The most sub­ver­sive text of the year


For a good many of us, “Laudato Si” (Praised Be) will be the most sub­ver­sive text we will read all year, or in­deed for many years. The ex­tra­or­di­nary eco-en­cycli­cal from Pope Fran­cis con­tains ex­plo­sive truths, not about the science of cli­mate change, but about the per­sis­tence of poverty, the ex­cesses of a mar­ket econ­omy, the fetish for tech­nol­ogy and the tech­no­cratic so­lu­tion, the con­se­quences of mid­dle­class as­pi­ra­tions, the fail­ings of the media, even the role of the hu­man in a “ra­pid­i­fy­ing” world.

“Laudato Si” of­fers the kind of rad­i­cal read­ing that sub­verts our as­sump­tions, chal­lenges our deep­est con­vic­tions, makes us see anew. The lengthy doc­u­ment at­tempts to give a truly global treat­ment of the eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe we all face; some or many of the notes the Pope strikes will be fa­mil­iar to us, but taken to­gether, the whole ac­quires a res­o­nance un­heard since “Gaudium et Spes” sig­naled the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween the Church and the mod­ern world.

Right on the first page, in para­graph two, we read: “The vi­o­lence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also re­flected in the symp­toms of sick­ness ev­i­dent in the soil, in the wa­ter, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth her­self, bur­dened and laid waste, is among the most aban­doned and mal­treated of our poor; she ‘groans in tra­vail’ (Rom 8:22).”

‘Easy as­sump­tion’

The earth it­self is poor. This pow­er­ful as­ser­tion flies in the face of the easy as­sump­tion that the planet is rich in still un­tapped re­sources, and that vul­ner­a­bil­ity is a hu­man con­struct not ap­pli­ca­ble to it; the state­ment forces us to see that the con­nec­tion be­tween poverty and plan­e­tary fragility is in­ti­mate, as close as it gets.

Given the ad­vice on hom­i­lies Pope Fran­cis sug­gested in his apos­tolic ex­hor­ta­tion “Evan­gelii Gaudium,” it is no sur­prise to find that Para­graph 16 help­fully lists the key themes which “reap­pear as the En­cycli­cal un­folds.” There are 10 in all: “the in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship be­tween the poor and the fragility of the planet, the con­vic­tion that ev­ery­thing in the world is con­nected, the cri­tique of new paradigms and forms of power de­rived from tech­nol­ogy, the call to seek other ways of un­der­stand­ing the econ­omy and progress, the value proper to each crea­ture, the hu­man mean­ing of ecol­ogy, the need for forth­right and hon­est de­bate, the se­ri­ous re­spon­si­bil­ity of in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal pol­icy, the throw­away cul­ture and the pro­posal of a new lifestyle.”

Some pas­sages ac­quire a deeper shade when read against the Pope’s per­sonal back­ground. For in­stance, those of us who be­lieve in the “as­pi­ra­tional” di­men­sion of planned real es­tate com­mu­ni­ties will be dis­turbed to read Para­graph 45: “In some places, ru­ral and ur­ban alike, the pri­va­ti­za­tion of cer­tain spa­ces has re­stricted peo­ple’s ac­cess to places of par­tic­u­lar beauty. In other, ‘eco­log­i­cal’ neigh­bor­hoods have been cre­ated which are closed to out­siders in or­der to en­sure an ar­ti­fi­cial tran­quil­ity. Fre­quently, we find beau­ti­ful and care­fully man­i­cured green spa­ces in so-called ‘safer’ ar­eas of cities, but not in the more hid­den ar­eas where the dis­pos­able of so­ci­ety live.”

This note re­minds us of a dis­clo­sure Fran­cis made, in that se­ries of in­ter­views Francesca Am­bro­getti and Ser­gio Ru­bin con­ducted with him when he was still car­di­nal arch­bishop of Buenos Aires, about his first trip abroad, in the 1970s: “In Mexico I came across a gated com­mu­nity for the first time, some­thing that didn’t ex­ist in Ar­gentina back then. I was as­ton­ished to see how a group of peo­ple could cut them­selves off from so­ci­ety.”

‘Ar­ti­fi­cial tran­quil­ity’

Para­graph 45 re­vis­its that orig­i­nal mo­ment of as­ton­ish­ment, but now sees in the phe­nom­e­non of the gated com­mu­nity another as­pect of it: not the de­ci­sion of “a group of peo­ple” to “cut them­selves off from so­ci­ety,” but rather the ef­fect that cut­ting off has on the “out­siders,” the “dis­pos­able.” Taken to­gether, the “ar­ti­fi­cial tran­quil­ity” that gated com­mu­ni­ties of­fer may come at too high a price.

Other pas­sages hit us where we least ex­pect it. Para­graph 47, for in­stance, is a star­tling cri­tique of the media’s role in “men­tal pol­lu­tion.” Star­tling be­cause it comes un­ex­pect­edly in a sec­tion on the de­clin­ing qual­ity of hu­man life, and be­cause it does not pull any punches. It be­gins: “When media and the dig­i­tal world be­come om­nipresent, their in­flu­ence can stop peo­ple from learn­ing how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love gen­er­ously.” It con­tin­ues: “True wis­dom, as the fruit of self­ex­am­i­na­tion, di­a­logue and gen­er­ous en­counter be­tween per­sons, is not ac­quired by a mere ac­cu­mu­la­tion of data which even­tu­ally leads to over­load and con­fu­sion, a sort of men­tal pol­lu­tion.” It con­cludes: “We should be con­cerned that, along­side the ex­cit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties of­fered by these media, a deep and melan­cholic dis­sat­is­fac­tion with in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tions, or a harm­ful sense of iso­la­tion, can also arise.”

There are many more such pas­sages; in a doc­u­ment that tries to see the great­est cri­sis fac­ing the planet in the clear­est terms, there is no room for fudg­ing or word­minc­ing. The Pope’s visit to the United States in Septem­ber will pro­voke an en­counter with science-deny­ing Catholic con­ser­va­tives. The en­cycli­cal will not al­low them to mis­un­der­stand Fran­cis. Here, for in­stance, is para­graph 67: “We are not God. The earth was here be­fore us and it has been given to us. This al­lows us to re­spond to the charge that Ju­daeoChris­tian think­ing, on the ba­sis of the Ge­n­e­sis ac­count which grants man ‘do­min­ion’ over the earth (cf. Gen. 1:28), has en­cour­aged the un­bri­dled ex­ploita­tion of na­ture by paint­ing him as dom­i­neer­ing and de­struc­tive by na­ture. This is not a cor­rect in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Bi­ble as un­der­stood by the Church.” That, it seems to me, is a sub­ver­sion of the pe­cu­liarly Amer­i­can gospel of never-end­ing re­sourcerich pros­per­ity. Read more: http://opin­ion. in­­most-sub­ver­sive-text-of-theyear#ixz­z3­drVk4WRc

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