Sunday, June 21, 2015

Laudato Si' ... What it Means For You and Me

I finished reading the entire text of Pope Francis's majestic encyclical letter Laudato Si', which -- I would say -- is about the place of the human person, human cultures, and the human race in the whole of the created universe.

That is the most concise way that I can express the scope of the document and its pervasive wisdom.

All I have for now are some preliminary reflections, along with the observation that the encyclical deserves many more hours of study and prayerful reflection. It also demands a conversation with my brothers and sisters in which we all aspire to grow in our way of perceiving reality.

The basic challenge of this teaching is to convert our minds and hearts so that we might see things (more and more) as they really are.

Like Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and Paul VI before him, Francis focuses on a conception of the human person that prevails in our time. It is the fruit of a pervasive mentality that renders profoundly ambivalent certain aspects of the amazing and often genuinely useful structures that human ingenuity has brought forth from the physical world.

The problem is not that we use our reason to understand the created world around us and to develop its potentialities in such a way that the world becomes a more human place. Francis, like his predecessors, recognizes and appreciates all the genuine achievements of technological progress.

The problem is that we do not always shape the capacities of the material world wisely. Indeed, how can we deny that human reason has too often gone awry in its conception of the human person and in its engagement with the world?

We have allowed the infinite desire of our hearts to be turned away from the reality of God and have sought to satisfy it by the acquisition of material goods and the exercise of power over one another and the created world. This fact leads Pope Francis to indicate a dimension of what Benedict XVI called "the dictatorship of relativism," namely practical relativism -- the ideology that dominates and justifies our technological interventions in the physical world, including our own bodily persons (see Laudato Si' 122).

Practical relativism approaches reality and seeks to manipulate it in order to bring about immediate, tangible satisfactions, without regard to the larger common good of human persons present and future living in a world created by God for His glory. We use reality in the attempt to "feed" the human heart, instead of engaging reality in a way that draws our hearts out beyond their immediate space and toward our destiny in communion with one another and the world.

Wonder is thus replaced by the obsession with consumption, and the vocation of the person to love is buried by the artificial deflection of the heart toward the excessive and distorted acquisition of possessions. Not surprisingly, humans are not satisfied by these possessions. They constantly seek more, and are always ready to replace old (and now boring) artifices with newer ones.

This is at the heart of the throwaway culture that Francis always speaks about.

The corollary to the "consumer-person" is the exaltation of the value of the "producer-person." People are valued in terms of their talent for manipulating reality and marketing it to disordered human appetites. Especially powerful are those who can promise quick and easy satisfactions by manipulating the reality of the human body itself, particularly in those bodily aspects that are distinctively expressive of the person.

Our culture today embraces relativism, but insists that its ethic is not a total relativism. Rather, it is said, any kind of human action is permitted as long as it does no harm to other humans. The Church has always insisted that acting contrary to creative wisdom of God inherent in reality (a.k.a. the "law of God") always does harm to human persons.

Too often, however, the devastating harm is not immediately perceived. The lure of partial and reductive gratifications of disordered desires often blinds us to the catastrophe of losing our connection with God and our perspective on reality. Thus we do not perceive the corresponding, inevitably unfolding process that leads to the disintegration of ourselves, the affliction of suffering on others, and the destruction of the created world.

Today, the created world is showing signs of the destructive behavior of human beings, signs that are difficult to ignore. Pope Francis has thus written an encyclical about ecology. There is much to say about the profound theological significance as well the widely perceived need for this approach. One thing that should be noted is that Francis, like Benedict before him, wants to direct and give adequate context to the ecological awareness that is emerging in the "post-modern" world.

The Pope appeals to certain prominent and deeply disturbing scientific studies of the environment, not to support some secular political agenda, but to exemplify a basic problem as it is widely perceived. Things are happening in the natural world that require our attention and concern.

It's possible that the particular details, projections, and modes of investigation of the present scientific consensus may change, but what is more crucial is the fact that the secular culture (however confusedly) is beginning to realize that human power does not have decisive control over the world. This means that empirical science and technology cannot solve every problem. They cannot excuse us from the task of making judgments of what is true and good.

There is, in fact, a reality in front of the human person. The human person is not the demiurge who constructs the universe out of otherwise meaningless cosmic stuff. The human person is not the ultimate authority over reality. We must attend to reality and act according to what we judge to be the genuine good, even if it is not easy, even if it goes against the grain of our immediate desires or our grand schemes.

In fact, reality is suffused with a beauty and a "wisdom" of its own. It is a gift to the human person, who can recognize this wisdom, wonder at its beauty, and work with its potentialities to foster an environment that points more profoundly to truth, goodness, beauty, justice, love, and freedom.

The dominant secular culture finds itself confronted with the experience of objective responsibility. There is an awakening, here, to the objective foundation of the fundamental human impetus to do good and avoid evil. "Do good" apparently cannot be reduced to "Do whatever I want as long as it doesn't seem to hurt anybody else." It cannot be reduced to "Do whatever we have the power to do, as long as people have an appetite for what we produce."

"Do good"... is a moment of openness to the Mystery that human beings do not determine, the Mystery that we seek. It is a moment of grace. As Pope Francis states:
"We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts" (Pope Francis, Laudato Si' 205).
Of course, the history of "grace at work deep in our hearts" is often a bumpy path full of obstacles and dead ends. God is patient. Not surprisingly, the secular culture -- struck by the mystery and the urgency of goodness -- often draws wildly wrong conclusions from this recognition, and then busily constructs utopian or reactive ecological ideologies. Pope Francis is entirely aware of this problem and its destructive potential, and he points it out many times in the encyclical. For example:
"Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence" (Pope Francis, Laudato Si' 119).
Francis speaks instead (and often) of the interrelationship of everything, founded upon the fact that everything is created, everything receives its being through a transcendent loving tenderness, everything is a gift.

Within the wisdom of the gift, human creativity and technological power can do great things to develop the world. But these latter things must be subordinated to this wisdom that comes from Another. In the cosmos and in his or her vocation of stewardship, the human person discovers the Other, the "Creator," the original Giver. In creation, the Giver begins to unfold the mysterious wisdom that is ultimately fulfilled in His giving of Himself.

So the creativity and freedom of the person are not subjected to "someone else's manipulative power," as though there were some alien force suppressing the person by violence. We are not called to be slaves of some other power in the universe that is simply greater than our power.

Rather the One who gives creation, and who gives us to ourselves, is Himself the Gift. He becomes Gift to us, because He is, in Himself, Infinite Gift. He is the radical opposite of selfishness. He is Love. We are called to adhere to Him in love. In this way, our freedom finds its fulfillment.

The freedom of love: this is what the whole creation awaits, groaning in travail, with such eager longing (see Romans 8:22).