The Crisis of Limits: The Theo-Political Environment

Jared Schumacher

While the main focus of Laudato Si is clearly the environmental crisis of late modernity, what is initially striking about the text is its commitment to broadening the scope of the discussion to include much more than environmental concerns.  Or, better, it defines the environmental crisis as sourced in a larger crisis of the human condition, only one node of which is man-made climate change.  

Drawing on the work of his predecessor Benedict XVI, Pope Francis links environmental degradation to a similar degradation in " the social environment ", whose joint source is not a natural phenomenon, but a mistaken cultural ideology, i.e. "the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless"(6). Francis argues that when (human) nature  is not seen as possessing inherent limits, the integrity of all of creation is in danger. It is clear Francis has the moral relativism encouraged by modernity in his crosshairs as a central cause of our crisis (cf. 122-3).   

Francis' differential diagnosis of the (post)modern condition comes to the fore most strongly in an opening paragraph, a passage ostensibly commenting on St. Francis' fraternal relationship with nature, but with overtones about how imitating his modus vivendi can cure what ails us.  

Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled (11).

Francis sees most keenly that ours is a 'crisis of limits', which has spilled into how we talk about ––and thus how we see and experience–– the world. He is saying that the regnant definitions of modernity are infected with an ideological liberalism that must be rooted out, so that we can see, speak about, and interact with all of God's creation in an authentic manner, in a manner of "awe and wonder".  Only when this happens can our vision has been healed so that we are truly free to "feel intimately united with all that exists".

Any attempt at technological fixes to the environmental fiasco thus will leave untouched this central wound of our affliction, our mal de tête.  And because ours is a crisis of limits, the document's steely-eyed resolve is that only by setting limits for ourselves in line with the created order, and controlling our speech in line with our convictions, can we begin the long march to a better world.  

Important for grasping 'the form' of the documents vision is the fact that the ecological crisis is a human crisis.  And because man is a socio-political animal, the crisis is as much political as it is a matter of individual consumer choices or habits.  It is literally 'our' problem, which manifests itself in every human structure and social institution. 

What is needed, the Pope argues, is an "ecological conversion" in the fullest sense of the terms (216-221):  where 'ecology' means both the external and the internal human environment, and 'conversion' means not only a change of head and heart, but a change of habit and homeland.  By broadening the scope of his environmental analysis to include moral, social, and philosophical factors, Francis offers a holistic vision for humans to combat all the sources of degradation ailing the human world.  Because "everything is connected" (cf. 16, 42, 91, 117, 162), but connected under a certain created order (77, 221), the document stands as not only as social critique, but also as a social and political call to action.   And the primary goal of such action is "conversion", to re-establish a natural, created order, both within ourselves and in all things, God's "order of love"(77).  

Only a fuller analysis of the document can detail the concrete steps we must take politically to ensure such a conversion, the recreation of such an order.  The Pope mentions many, the most striking being the recovery of the centrality of the family as the nucleus of any authentic political community.  But Francis has in mind not only the immediate, natural family––which is the type of all other 'families'–– but learning to see every human as a member of one great family, of which God is the Father.  The political answer to the ecological crisis is thus, shockingly, learning the healthy habits of home-life. The politics of the encyclical is therefore an expansive economics (from oikos, Greek= "house/home") of familial love. Because "everything is connected", only when we learn to live well at home can we hope to care for the world as "our common home." 

By reminding us that the world is our home and its people are our Family, Laudato Si gives us fresh eyes to read 1 Pet 4:17.  "For it is time for judgment to begin with the house of God."

Of further interest: see the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin's address on the Political dimensions of Laudato si