Awe and Wonder: A Preliminary Comment on Laudato Si’

Pope Francis

Laudato Si is shaping up to be the most controversial papal encyclical since Humanae Vitae. On the surface, the dissent from these two encyclicals seems very different: the rebellion against Humanae Vitae came from the political “left,” while the present rebellion comes from the “right.” If, however, we dig beneath the shallow political categories, we find that the two rebellions are “ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless” (LS, 6).

The “left” has focused more on sexual freedom, and the “right” on economic freedom. The fundamental question for both, however, is: can we discover a rational order in nature, put there by God, an order to which we are called to conform our lives? Or do we see in nature—including our own human nature—only raw materials to be exploited for ends that we choose for ourselves?

In Romans 1 and 2, the Apostle Paul makes clear that even without direct revelation, it is possible to learn of the Creator through Creation itself, and to discover His law written in our hearts. But most of us do not really want to discover these truths; instead, we want to serve our own desires.

How, then, can we begin to recover the harmony of Creator and creation described in Genesis 1 and 2?

Pope Francis writes:

[St.] Francis [of Assisi] helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. 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 (LS, 11).

To see this point more clearly, imagine a river.

Rainier Waterfall Crossing

One person looks at the river and sees a complex, interdependent ecosystem, a whole that is much greater than the sum of its individual parts, as a person is more than the sum of the cells that make up his body. He sees the river as one of the jewels of God’s creation, and remembers that he is a tenant on God’s land, responsible to Him for stewarding of His creation (see, for example, Mark 12:1-12). He will strive to see how the various parts of the river ecosystem are connected together, how each has various purposes in relation to the others.

Another person looks at the river and sees it as raw material: a source of fish to eat, or hydro power, or water for drinking and irrigation; she sees the river’s periodic floods as a threat to other human projects; or she looks at the trees growing on the slopes above the river and sees only a certain number of board-feet of timber. She proceeds to fish the river, or to dam it up to extract power and water and control flooding, or to cut the trees on the slopes above, all with little attention to how extracting the resource he is interested in affects the ecosystem as a whole.

These same attitudes find expression in debates over human sexuality.

When I have taught “What is Marriage?” [pdf] in my undergraduate philosophy classes, I find that the students have great difficulty understanding the authors’ argument. The conjugal view of marriage is deeply rooted in the way human sexuality naturally functions. The revisionist view of sexuality is only made possible (for heterosexuals, at least) by the various modern technologies that can separate sexual intimacy from pregnancy.

For my students, however, the default kind of sex is contraceptive. It can be done for fun or to express love—or whatever. Sex is something that people can choose to use in a variety of ways, solitary or social. This does not mean they think anything goes, sexually speaking. But what is “right” for a particular individual or couple is determined by whether their behavior helps meet their goals (whatever those may be). They don’t think that the answers to questions of right and wrong in the sexual sphere are found in human nature.

This is actually somewhat odd. If I ask them what the purpose of the digestive, circulatory, or nervous system is, they can give very sensible answers. But if we try to talk about the use of those parts which are technically called the reproductive system, reproduction does not play any very central role in the discussion (except perhaps as a danger to be avoided). This isn’t altogether wrong: marital union is more than just reproduction, and the students are right to recognize that sexual intimacy has an interpersonal meaning. But for most of them, contraception has so altered the culture of sex that they can no longer discover the logic of sex as God created it to be.

Both Humanae Vitae and Laudato Si’ invite us to reflect critically on the radical possibilities that have been opened up by modern technology. We have gained unprecedented power over both our own bodies and the environment around us. But as the opening paragraphs of Laudato Si’ remind us, all of the recent popes have challenged the idea that we can use technology to achieve our own ends, without reference to the order found within nature created by God.

Whether we speak of the natural ecosystem of a river, or of the ecology of human relations, it’s important to begin with the “awe and wonder” that Pope Francis describes. We need, first, to contemplate the natural order as it is given to us, to learn its rhythms, and to be stewards who tend the ecosystem and human ecology that has been entrusted to us, its hopefully wise gardeners.

I don’t mean to pretend that this process is easy or obvious. Even when we have moved away from simply viewing the natural environment as just so many raw materials for our own projects, we will still face difficult decisions. Building a solar energy complex that will dramatically reduce environmental damage from fossil fuels may threaten an endangered species. Reasonable people can disagree about how best to nurture a flourishing ecosystem, and in some cases, it may require deep study to find the right answers.

Human ecology is similarly complex. Even when we no longer view others simply as a source of revenue, or as productive labor, or as an object of pleasure, and strive to see them as brothers and sisters, children of the same Creator, not everyone will immediately agree on what that means in practice. Discovering the right answers—and persuading others that they are right—is not a simple task.

There is, therefore, a great deal more that needs to be said about how we would learn how to live by contemplating nature with “awe and wonder” (the encyclical itself offers a great deal that I haven’t covered in this brief note). But if we know little of this way of thinking today, it is because every domain of modern life—from the family to the economy to the state—is dominated by the kind of instrumental reason which rejected Humanae Vitae in 1968, and is rejecting Laudato Si’ today.

Many Catholics on the “right” have sneered at Catholics on the “left” who cite Laudato Si‘ while rejecting Humanae Vitae. But I think there is an important lesson for preaching the Gospel to be found here. I find that is much easier to lead my students to grasp the principles of the Natural Law when I start with ecology (or, incidentally, with Martin Luther King, Jr.). They have great difficulty grasping why the conjugal view might be preferable to the revisionist view. But they readily see why the ecological mindset is superior to the mindset that just sees the river as resources to be exploited.

We might view the at least initially positive reception of the encyclical by those who are often not interested in Catholic teaching as evidence that Pope Francis has found, in the modern Aeropagus, our culture’s temple to the unknown God (see Acts 17:16-34). Yet the encyclical does not just repeat the truths they already know: it connects those truths with the much more difficult teachings about sexuality and human ecology which they do not yet grasp:

Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man”, based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will”. It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. 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 that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that 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” (LS, 155).

It is a bold and challenging proposal.

ron50Ron Belgau is the cofounder of Spiritual Friendship and is completing a PhD in Philosophy. He teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He will be speaking at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, and can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

8 thoughts on “Awe and Wonder: A Preliminary Comment on Laudato Si’

  1. Ron, thank you, something really clicked inside after reading this post. The explanation of the river and the ecology of human relationships and looking at sexuality as the sum of the whole makes much more sense than the exclusive rhetoric of the sinfulness of any sexual desire outside marriage… even though sin plays a big part in recognizing our human weakness and carnality. I think what I have been looking for in my spiritual journey is: where do I fit in the church? – the body of Christ- if not in a marriage. It is very hard to unlearn that narrative and this makes much more sense if we are to flourish as single and celibate.

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