Analogical Solidarity and a Spirituality of Ascetic Resistance in 'Laudato si'

by dr. Patrick Ryan Cooper

"Everything is interconnected". Indeed, painfully so.

Giotto di Bondone.  The marriage of St. Francis and Lady Poverty , Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.   
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Giotto di Bondone. The marriage of St. Francis and Lady Poverty, Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.

We are daily reminded of our vulnerability at this very hour, from the global financial economy and the continuing failure of political discourse, to the innumerable drastic signs that bespeak of our ecological fragility. Within this complex milieu of narrowing ideological interests, gross inequalities and fragmentation, Pope Francis has boldly re-engaged the authority and the prestige of the Church's Magisterial teaching with his encyclical, Laudato si, as heeding the cry of the poor and the discarded. With exceptional breadth and immense attention to detail, Francis time and again draws intrinsic parallels between current environmental degradation and widespread indifference to the sufferings of the poorest and most vulnerable within our societies.  There is no political consensus that can easily align with Francis' stern warnings, as he easily implicates both conservatives and liberals alike, all the while imploring the faithful that they "must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions." (§200) Rather, Francis aims to reframe current discourse by significantly broadening the vision and moral consequences beneath what is otherwise the familiar debate and the struggling political consensus to effectively legislate over curbing the immanent dangers posed by climate change and environmental degradation.


In addition to its shrewd political calculus in deliberately destabilizing comfortable ideological capture, Pope Francis' highly significant encyclical and its bold, "integral ecology" has in fact, I would argue, evinced the profound social relevance and critical potential latent in continuously ressourcing the Tradition's "ethical and spiritual treasures" in order for the Church to uniquely and effectively respond to the urgent challenges facing us today. In particular, Francis draws generously from the wells of the fundamental Catholic principle of analogy—as concretized and lived out by the ascetic mysticism of his namesake, the poverello of Assisi—as an intrinsic unveiling of the "precious book" of creation wherein the Creator continuously discloses his Trinitarian life and is thus, the underlining principle of such "interconnectedness" from which Francis' moral call for solidarity stems. In doing so, continual allusion is made that in order to heed the cry and appeal for an increased moral sense of solidarity, we first need to recover, what in reality amounts to a profoundly dense, lived ontological solidarity as creatures and intrinsically set in relation to God as our Creator.

This is the basis of our conviction that, as part of the universe, called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion….'God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement. (§89)

It is this bold, analogical vision that arguably lays at the heart of this encyclical, both in terms of content and its unfolding, repetitive structure, as itself the principal of interconnectedness. We must learn once more that the world is not so much a "problem to be solved" as it is a "joyful mystery to be contemplated" from which we may heed divine Wisdom and its rhythm inscribed and manifested within creation itself.

Francis contextualizes his bold, social reenvisioning of analogy as indeed amounting to the Catholic difference within an explicitly theological ecology purview; that is, a profound reimagining of "countless forms of relationship and participation" within its view of the "whole as open" to the asymmetric beyond of "God's transcendence", while mutually inseparable to a creaturely immanence "within which it develops" (§75) As profoundly relational, such analogy therein stands unambiguously opposed to the "Promethean mastery" (§116) of modern anthropocentrism, severely critiquing the "tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures", while sternly warning us that such environmental degradation is nothing short of "ourselves usurping the place of God" by "claiming the unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot", idolatrously doubling the "Father who creates and who alone owns the world."(§75) Such a view Francis identifies as in part resulting from an enclosed, autonomous view of creation devolving into "nature" (§76), a natura pura that posited its own distinct, immanent ends. Instead, "the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us….[but] with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things."(§83)


What is truly significant regarding this analogical vision of creation is that, as the first Roman pontiff from the global South, Francis' starting point in no way capitulates to some form of scientific rationalism or philosophical neutrality. This is a significant development considering that Laudato si is unambiguously a "social" encyclical, dialogically addressed to Catholics, Christians and all men of goodwill, and yet the accent is almost entirely on the gratuity of creation, and not upon the autonomy of nature. In this case, there is a strong continuity with Benedict XVI's major social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (2009) from which charity's gratuitousness is regarded as intimately linked to the question of reciprocity and justice, yet at the same time ordering it in truth and thus far surpassing justice as the primary principle of the Church's Social Doctrine. For Francis, creation is repeatedly seen in strong contrast to the reductive, univocal order of "nature…seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all"(§76) from which our collective responsibility towards our "common home" originates. While the gratuitous mystery at the very heart of being as creatio ex nihilo is thus expressive of a gratuitous "order of love"; that it is, and furthermore, that it is "very good" thus evokes a continual source of wonder and awe from which "one comes to know by analogy their maker." (Wis. 13,5)

Such gratuitousness is neither utopic nor can it be "written off as naïve romanticism". Rather, the integrity and revelatory disclosure of the goodness of creation is both upheld, while at this very hour, the peripheries "cries out to us".(§2) Such radical pleas for redemption both highlights our eschewed responsibility and our overall brokenness amid the appalling degradation of both creation and the poor alike. The radical giftedness of creation thus perdures, even amid the stark and tyrannical hegemony of a liberal capitalist order that discards and places in peril the very gratuity of creation as a common good, operating instead upon the erotic narrative of infinite or unlimited growth "based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods…[that] leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit." (§106) Hence, to neutrally approach the world as a "problem to be solved" thereby capitulates to the "technocratic" paradigm of univocal sameness and its mastery as a "lordship over all".(§108)

Instead, Francis frames the socio-economic relevance of this ontological solidarity, while deliberately appealing to St. John Paul II, explicitly in terms of the universal destination of goods that undercuts and thus relativizes any and all views of "private property as absolute or inviolable." (§93) In doing so, Francis appeals for a conversion of both vision and lifestyle. Hence, the call for a moral solidarity—to become "painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it" (§19)—in turn rests upon the gratuitous mystery of creation and its ontological solidarity that gives rise to the "language of fraternity"; of St. Francis' many brothers and sisters; an ontological solidarity, without which no matter the "greenness" of our moral vision, we will indeed become "that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs."(§11) It is therefore of considerable moral gravity that Francis has forcefully reintroduced the link between spirituality and asceticism, rooted in the very sacramentality of the world as created and expressed in its analogical vision of interconnectedness. This is concretely expressed in moral terms as an overall defense of the integrity of created life: from abortion (§120) and euthanasia, to the Neo-Malthusianism of population control (§50) to the ecological care for all living life, the latter of which is neither "optional or secondary".(§217) For it is only in forcefully drawing out such continuities between analogical vision and its integrated vision of the whole and a renewed, ascetic spirituality "which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm….to seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system."(§111)


(For a good overview of the concrete examples of asceticism in Laudato si, see Jana Bennet's reflections at "Catholic Moral Theology")