In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis invites us to consider the ambitious question, “Why?” The consequences of this question can be felt in every area of human activity, not only in how we preserve the beauty and abundance of the natural world, but also in how we build our cities, share ideas, and generally keep the entire project of Western Civilization going. This has always been the mission of the Universal Church, and in the sickness of our contemporary culture, it is more urgent than ever. Indeed, Pope Francis documents a grim picture of the world in which our very humanity is slipping away and the only way to stop it is to restore an appreciation for truth, beauty, and virtue to their proper place at the core of our society.Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, 1906
The conservationists who argued for land to be set aside as National Parks around the turn of the last century did so because appreciated the value of nature as something for mankind to enjoy and for its aesthetic appeal, not simply as something to be closed off from all human intervention. This is exactly the opposite of the approach taken by most environmental activists today. At the same time, large corporations promote “green” products and practices not out of any concern for human flourishing, but purely for profit and political reasons. One of the recurring themes in Pope Francis’ encyclical is that for any conservation program to be successful, it must be, above all, motivated by concern for our fellow man.
Aside from our immortal soul what makes us human–what differentiates us from animals–is the ability to devise technology. However, we have come to the point where our technology is so advanced that it will end up controlling us unless we take better care of our souls. Our technology is an ecosystem, an organism in its own right. Unless we assert that our soul is unique and exceptional and divinely ordered above all of creation, then we become nothing more than the faceless inputs and excretions of our technology (which in this context, includes social science and politics), which in turn exists only for its own sake and no higher purpose.Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633
Too often, we embrace technical solutions instead of examining the root cause of the problem in the first place. In so doing, Pope Francis observes that instead of using technology to serve human needs, our reliance on technology is changing the way we think so that increasingly we as individuals are following, perhaps without even realizing it, the path which is most convenient for the central planners and engineers who are making decisions for us. We are also overloaded with information, what Pope Francis calls “mental pollution.” In this chaos and tumult of the modern world, we are left helplessly clinging to whatever pieces of flotsam and jetsam might happen to drift by instead of carefully considering the best course to navigate through the storm.
This returns us then to the central point, the “Why?”
“113. …There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness.”
The mighty institutions of our civilization do not exist for their own sake, but because they sustain our culture. The mighty buildings of our cities do not exist to force people to live on top of each other, but because we have a deep and abiding desire for community. The mighty corporations of the marketplace do not exist purely to make a profit, but because every one of us must be nourished and clothed. The mighty laws and authority of our government do not exist to serve the interests of the powerful, but because liberty—properly so called—does not grow wild, but must be cultivated. As Pope Francis writes at §160, “It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations…has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.” If our institutions are corrupt, our buildings ugly, and our laws unjust, we need look no further than the crisis of the human soul and the ascendancy of relativism for the root of the problem.