The heart of Pope Francis’ new encyclical derives from the Christian perspective of creation—that the world stems from the hand of an all-powerful Creator and is endowed with His wisdom, and is wrought forth by His infinite love. In this blog post, we will unpack the implications of this vision for how we understand the nature and purpose of knowledge, how we relate to the objective order of things, and Pope Francis’ steadfast call to conversion.
While the so-called new atheists love to tout the achievements of science as banishing the need for God, the Christian tradition—especially most recently, Emeritus Pope Benedict (see the Regensburg address)—have strongly suggested otherwise. The reason is simple: science, for example, physics and chemistry, is always an unpacking of an order already latent within creation; that is, the scientist does not invent, but discovers the order he or she is studying (see physicist Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 76-92).
Indeed, the scientific revolution got off the ground by operating on this very premise: given the belief in an all-wise Creator, searching for rational laws of nature makes a great deal of sense (see especially here physicist and theologian Stanley Jaki, Savior of Science and James Hannam, God’s Philosophers). In fact, it was this very perspective that converted Anthony Flew, who was arguably the most renowned atheist of the second half of the twentieth century. Flew writes:
If you accept the fact that there are laws, then something must impose that regularity on the universe …. Those scientists who point to the Mind of God do not merely advance a series of arguments or a process of syllogistic reasoning. Rather, they propound a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and imposes itself on the rational mind. It is a vision I personally find compelling and irrefutable (Flew, There is a God, 110, 112).
God is the cause of the very existence and most fundamental order of the universe; the conclusions of science, therefore, do not compete with belief in a Creator but rather manifest His very wisdom embodied in creation.
This perspective further indicates that creation reveals an objective order of things—manifesting the wisdom of God—an order which is not put there by us; an order of truth, therefore, to which we must conform, not pretend to reshape and refashion in accordance with our passing desires. And the current ecological crisis, according to Pope Francis, stems from the loss of this very perspective: “Both [the damage done to the natural and social environment] are due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives … [that] human freedom is limitless” (no., 6).
The view that man is absolutely autonomous—that his freedom is “limitless”—gains traction only on the assumption that all truth is relative, that there is no objective order of things. But as St. John Paul II often pointed out: freedom must be subordinated to truth. True freedom is the ability to pursue the good, and it stems from and flows out of the truth of human nature and the objective fulfillment and perfection therein (for more on this and the above points, see my book, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again).
Power Knowledge and Contemplative Knowledge
Cardinal Schönborn and others have pointed to a shifting conception regarding the purpose of knowledge with Rene Descartes (1596-1650); for Descartes, the goal was quite simply “mastery over nature” (cf. Discourse on Method, Part Six)—the value of knowledge lay in its utility, making expediency the only norm (see Cardinal Schönborn, Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, 155).
Of course, we are all thankful for modern medicine, transportation, and the like; but there is something lost if the only goal of knowledge is not first just to know, but technology. The classical tradition of liberal arts going back to Aristotle and Plato saw the goal of knowledge as contemplation, as beholding the true and the real and the beauty therein; this knowledge answered to the human vocation as such and was therefore of intrinsic worth. Paradoxically, on the other hand, knowledge that is only ordered to utility is in a sense of a lesser value, since it is sought not as an end itself but only as a means to some other end.
Contemplative knowledge, it is true, won’t necessarily build sturdier bridges; but it will prevent the current neglect and indifference toward the deeper meaning of life and the true calling of the human person; it will orient man to the transcendent and not just the earthly; and it will value those disciplines that have a distinctly human flavor (e.g., philosophy, theology, literature, poetry, history, music, art, theoretical physics)—in other words, has anyone ever read the history of canine philosophy or seen rabbits discuss the difference between simile and metaphor?
Thus, the liberal arts tradition makes us “bigger” on the inside, as Peter Kreeft once said. We certainly need both, technological know-how and contemplation; but if we forego the latter, we run the risk of losing the fullness of our humanity by subordinating knowledge to the satisfaction of our desires—often, desires of comfort and entertainment, to the neglect of those most important matters and relationships right in front of us.
Recognizing an Objective Order of Things
If the world is the gift of a Loving Creator, how can we not be concerned with its care? If we believe in a Creator, we are not owners but stewards of all that is in our possession. Indeed, the theist has more—not less—reason to be concerned with the environment, endangered species, and the like.
The danger with the above-mentioned shift toward “power knowledge” is that the natural world can easily be conceived as a blank slate for man to modify at will; again, if utility and expedience are the only norm, then anything goes, so long as it satisfies the desires of those in power. But if we adopt the creation-based perspective of Pope Francis—whereby creation embodies the wisdom and glory of the Creator — then we will seek to use creation in accordance with its intrinsic purpose. In this light, Francis writes: “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves” (no., 6; see nos., 68-9, 75-6, 85, 132).
The Holy Father is quite balanced in making clear the unique and infinite dignity of the human being, on the one hand, and man’s call to care for the gift of creation, on the other (see nos., 90, 131). Indeed, it doesn’t make any sense to discuss man’s responsibility toward creation unless we first comprehend man’s utter uniqueness (cf. nos., 118, 220); after all, we don’t blame squirrels for not taking better care of the environment. All of creation is ordered to man as the pinnacle of creation, as the one made in God’s own image and willed for His own sake (cf. no., 65, 90); yet man is called in a special way to cooperate in God’s providence. After all, we are the only creature that can act either in accordance with the good of our nature, or contrary to it; all other creatures manifest God’s providence simply by their natures and God-given instincts; the uniqueness of man’s nature is that we are aware of the divinely-established order of things and can choose whether or not to participate in God’s providence over creation, both for ourselves and for others (cf. ST I-IIae q. 91, a. 2).
Indeed, Francis speaks frequently in this document of an “integral ecology” (see no. 15), by which he means the contextualization of environmental concerns in light of the infinite and inherent dignity of all human life at every stage. And so he states: “[C]oncern for the protection of nature is … incompatible with the justification of abortion” (no., 120). Francis similarly writes: “There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development” (no., 136).
In other words, the dignity of the human person follows on simply being human, not on the degree of development (e.g., embryo, fetus, three-month-old, ninety-three-year-old), or skin color, or economic productivity; the inherent dignity of every human life is the only real basis for human rights—otherwise, it always comes down to an arbitrary decision given by those in power, as to who is and is not “human.” Martin Luther King, Jr. made this point well in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, quoting in support the likes of Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Amos, and St. Paul. In this same vein, the pope rejects “population control” as a way of protecting the environment, as if man’s very presence were somehow the enemy (see nos., 50, 60).
Our discussion is predicated upon the fact that there is an objective order of things, put there by God Almighty; if we look at a building, we see the embodiment of what first existed in the mind of the architect. So, too, when we look at creation, we see the embodiment of divine wisdom, establishing the authentic order of things. When we come to know things, we recognize this order which was first known by God (see no., 80). While we have been speaking about creation at large, this too is the basis for the natural moral law—namely, that there is a reality to human nature, which makes certain actions consonant with the objective good of human nature and others contrary to its objective perfection.
Accordingly, Francis references the God-given meaning of our bodies and sexuality. Indeed, much like John Paul II’s use of the phrase the “language of the body,” Francis points to an objective meaning and purpose written into our bodies—a purpose that is not simply a blank slate for us to manipulate at will and use freely in accordance with our desires. Rather, as we pointed out earlier, freedom must be subordinated to the truth of things. Francis ties all of these issues together—concern for the environment and the ultimate basis for understanding our sexuality—as follows:
The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking we enjoy absolute power over our bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it’ (no., 155; I treat these issues further in my aforementioned work, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again).
“Throwaway Culture” and the Call to Conversion
While Francis sees the value and dignity in work and even of wealth creation which helps to lift people out of poverty (cf. nos., 124-6), he is callings us to rethink some of the assumptions of our present structure. He states in his characteristic diction, “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature” (no., 44). He expresses concern for the apotheosis of the market, which caters to human wants—not necessarily needs. The Church has never thought of the market as inherently evil of itself, but faithful Catholics have always steered the course between communism (which elevates the state as the supreme entity) and unbridled capitalism (which makes the individual absolutely supreme). For Catholics, the family is the fundamental unit of society. And the market has no inherent orientation always and everywhere to the good of the family. Francis’ concern is simply this: moral principle—not solely profit—must be the ultimate norm and guide, even when it comes to the economy (cf. nos., 56, 190, 195).
For Francis, the economy is ultimately ordered to the human good, which will in turn include the ecological good (cf. no., 195). Man is not just a body and a ball of emotional desires; but very often touching man at this superficial level is the goal of mass marketing, which in turn often leads to overconsumption—and thence, to more and more waste. The Holy Father points out that those most adversely affected are often the poor, especially in terms of the erosion of their culture, natural resources, and quality of life (see nos., 25, 27-30, 93, 144-6).
Part of the Catholic tradition of fasting is precisely this: that by going with less, we can give to those who have not. For Francis, the “throw away culture” is self-centered and individualistic—it is a culture which destroys both the social and natural environment; that is, it is corrosive not just to a particular forest or climate, but the fabric and ecosystem of the family as well, as the Holy Father states so forcefully here:
The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same ‘use and throw away’ logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary (no., 123; see no., 162).
Detaching (from things) and Attaching (to people)
While it’s not hard to see the positive effects of the digital age (e.g., staying in touch with family and the like), we also see the deterioration of interpersonal relationships with those closest to us; many of us have lots of “friends,” but suffer from a loneliness stemming from a lack of sincere connection with those nearest to us (see no., 47). Francis points out how the Christian tradition has always seen that “less is more,” how a life of simplicity is liberating; conversely (and paradoxically), the more attached we are to material goods, the more we “succumb to the sadness for what we lack” (no., 222).
Francis calls us to a “healthy humility” and a “happy sobriety” (no., 224), by which he means a moderating of our consumer attitude for material goods; and humility—rather than being marked by thinking less of ourselves—is really thinking less about ourselves. That is, humility enables us to turn outward in love of the other, whereas a consumer-type attitude is preoccupied with one’s own self-interest. But if we orient ourselves outward to God and neighbor, we will find our lives enriched and more fulfilling; and this outward focus will likewise foster greater concern and care for all of God’s creation, including the environment.
Appealing to God’s own inner Trinitarian life—as an Eternal Communion of Persons—and since man is made in this Trinitarian image, Francis points to human fulfillment through the sincere gift of self, in love to the other: “The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures” (no., 240).
As St. John Paul II so ardently taught, only love can conquer a culture of death marked by a utilitarian logic. Francis proposes a “culture of care” (no., 231), predicated upon a self-forgetfulness and inter-personal communion. Pope Francis’ vision is a true Christian humanism—a humanism which embraces Christ as the center of all things (cf. nos., 77, 100, 235) and which seeks to foster man’s cooperative embrace of his God-given calling, a calling which includes being a good steward over God’s wondrous gift of creation. And this calling flows from man’s absolute uniqueness and inherent dignity.
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Dr. Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension, presenter of the Bible study Romans: The Gospel of Salvation (and author of the companion book), also by Ascension, and presenter of Hebrews: The New and Eternal Covenant Bible study . Andrew is author of Nature and Grace, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter: @andrew_swafford.