Laudato Si’, the Natural Philosopher, and the Common Good


Leslie Armour notes that Charles De Koninck

was writing before “ecology” had become a catch word, before anyone had thought of “green parties” and before the contemporary animal rights movements had caught the popular imagination. But he had devoted much of his life to the philosophy of science, and he feared that a growing movement toward pragmatic subjectivism in science combined with a set of values built around the idea of “person” could prove disastrous for nature at large and for human nature in particular.

Today it struck me with particular force that the concerns and passions for the truth espoused by De Koninck would have found much impetus by a docile reading of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ latest “Western-culture-and-media-elite-click-bait-evangelization” encyclical. I would like to offer some brief comments on two themes, and then end with other links, quotes, and commentary on the encyclical for your further enlightenment. I hope later to write something more substantial (publishable) on these two themes.The first theme of interest is natural philosophy in the broad sense (broad enough to include metaphysics, physics, cosmology; see St. Thomas prooemium to the Ethics, n. 2). Pope Francis’ argument hinges upon an understanding of the cosmos as perfected by the good of order (the rest or tranquility of which is peace). This rich understanding of the universe can only be defended by a Thomistic-Aristotelian philosophy of nature and metaphysics. For this reason the Pope’s encyclical is a clarion call for scientists, philosophers, and theologians to step up their game to provide an intelligent explication to and education of others that defends this foundation of the Pope’s teaching.

The second theme concerns the common good. A key portion of the central fourth chapter of the encyclical discusses the common good. Quoting the definition provided by Gaudium et Spes, n. 26, Pope Francis writes:

Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. The common good is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” (LS, n. 156)

He then goes on to describe this common good in terms that have a modern ring but whose overtones sound classical—the common good is most essentially justice and peace:

Underlying the principle of the common good is respect for the human person as such, endowed with basic and inalienable rights ordered to his or her integral development. It has also to do with the overall welfare of society and the development of a variety of intermediate groups, applying the principle of subsidiarity. Outstanding among those groups is the family, as the basic cell of society. Finally, the common good calls for social peace, the stability and security provided by a certain order which cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice; whenever this is violated, violence always ensues. Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good. (LS, n. 157)

Elsewhere, Pope Francis speaks of the climate as a common good (n. 23). He also implicitly discusses the many common goods or common stock made available to man by the environments and ecosystems where he lives. While it would take more discussion to distinguish between the various notions of “common good” at work here, the overall concern of Pope Francis’ ecological conversion (only the first stage in an ascending hierarchy) requires the notion that there is a common good proper to the created order as such.

Now, the common good of the universe is twofold: intrinsically, it consists in its completion or rest as a unity of order (multiplicity in one), and extrinsically, it is ordered to God, the common good of the entire created order (including the physical and spiritual—angelic—orders). De Koninck famously defends the primacy of the political common good using the Thomistic metaphysics of the cosmos as his guide, and penned an unfinished renovation of Thomistic cosmology incorporating the possibility of cosmic and biological evolution in The Cosmos. Since the good of order of the cosmos is the means by which God manifests His glory, it is not inconceivable that the intensively infinite perfections of God be manifested not merely in a multiplicity of creatures in kind or through space, but also over time.

The difficulty with this conception of the cosmos and its intrinsic common good is related to the first theme. There is a “common good skepticism” which clouds modern thought. The common good is little more than a mutual contract between individuals stipulating what benefits are derivable from the alien power of the State as dispensator of a common source of resources and power. Here again, Catholic political scientists, philosophers, and theologians must contribute to a healthier understanding of the common good to use Laudato Si’ as an entry-point to evangelize modern man, lost in a wasteland-cosmos of Baconian-Cartesian-Nietzschean dystopia.

In closing, it is worth emphasizing the Eucharistic coda of LS.

It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world”. The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, “creation is projected towards divinization, towards the holy wedding feast, towards unification with the Creator himself”. Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.

On Sunday, our participation in the Eucharist has special importance. Sunday, like the Jewish Sabbath, is meant to be a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world. Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, the “first day” of the new creation, whose first fruits are the Lord’s risen humanity, the pledge of the final transfiguration of all created reality. It also proclaims “man’s eternal rest in God”. In this way, Christian spirituality incorporates the value of relaxation and festivity. We tend to demean contemplative rest as something unproductive and unnecessary, but this is to do away with the very thing which is most important about work: its meaning. We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity, which is quite different from mere inactivity. Rather, it is another way of working, which forms part of our very essence. It protects human action from becoming empty activism; it also prevents that unfettered greed and sense of isolation which make us seek personal gain to the detriment of all else. The law of weekly rest forbade work on the seventh day, “so that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your maidservant, and the stranger, may be refreshed” (Ex 23:12). Rest opens our eyes to the larger picture and gives us renewed sensitivity to the rights of others. And so the day of rest, centred on the Eucharist, sheds it light on the whole week, and motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor. (LS, nn. 236–37)

These lines reminded me of how Josef Pieper ends his reflection on leisure as the basis of culture; the Eucharist is the supreme source of true leisure for man in the wayfaring universe:

It is the peculiarity of this phenomenon of Christian worship thatit is at once sacrifice and sacrament. Insofar as the celebration of Christian worship is sacrifice, taking place in the midst of creationand reaching its highest affirmation and fulfillment in this sacrifice of the God-Man, to this extent it is truly an eternally valid celebration so that even the weekday is called a feria in Latin: the liturgy only recognizes festival-days. But, insofar as this sacrificial ritual is also a sacrament, it takes place as a bodily visible sign. And only then can the Christian cultic worship unfold its whole, indwelling, formative power, when its sacramental character is realized without any curtailment, when the sacramental sign is allowed to become fullyvisible. For, as I said, in leisure man overcomes the working worldof the work-day—not through his utter most exertion, but as in withdrawal from such exertion. Now this is exactly the meaning of sacramental visibility: that the human being is “rapt” or “seized” and “removed” by it. And this is no private, romantic interpretation. For it is with like words that the Church Herself expresses themeaning of the Human Incarnation of the Logos: ut dum visibiliter Deum cognoscimus, per hunc in invisibilium amore rapiamur, that through the “visible” reality of this Sacrifice we may be “rapt” to the love of “invisible” reality. It is our hope, then, that this true meaning of sacramental visibility may be met with in the celebration of the cultic worship, in such a way that it can be realized concretely for the human being “born to labor”: to be taken from the toil of the work-day, to an endlessday of celebration; to be rapt from the confines of the working environment into the very center of the world. (Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture)

This is center towards which all humanity, knowingly and unknowingly, labors and yearns for rest:

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones. (Waugh, Brideshead Revisited)

Is this enthusiasm for receiving the new encyclical with docility justified? I think it is: I hope to reread it more closely (—hey, I’m dissertating, give me a break). Perhaps it will become clearer from these further links, reflections, and quotes.

A recent talk at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC, yielded the following points which I found helpful or interesting.

  • The encyclical calls for a multi-level conversion, not just an “ecological” conversion; so read to the end! The final conversion is, of course, to Christ in the Eucharist
  • The encyclical is concerned both with anthropocentrism and with misanthropy when it comes to the human place in creation; the proper mean is one of stewardship
  • A key question we should ask ourselves after reading the encyclical isn’t whether climate change skepticism should be on our radar, but how common good skepticism affects the modern world (paraphrasing @CCPecknold; see more of Dr. Pecknold’s commentary here)
  • The ideologies attacked are not so much “modernity” as such, but rather technocracy, scientism, consumer, and cronyism (but not by that name); indeed, LS is more closely a critique of progressivism and the moral indifferentism that comes in its ware (and in this way is comparable to the Syllabus of Errors; see also Leo XIII—this is the “modernism” that the Pope assaults: on which see more by Stephen White [a balanced take], Ross Douthat [casts its as dynamism vs. catastrophism], and R. R. Reno [it’s the new “syllabus of errors,” “Francis has penned a cri de coeur, a dark reflection on the systemic evils of modernity.”], and WaPo’s Schmitz [the Pope wants to roll back progress])
  • LS is, therefore (and also implicitly) against transhumanism
  • The Church has lost ground in “care for creation” dialogue happening in the culture (as a point of evangelization), and this encyclical can work towards reclaiming that space; LS opens up the avenue for engaging/evangelizing the Baconian/Cartesian modern landscape, breaking through the progressivist fight between left and right

On the theme of the various understandings of nature, science, and power that LS addresses, see Yuval Levin’s short piece at the National Review: “I don’t think the fundamental purpose of the encyclical is to tell Catholics they should care about environmentalism, even if the Pope would surely like them to do so. I think its purpose is to tell environmentalists they should care about their souls.”

Pater Edmund picks up on many of the themes discussed at the CIC, as well as the Pope’s trenchant critique of the gnostic gospel of progress in this post. He also provides a very helpful roundup of commentary on the encyclical. (You should go read these yourself, especially for the links to critiques from economic and theological perspectives, e.g., the Pope’s single citation of Teilhard de Chardin which has garnered some ireful notice) A sampling of some of the quotes he cites …

Alan Jacobs notes:

A book frequently quoted in this encyclical is Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World. Pope Francis has long been interested in and influenced by Guardini, who was also a major influence on Benedict XVI. If I had my way, I’d spend the next couple of months preparing to teach a class in which this encyclical — a far richer work than I had expected it to be, and one that I hope will have lasting power — would be read alongside Guardini’s book, with both accompanied by repeated viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. The class would be called “Who Killed the World?”

And of course, we all know that Mad Max is rich in philosophical insight—at least if you can spot it.

The list of commentators who have picked up on the need for a renewed natural philosophy, cosmology, and metaphysics is none too small. For instance, Christopher Malloy wonders: “Could we say that there is an implicit: Back to Aristotle! Back to metaphysics! in this encyclical?” (Indeed, the Pope cites one of St. Thomas’ most insightful, lapidary comments on the essence of nature from his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics … I’ll let you find that one!)

Pater Edmund on Thomas Hibbs:

Hibbs absolutely nails the key point that Laudato Si’ is a protest against modern cosmology and natural philosophy as being at the root of so many modern problems:

Laudato Si’ is an ambitious document, one that seeks nothing less than the re-imagining of the place of human persons in the entirety of the created cosmos. Francis discerns beneath the contemporary ecological crisis a crisis of the human person, who is now lost in the cosmos, increasingly alienated from self, others, nature, and God. Ecological threats are but one symptom of a much broader crisis: “If the present ecolog­ical crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural, and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot pre­sume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamen­tal human relationships” (119). The most audacious claim in the encyclical is not the affirmation of the reality of climate change, but the insistence that to have a coherent and effective environmental philosophy requires both an anthropology and a cosmology.

Patrick Deneen:

The theme that runs through [the Encyclical] is, I think, a very Aristotelian theme – not surprisingly – a Thomistic and Aristotelian theme: how human beings live in and with and through nature, in ways that do not fall into what Pope Francis calls, again and again, the twin temptations of, on the one hand, viewing human beings as separate from nature in our capacity to dominate nature, [and] on the other side, a kind of anti-humanism which regards human beings as equally foreign to nature, but now as a kind of virus that has to – in some ways – be eliminated.

Fr. Robert Barron:

Fr. Robert Barron invokes Aristotelian natural philosophy as well, and ties it to Guardini’s delightful early work, Briefe vom Comer See:

To get a handle on Guardini’s worldview, one should start with a series of essays that he wrote in the 1920′s, gathered into book form as Letters from Lake Como. Like many Germans (despite his very Italian name, Guardini was culturally German), he loved to vacation in Italy, and he took particular delight in the lake region around Milan. He was enchanted, of course, by the physical beauty of the area, but what intrigued him above all was the manner in which human beings, through their architecture and craftsmanship, interacted non-invasively and respectfully with nature. When he first came to the region, he noticed, for example, how the homes along Lake Como imitated the lines and rhythms of the landscape and how the boats that plied the lake did so in response to the swelling and falling of the waves. But by the 1920′s, he had begun to notice a change. The homes being built were not only larger, but more “aggressive,” indifferent to the surrounding environment, no longer accommodating themselves to the natural setting. And the motor-driven boats on the lake were no longer moving in rhythm with the waves, but rather cutting through them indifferently. In these unhappy changes, Guardini noted the emergence of a distinctively modern sensibility. He meant that the attitudes first articulated by Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century and René Descartes in the seventeenth were coming to dominate the mentality of twentieth-century men and women. Consciously departing from Aristotle, who had said that knowledge is a modality of contemplation, Bacon opined that knowledge is power, more precisely power to control the natural environment. This is why he infamously insisted that the scientist’s task is to put nature “on the rack” so that she might give up her secrets.

The theme of the common good has also caught the eye of Kathryn Jean Lopez at NR.

2 thoughts on “Laudato Si’, the Natural Philosopher, and the Common Good

  1. “modern man, lost in a wasteland-cosmos of Baconian-Cartesian-Nietzschean dystopia.” Nicely put! Well done article.

"Sed contra" or "Distinguo" or "Amplius" below ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s