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It Sounds Like a Melody

Pope Francis’s recently released Laudato Si, or “Praise Be to You,” has been called “the climate encyclical” and “the environmental encyclical”—but while it’s true that the papal missive does address climate change, environmental degradation, and anthropocentrism, that doesn’t make it a press release from Greenpeace. The argument is well situated in a tradition that predates modernity by a good thousand years. To put it plainly, Laudato Si is 184 pages long. Only twenty-eight of those are about the politics of environmental change. The rest is theology.

Regardless, self-appointed critics and allies alike have discerned a familiar tune in Laudato Si, and are trying to shoehorn the document into a very narrow spectrum of modern Western political debate. But, in the gnomic phrase that the late jazzman Ornette Coleman pithily used to describe his own distinct style of playing, “it sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody.”

The exegetics have been acting like a cargo cult in reverse, going through the motions of interpreting the encyclical in a secular, mechanical, modern sense, while completely ignoring the radical theological concepts that animate the text.

Most detractors have recycled the criticism they would use on any other political enemy: “Marxist.” This catchall adjective for anyone who questions the humanity of market-driven ideology has come up a lot. Rush Limbaugh claimed that “every other word” in the encyclical “seems to confirm” that Pope Francis is a dialectic materialist. (No doubt when Rush Limbaugh calls somebody a “Marxist” he’s actually trying to convey some heady mélange of “monster” and “idiot.”) Fellow conservative radio host Michael Savage claimed that “the pope is a Marxist. I stand by those words. He is a wolf in pope’s clothing. He is an eco-wolf in pope’s clothing. He is a stealth Marxist in religious garb.” Watering down the red-baiting a bit was David Brooks, the slightly more centrist New York Times columnist, who feels that the pope doesn’t value “arrangements based on self-interest and competition.” Accusing the Bishop of Rome of being loyal to Marx is an analysis that’s oddly both inventive and lazy. Not troubling themselves to actually engage with the encyclical for what it is, these pundits reach into the old hat of tricks and come out with the same criticism they’d use to disparage Naomi Klein, Al Gore, or Peter Singer.

Taking a different tack, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan accused the Vatican of rushing to confirm all the fancy science that the cool kids are enamored with:

The European elite is all in on climate change and the Vatican is in Europe. The Church fears being tagged as antiscience and antifact…But is the science of climate change settled? And can a church that made a mistake with Galileo four hundred years ago make another mistake by trying desperately not to repeat the earlier one?

Besides the surreal confirmation that the Vatican is in Europe, it’s rather cynical of Sunny Ronny Reagan’s propagandess to consider the encyclical as part of a twenty-first century Vatican political marketing strategy—the pope is not playing the same game as David Cameron or Marine Le Pen. Noonan labors under the impression that the pontiff is just another contemporary political office, denuded of its own particular history and distinctive goals.

Laudato Si also hits notes that secular Western environmentalists might recognize as a refrain, touching on the injustice of the first world using more than its share of resources, deforestation, species extinction, and more. The encyclical says that “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil, and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” But, like the conservatives, mainstream liberal environmentalists have largely ignored the other 156 pages of Laudato Si—the core of the document—most likely because its pre-modern ontological foundations just don’t have a place in contemporary liberal humanist political discourse. It’s an alien language that has more in common with radical postmodern ecological thought than with groups advocating neoliberal market solutions (carbon credits, for instance), NGOs, or governmental panels. 

Timothy Morton, currently the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University, is one such postmodern ecological theorist, and his work gets to the heart of what makes the encyclical anti-modern. In his book Ecology without Nature, he points out that we still cling to an idea of our “selves” outside of our bodies and of “nature” as something outside of civilization (but somehow necessary for the functioning of civilization), which was made possible by Descartes. By this ontological construct, nature is a “surrounding medium that sustains our being.” Morton’s early work concentrated on the Romantic poets, and in this idea one can feel the power of their laments against the divide moderns had constructed between man and nature. Take Coleridge’s sense of separation when facing the stars, for instance:

I see, not feel, how beautiful they are! 

My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?

Laudato Si condemns this conception of nature, because the separation that the Romantics regretted (and, in Coleridge’s case, felt dejected about) can also serve as a justification for our civilization to contort, manipulate, and destroy the environment.

Instead, Pope Francis uses theology to foreground nature, with God being the force of eminence that shoots through and connects all things: “the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul. But also to discover God in all things.” This isn’t simply rehabilitating something outside of man that man has destroyed.

The pope’s method of thinking about nature by bringing humans back into it, has a lot in common with Morton’s idea of a “dark ecology,” or “ecology without nature.” Morton considers a separation between man and nature detrimental to environmental thought: “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration.” Morton’s ecology is “dark” because humans are already bound up in its “irony, ugliness, and horror,” and so lack objective ground from which to theorize. Pope Francis’s theology reaches a similar conclusion using an almost countervailing rhetoric:

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet—physical, chemical and biological—are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand.

If Morton’s ecology is without nature, then Pope Francis’s ecology is without civilization— the distinction between the two similarly fade away into a gestalt of deeper, more profound relationships.

It isn’t only that the pope is critical of capitalism or even of the state’s ability to solve environmental problems (he claims that countries, acting through political means alone, won’t be enough to solve the climate crises)—it’s also that the encyclical posits a dynamic between man and nature that, taken to its logical conclusion, would upend our current assumptions about humans standing apart and above everything else. There will be criticisms to be made of the encyclical, to be sure, but in order to find them we have to first acknowledge the pope’s insistence that man is mystically bound up with nature, and that the environment is a stage on which a moral drama is being acted out, without a fourth wall to break.