An encyclical about life at the end of an era

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 22, 2015

Ross Douthat of the New York Times has an unusual insight on Laudato Si’: he argues that the Pope has taken a clear stand in “the argument between dynamists and castastrophists.” He’s a catastrophist. Douthat explains:

Like dynamists, catastrophists can be on the left or right, stressing different agents of our imminent demise. But they’re united in believing that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.

In this encyclical the Pope argues that the global economic system is dysfunctional, the damage it causes is irreparable, and the other solution is a new economic system. Maybe more than a new economic system, actually, because the Holy Father also finds that we are “witnessing a weakening of the power of nation-states.” Things are falling apart, in short: politically, economically, culturally, morally. On one level the Pope is writing about the environment; on another he is predicting the end of the Modern era.

In his analysis of Laudato Si’, Father James Schall makes a related point, mentioning “what I call the ‘Robert Hugh Benson issue’” in the encyclical. He is referring to the Pope’s enthusiastic endorsement of Lord of the World, Benson’s apocalyptic novel.

Are we talking about the end of an era, then, or the end of the world? On that issue, Pope Francis has not declared himself. But it’s probably useful to remind ourselves that the end of an era—the breakdown of a longstanding politico-economic system—will invariably be chaotic enough to make the people living through it think it’s the end of the world.

In his characteristically perceptive analysis, Father Schall observes that while the Pope is rough in his treatment of capitalism, non-capitalist societies have a much worse record of abusing the environment. China, to take the most conspicuous example, has made a clear choice for economic growth, regardless of the toll it takes on the air, the water, the family, the human person—the whole human ecology to which Laudato Si’ is dedicated.

In one sense, I suppose, you could say that China has become a capitalist country, although the leaders of the Communist Party would heatedly deny it. It would be more accurate, I suggest, to say that China since the death of Mao has fully embraced the Modern project, with its unspoken yet unquestioned assumption that the main goal of a healthy society is economic growth—that, as Calvin Coolidge put it, “the chief business of the American people is business.”

Pope Francis reminds us that our chief business here on earth is, or should be, attaining salvation. A society focused too tightly on economic affairs loses sight of that reality, with eventually disastrous results. Isn’t that one way to summarize the message of Laudato Si’?

A healthy society keeps economic issues in perspective. Growth is important, certainly. But not growth at all costs. A healthy society will not encourage—in fact will not tolerate—forms of economic development that rape the environment, or destroy venerable cultures, or undermine family life, or demean the human person. Here too is a theme of Laudato Si’: the understanding that environmental decay and moral decay are two symptoms of the same underlying disease.

And speaking of tolerance, the Pope’s new encyclical reminds me of an under-appreciated book by A. J. Conyers: The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit. Conyers points out that only in the past few centuries has “tolerance” been seen as a virtue. Before the modern era a man would never be applauded for his willingness to tolerate behavior that he considered immoral. But with the rise of powerful nation-states, and the simultaneously development of international markets, came the elevation of “tolerance” to the status of the premiere civic virtue.

The exaltation of tolerance, Conyers argues, implies the judgment that we are all better off when we put aside divisive arguments, agree to leave moral questions unresolved, and concentrate on working together toward the goals that we all share: the acquisition of material things.

If Conyers is right—and I think he is—then the rise of the modern nation-states and the emergence of the global economy have been the result of a very long truce: a willingness to ignore the ultimate questions about the meaning of life and man’s relationship with the universe. Now Pope Francis tells us that the failure to address those ultimate questions is leading us toward disaster. The nation-states are losing their authority, the global economic system is in disarray; the truce is breaking down. We are living at the end of an era.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Jun. 24, 2015 11:41 AM ET USA

    The end of an era or of the world, it makes no difference - the Pope or anyone else, must speak clear truths and not indulge in speculations that suit one's befuddlement. Long documents meant for the people that are open to vast differences in interpretation, ought to at least be professionally edited, tightly stated and not open to wide interpretations dealing with everything from the end of the world to a new economic system for the whole world.

  • Posted by: kathimcnamee11450 - Jun. 23, 2015 6:51 PM ET USA

    Toleration.. The last "Virtue" of a depraved society.