont, Julian Felsenburgh quickly and extraordinarily emerges upon the world political stage, brokers a peace within Asia's rival factions and thereafter Europe. Benson's prose relishes in describing the messianic enthusiasm that engulfs the various world capitals, in particular London, describing at one point how the "officials were like men possessed….disappear[ing] in the rush to the City, for it had leaked out, in spite of the Government's precautions, that Paul's House, known once as St. Paul's Cathedral, was to be the scene of Felsenburgh's reception." Amid its apocalyptic frenzy and frequent hyperbole, the humor of Benson's satirical edge should not be forgotten, for it was 'Paul's House' that welcomed with open arms none other than the Anti-Christ Felsenburgh himself. We should recall that Benson himself was the son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury and was initially ordained as an Anglican, before leaving and eventually becoming ordained in the Roman Catholic Church in 1904.

One of the central themes to Lord of the World is the manner in which evil insidiously apes the good, while aiming to show the very messianism at work with the Anti-Christ and the perverse simulacra atheistic humanism supplies as a (to use Benson's very post-modern sounding phrase) "Catholicism without Christianity". Benson endlessly exploits this familiar genre thematic, where emergency "ministers of Euthanasia" are now regarded as the "real Priests" of mercy and compassion, while he particularly excels in describing the newly institutionalized mandatory worship that Felsenburgh inaugurates, along with the former Modernist-leaning Fr. Francis, who apostatizes and becomes Minister of Public Worship. Here, the natura pura of neo-Scholasticism reveals its own horrific monstrosity, as the new elite enthusiastically revels in such worship, displaying the "deepest instinct in man", while sacralizing the feasts of Maternity (not surprisingly, on January 1st) and Life (March 25th), in addition to those of Sustenance and Paternity, for "God was man, and Felsenburgh his Incarnation!"

But the most consequential demonic doubling the novel displays is to be found in the profound physical likeness shared between Felsenburgh and the novel's main protagonist, the English Fr. Percy Franklin—who later becomes a Cardinal and eventually Pope Silvester III after the full-scale destruction of Rome and the Church hierarchy. Like the relative obscurity of Felsenburgh, Benson's outsider protagonist Fr. Percy is indeed a very striking character, who equally becomes thrust in the middle of the action, only to ascend to the throne of St. Peter after the tremendous turmoil and persecution of Rome. Immediately contrasted by his more grandiose and monarchial predecessor, Benson continuously emphasizes how the newly ordained Silvester III is in every way imaginable a "model of simplicity". Does any of this sound familiar? It certainly should, for perhaps we can better understand not only why Pope Francis has such a fondness for this book, but furthermore, we can well speculate how he himself envisions the core of the Petrine office today as Servant of Servants, in addition to his own extraordinary ascendency as interpreted by this apocalyptic hermeneutic.

And now it was come to this. Christianity had smoldered away from Europe like a sunset on darkening peaks; Eternal Rome was a heap of ruins; in East and West alike a man had been set upon the throne of God, had been acclaimed as divine. The world had leaped forward; men had learned consistency…the social lessons of Christianity apart from a Divine Teacher, or, rather, they said, in spite of Him. There were left, perhaps, three millions, perhaps five, at the utmost ten millions—it was impossible to know—throughout the entire inhabited globe who still worshipped Jesus Christ as God. And the Vicar of Christ sat in a whitewashed room…dressed as simply as His master, waiting for the end.

And yet, while pushing aside all popular and heterodox accounts of apocalyptic foretelling, what in fact could be the theological significance in describing Francis' ecclesial vision as apocalyptic, as a "field hospital after battle"? To probe such depths, we would be wise to turn to the Notre Dame theologian, Cyril O'Regan, who over the last decade has steadily challenged (contemporary) theology's predilection in maintaining its "cordon sanitaire around itself to repel apocalyptic infection".[4] Instead, O'Regan insists upon the genuine urgency to rearticulate a distinct Christian apocalyptic vision, which alone can sufficiently corral both the retrieval of Christian identity otherwise fragmented by the "corrosive effect of the Enlightenment on Christian discourse"[5] as well as the insistence upon the praxis of justice as "specifically Christian paths of actions and forms of life that may very well exceed what is demanded by secular culture."[6] Such a "necessity", O'Regan reminds us, need not be merely "defensive" and suspicious of contemporary life nor triumphalist, but it certainly does demand an evangelical robustness, for "to speak the truth boldly (parrhesia) is a Christian imperative" and such a theological discourse is by his estimate, "becoming more rather than less imperative as a form of theology".[7] In closing, I would argue that Francis is indeed shaped by this imperative in countless ways amid a fragmented and perilous contemporary moment in which religious persecution and horrific images of martyrdom appear almost daily (i.e. "ecumenism of blood"). And so, we may well call his "vision of God" and that of the Church genuinely apocalyptic as he "suggests that there is much more to do than do enough, that witness even to the point of martyrdom is called for".


[1]See John Allen,

[2] See Pope Francis Homily 18.11.2013 and his reference to the "adolescent progressivism" of apostasy and spiritual worldliness, wherein he specifically mentions Benson.

[3] See

[4] See Cyril O'Regan,  Theology & the Spaces of Apocalyptic, from The Pére Marquette Lecture in Theology (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2009) 15.

[5] ibid., 26.

[6] ibid., 126.

[7] ibid., 127.

Politics, Love and the Inner Life

Julia Meszaros

What, if any, is the role of Christian love in the political sphere? Where politics is understood as the Machiavellian effort of securing power over others, of erecting barriers rather than of breaking them down, the answer is, most likely, ‘none’. The case is similar where Christian love is deemed to obstruct a Nietzschean will to power, where it is seen to breed nothing but weakness and resentment. Is Christian love not inherently paternalistic, as the problematic implications of traditional forms of development aid might suggest?

Even a more favourable view of Christian love does not amount to its political relevance. Christian love, like other moral and religious convictions, is, so contemporary manifestations of liberalism tend to imply, a private matter. Good citizenship, so this argument would imply, rests on whether we hold to the principles of freedom and justice, keep the law, and cast our vote.

Indifference as a failure of love


Yet, can these important ‘public’ acts and commitments be separated from my ‘private’ life, from my interior disposition and, more particularly, from Christian love? The fact that the default mode in which we live our lives is one of indifference towards the other suggests otherwise. Retreating, by and large, into the private sphere of work, homes and cars, we typically vote only according to our own immediate (especially financial) interests; we have a flippant relationship with the law (tax law being a prime example); and we often look past the old, the sick and the homeless. These tendencies slowly but surely undermine our political structures and principles in a way that inevitably damages first of all those who are most vulnerable. 

And this, I now want to suggest, is because our sins of political indifference and materialistic individualism constitute nothing less than failures of love. They manifest a lack of passionate concern for the other and for the Good that unites all human persons. And it is for this reason that they present an almost insurmountable political challenge. For love cannot be politically enforced.

Love’s ground in the inner life

Interior Castle.jpg

One reason for this is that love, like its opposite, indifference, consists in a particular disposition towards the world. As much as it is an act, love implies a valuation of and delight in the other, a profound longing for the other’s well-being. And as such, love is inseparable from a particular inner life—from the cultivation of truthful perception for instance and of our conscience and, ultimately, of a life of prayer. For love is ultimately rooted in a love of Love itself—in that Spirit of Love which animates our own love.

The inner life as a political challenge

The political importance of our inner lives that follows from this is one of the modern state’s greatest challenges. For contrary to socialism’s assumption that the political sphere can foster, even produce, the kind of persons it needs for its own vitality (on the principle that a good society makes good individuals), love is not learnt through political programmes and policies but only through love itself—that is, through free relationships of love. And contrary to contemporary political liberalism, a state religion of neutrality and disinterestedness is likely to foster a hazardous sense of the political irrelevance of the inner life. 

What, then, is the political realm to make of the fact that love and, with it, the individual person and their inner life, form the inevitable foundation of a vital society? How can we acknowledge the political relevance of our inner lives without giving up on our liberal principles of freedom and toleration?


An albeit rather personal response to this difficult question was, perhaps, offered by the new Pope Francis, minutes after his election. After greeting the cheering crowds, the Pope, a powerful leader, bows before them. And before giving them his blessing, he asks them to pray for his blessing. And rather than asking them to say the ‘Our Father’, he asks them to pray in silence, thus underling the simultaneously communal and individual nature of prayer. This act of humility is at once a political act and an act of love: the leader places his trust in his flock and unambiguously affirms the importance of each individual and his or her inner life of prayer and of love, for the whole. In doing so, Francis boldly proclaimed that even in a world tormented by war and poverty the individual’s turn inwards, Augustine’s reditum ad cor, is no luxury. Indeed, it is the first step towards building the fraternity of the true polis.

This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.

Julia Meszaros is a post-doctoral researcher at the K.U. Leuven and a member of Anthropos, a research group in theological anthropology.