The recent revelations surrounding the selling of fetal body parts by Planned Parenthood highlight a crisis in contemporary society depicted in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. With uncanny insight, Pope Francis had written, “the culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects…. Is it not the same relativistic logic that justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted?” (LS 123).
Pope Francis’ recent encyclical has been referred to as the “climate-change encyclical,” or described as an encyclical on the environment, which is surely a narrow understanding that may leave readers to wonder why the Pope speaks so often in defense of universal moral truths and man’s unique nature and dignity. I suggest that a clue may be found in the subtitle of Laudato Si’: “On Care for Our Common Home.” The encyclical’s focus may be viewed from the human virtue of caring. If we approach the encyclical through the lens of human caring, we will find help from an at-first unlikely source, the twentieth-century Christian writer C.S. Lewis. We will see that Laudato Si’ has much to say about the ethical crises of our age.
What exactly does the word “care” suggest? It indicates concern for the wellbeing of another and is typically associated with protection. Care can be seen more clearly in its similarity to, and difference from, friendship. Following Aristotle, Aquinas said that friendship was constituted by benevolence, desiring the good of the other for the sake of the other. Friendship distinctively indicates a kind of equality and communication. Aquinas said that love (caritas) is friendship with God. This is possible because the Incarnation allowed us to share in the “divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). Even so, man remains inferior to God and is in need of his protection: “Cast all your anxieties on God, for he cares about you” (1 Pet 5:7). Care thus demands no equality, but even thrives on inequality, we might say. Care sees the other as in need of assistance and worthy of assistance. To speak of caring for our common home puts the focus on developing the uniquely human ability to care for other people and our common environment.
C.S. Lewis, in his justly famous The Abolition of Man (1943), wrote that, “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.” Lewis indicates an inescapable dynamic in which the way human beings approach nature necessarily impacts how human beings approach each other. In particular, Lewis expressed a two-fold concern, bringing together two strands of thought often unconnected: moral relativism and the technological conquest of nature.
Lewis argued that the modern movement to set aside objective moral value decisively broke with traditional notions of what it means to be human. When moral truth is expunged, then there are no longer proper or improper emotional responses to the world around us; there are merely responses to stimuli. Without objective moral responses, only scientific, or calculating, reason remains to guide human action. The traditional notion, expressed already in Plato, was that human reason governs the appetites through the emotions or “spirited nature.” In Lewis’s apt turn of phrase, “The head rules the belly through the chest.”
Instead, Lewis saw modern education producing “men without chests,” i.e., bellies and brains without hearts and values, leading to technical exploitation of human beings and the environment. The traditional view exalted the garden, in which human beings cultivated nature for the purpose of beauty and enjoyment; the modern view either wishes nature to be left as a wilderness or exploited for wealth.
Lewis diagnoses relativism not as an advance forward beyond more primitive notions of right and wrong; rather, relativism takes away that peculiar moral note that has been the human contribution to the symphony—and cacophony—of creation. He writes, “Nature will be troubled now more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness.” The attempt to unshackle itself from traditional morality has reduced human beings to the realm of the sub-human.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis echoes these twin dangers of a technological paradigm that only seeks to exploit the environment and a biological paradigm that seeks to deny human uniqueness (“biocentricism” in LS 118). Care for the environment becomes impossible if human beings treat things as mere objects to be manipulated at will. The Pope writes: “humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object” (LS 106). To care about someone or something recognizes that the recipient of such care has an order of its own that demands respect.
In Defense of the Natural Moral Order
The order present in nature places limits on human action. Yet, these constraints are exactly what the technological paradigm denies. All is available for research; all must bend beneath the human will. The Pope connects exploitation of the environment to exploitation of human beings as examples of “a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected” (LS 117). A meaningful call to care for the environment must recognize the objective dignity of human beings who require a certain kind of care. However, proper care is not license. “It is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos” (LS 136).
Yet, just as important to the encyclical is the kind of creature that is capable of caring. To care requires the ability to feel responsibility towards the other and to recognize the other’s inner worth and order. Here Pope Francis challenges one of the central dogmas of contemporary environmentalism, namely, that environmental degradation stems from the myth of human uniqueness and so must be combatted by putting human beings on the same level with other living organisms. He writes: “Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. … The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object” (LS 81). To care for the environment presupposes that human beings are uniquely qualified to do so because they are morally responsible. “This rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of the freedom and responsibility of human beings who, as part of the world, have the duty to cultivate their abilities in order to protect it and develop its potential” (LS 78). Only humans can care for the environment.
It is no accident, however, that the modern technological paradigm that challenges the uniqueness of human beings also undermines moral truths. Pope Francis writes, “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” (LS 155); he then quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who “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’” (LS 155). Such manipulation is seen most clearly in abortion, when more powerful human beings end the life of the less powerful. This is why the references to embryos and abortion are not extraneous to the encyclical.
Abortion is the fruit of the technological paradigm applied to human being themselves. As Lewis had written, “The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his dehumanized Conditioners.” Pope Francis writes: “Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment” (LS 162). One cannot fix the problems of how human beings treat the environment without addressing the problems of how we treat one another.
The Recognition of God as Creator
To care for creation properly requires that we recognize the beginning and end of creation in God. Two distinctions thus are necessary: the distinction between human beings and sub-human creation, and the more fundamental distinction between creation and God. As Pope Francis succinctly states, “We are not God” (LS 68). He continues, “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality” (LS 75). The recognition of God as Creator shows that there are givens to reality to which human beings are called to conform. It is our home, but ultimately God’s.
Humans are not easily regulated animals, but creatures with monstrous appetites and desires so large that they could easily consume themselves, let alone the planet. Pope Francis calls for sobriety to temper excessive consumption, for obedience to temper autonomy, and for theism to temper subjectivism: “It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong” (LS 224). A strong sense of God, and of right and wrong, drive the duty to care for those in most need of our assistance, not only the lower creatures, but especially poor fellow humans. The encyclical thus places at the forefront of environmental concern two great truths that are so counter-cultural in the present moment: the uniqueness of God as Creator, and the uniqueness of man as rational and free.
When the modern environmental movement excludes God and morality, it undermines its ability to confront the very forces responsible for environmental degradation. Consider another insight from Lewis’ Abolition of Man: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Modern education mocks traditional sexual morality and yet expects restraint in the use of natural resources.
It is the one human person that must guide the almighty will in both social relations and relations with the rest of creation. A similar connection was made early in Laudato Si’: “Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour. The social environment has also suffered damage. Both 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 11). Care for the environment cannot proceed without an acknowledgement of moral truths since care is itself a moral activity. Pope Francis looks upon the present state of society and finds a corrupt culture where “objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld,” and where “laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (LS 123). Environmental policies alone are insufficient where there is no culture of caring.
With the help of C.S. Lewis, we can see that Laudato Si’ calls for a new environmentalism rooted in the recognition of the objective moral order and the resulting care for creation by human beings made in the image and likeness of God. The recent revelations about the selling of human body parts show that contemporary societies are indeed failing to care for our common home.