MICHAEL MARTIN is Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy at Marygrove College. He is the author of Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Ashgate, 2014), a work of literary criticism, The Submerged Reality (Angelico, 2015), and a volume of poetry, Meditations in Times of Wonder (Angelico Press, 2014).
This is a guest post.
I’ve been waiting for this encyclical for four-hundred years.
There are some names conspicuous by their presence in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si: Patriarch Bartholomew, Teilhard de Chardin, Ali al-Khawas. There are also some unnamed names conspicuous by their presence: de Lubac, von Balthasar, Bulgakov, Zizioulas. Things have certainly changed in Rome since 1950 when Pius XII took Henri de Lubac (and his book Surnaturel) out to the papal woodshed in Humani Generis. In Laudato Si, Francis has issued de Lubac’s official rehabilitation.
This encyclical was long, long overdue. In it, for one thing, Francis counters the theology of natura pura that has poisoned some quarters of Catholic theology since at least the seventeenth century (see John Milbank’s The Suspended Middle), puts nominalism in its place once and for all, and shows those rad-trad Catholics who still get all excited about the Anti-Modernist Oath that they may be just as modernist as Steve Jobs. That is, Laudato Si is in essence a medieval encyclical. And that’s a good thing.
A medieval ethos permeates the document in several ways. First, it appears in the Holy Father’s emphasis—throughout virtually every page of the document—that we “speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world” (11), an affirmation of God’s abiding presence in all that is. Secondly, it is expressed in his emphasis on communitas, particularly in our care for the poor. And, finally, this medieval ethos is articulated in the importance Francis places on the integral unity of such a cosmology and such a communitarianism. This, as has already been made only too apparent, may prove a little difficult to swallow for the vast number of Catholics—and, who am I kidding, inhabitants of the planet—who have internalized the idolatrous caricature of salvation promised by the Protestant Work Ethic and the Gospel of Prosperity. Francis’s job, however, isn’t to pander to the comfortable, but to preach the Gospel.
By his integral vision, Francis “seeks also to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God” (210). What we have here, as I have described at length in The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics, is essentially a sophiological sensibility. Indeed, sophiology—and this is where the presence of Bulgakov shines through—undergirds the encyclical. It is my contention that Laudato Si, like sophiology, is not a radical innovation, but an accurate description of reality and a call for the return to authentically Christian ways of being. Neoliberalism and hyper-consumerism, Francis reminds us, are not authentically Christian ways of being.