BLOOMFIELD – Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” was released in May of 2015, and people are still trying to unpack the meaning of this rich document.
Unfortunately, some of the Pope’s most important messages have been skipped over in our natural desire to spring to action, said one expert on the topic right here in the archdiocese.
Kevin Johnson, adjunct professor of philosophy, religion and theology at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, spoke on March 18 to attendees of “Encountering Creation: A Day of Reflection on Pope Francis’ Call to Care for Our Common Home.”
The half-day event, held at the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, was sponsored by the Office of Catholic Social Justice Ministry in collaboration with the Pastoral Department for Small Christian Communities.
Johnson put his focus on the encyclical’s most perplexing chapter — chapter 3, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis.” “This is directly in the center of the encyclical, so it’s the meat Pope Francis is leading us to,” he said.
“We all want to run, including myself, to ‘things to do,’” Johnson admitted. Yet Pope Francis is asking us to pause, he said, for a moment to recognize that “there’s a deeper problem.”
Johnson highlighted key points in chapter 3 that shed light on the way we approach the environment today:
• Technocratic paradigm.
In the encyclical, Pope Francis marvels at what science and technology have brought us, from skyscrapers to modern medicine, Johnson said. But, at the same time, he expresses concern over how we have allowed science and technology to limit our vision.
Johnson pointed to two important lines in the text in which Pope Francis wrote, “It is the way humanity has taken up technology and its development . [ital per encyc.] This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.”
“What Pope Francis is pointing out is that this idea of looking at the world as something to be controlled, according to an agenda, is part of the problem. This idea of a ‘technocratic paradigm’ is the problem,” Johnson said.
“There’s an assumption. The way we approach the world is like this: the model is technology and science and doing and evaluating and rationalizing and measuring,” he said. “And if you don’t think like that, then there’s something wrong [with you].”
This model of thinking controls the entire way we set up culture, he stressed. “So what drives us now?” he asked. “Science, the economy.”
“What if there’s a model that’s driving us forward that’s causing this problem?” Johnson asked.
“What Pope Francis is saying is there’s a template in place. We actually have a template built into the way we think about the world, the educational system, the political system and the economic system that makes us go the way we go. We educate our kids to fit into this system.
“There’s a unified, one-dimensional model of the mind that we have elevated,” Johnson said. However, according to Pope Francis, today’s complex world calls for more than a “singular perspective” to deal with the great problems of our day.
One-dimensional thinking can result in what Pope Francis calls “the crisis and effects of modern anthropocentrism.”
“It’s the idea of human beings as the center of the universe,” Johnson explained, with highly individualized agendas.
This leads us to see nature as an object of utility, Pope Francis said, and to seek dominion over the universe, rather than responsible stewardship. “The technological mind sees nature as basically dead, a cold body of facts,” Johnson said.
Citing our past history of experiments on animals, Johnson noted, “This is where we go when we approach the world to study it as ‘a thing.’ It’s a shift in consciousness. We even do it a lot with people. We see people and nature as things instead of something profoundly important.”
• Practical relativism.
Pope Francis also pointed to the rise of “practical relativism” in which we see everything as “irrelevant” unless it serves our own immediate interests.
In the encyclical, he wrote, “When human beings place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative.”
There is a logic in all this that leads to “environmental degradation and social decay,” Pope Francis said. This thinking is apparent in wasteful consumption without regard for the environment. It is also visible in all forms of criminal activity without regard for others.
It is even visible, Pope Francis cautioned, in total reliance on the “invisible forces of the market” that regulate the economy without consideration for the impact on nature and society.
In essence, we are failing to see “the deepest roots of our present failures,” Pope Francis said. These failures have to do with “the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.”
“Pope Francis is responding to Pope Benedict and John Paul II before him,” Johnson said, incorporating their thinking into Laudato Si’.
Johnson emphasized that no one is saying we should get rid of science or technology, which has improved the quality of life in many instances, or get rid of business, which provides people with valuable work.
“That’s not what we’re saying here. But there’s some kind of balance that’s been thrown off here that we need to bring back.”
According to Pope Francis, today’s complex problems cannot be dealt with “from a single perspective or a single set of interests.” A broader perspective is needed to address the great problems of our day.
Collectively, our world is too complicated for one-dimensional thinking, Johnson explained. A blending of perspectives may be needed to produce better outcomes.
Can we take into account, as Pope Francis suggested, the “data” generated by other fields of knowledge, such as “philosophy” and “social ethics”?
“Can we collaborate?” Johnson asked. “Can we learn? Can we listen?”