It is an often-repeated cliché that popes are neither liberal nor conservative, but Catholic. It is true that good pontiffs defy popular categorization. But popes, like all Catholics, are subject to the influence of culture, temperament, and experiences accumulated outside ecclesiastical milieux. Laudato Si’—the first encyclical written entirely during Francis’s papacy—tells us something important about this pope’s experience of conservatism, and also what he takes to be preventing us from conserving what is important in life.
Laudato Si’ is lengthy and complex. Unpacking it requires discussion, so my thoughts here are intended to stimulate conversation. Initially it strikes me that, rather than being evidence Francis is “drifting to the Left,” Laudato Si’ is the work of someone who might be described as a “romantic” in the Victorian sense—and, depending what we mean by “conservative,” a deeply conservative romantic.
Matthew Schmitz, writing for the Washington Post, argues that the encyclical is the most strident papal trumpet blast against modernity since “the publication of the Syllabus of Errors in the nineteenth century.” He notes that Francis’s critique of modernity focuses in particular on the role of technology.
I counted 95 references to “technology” and related terms (“technique,” “technocracy,” and so on). Of these, only 11 can be read positively, and some of these are quotes from previous popes, not Francis’s own words.
The Pope notes that technology “has remedied countless evils” which once plagued humanity, and can produce “important means of improving the quality of human life” (102-3). But the pleasantries preface a lengthy critique. The “deepest roots of our present failures,” he argues, “have to do with the direction, goals, meaning, and social implications of technological and economic growth” (109). Modern life, he laments, has become a “surrender to situations conditioned by technology” (118), which “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic” (107).
A key point is Francis’s teaching that contemporary technology is not—as often claimed—like a surgeon’s scalpel: a morally neutral tool that can be used to harm or do good, depending on who uses it and for what purpose. Rather, the technology we create to assist us in our way of life both manifests and reinforces a particular moral vision of human social life:
Many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society … We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities … Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build. (107: emphasis mine)
Laudato Si’s comments on social media keenly illustrate this point:
When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously … Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature … For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise. (47)
Contemporary technologies ostensibly designed to assist social communications are not just tools. They are a living moral praxis, embodying and perpetuating a particular vision of relationships—of the autonomous self and of the other in relation to the self. The idea of “employing technology as a mere instrument,” the Pope teaches, “is nowadays inconceivable.” Instead of using technology, we are increasingly used by technology. It dominates and reshapes us according to its “internal logic” (108).
Schmitz compares Francis to Pope Gregory XVI, who banned railroads from the papal states, fearing that “they would spread bourgeois and republican ideas subversive to papal authority and right faith.” But Francis doesn’t seem interested in bolstering his own authority, and his critique of technology is more similar to the nineteenth-century romantic poets than to Gregory XVI.
Like the Victorian romantics, Francis identifies modernity’s fall from grace concretely with the industrial revolution of the “past two centuries” (46, 51, 102-5, 121). As the romantics lamented the social breakdown caused by rural depopulation and mass worker displacement, Francis is wary of the orthodoxy that the industrial revolution has improved our quality of life, suggesting instead that it has precipitated “social decline,” a “rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion” (46).
Francis reminds me more of Lord Byron than Gregory XVI. Byron is famous for his romantic poetry, yet his first speech in Parliament was in support of the Luddites, denouncing mechanization processes that left skilled workers unemployed and enriched capital owners. Similarly, in Laudato Si’, criticisms of “the effects of technological innovations on employment” (46, 51, 124-9) sit alongside meditative reflections on the “mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face” (233).
Last year I wrote an article for Ethika Politika about Michael Oakeshott’s essay, “On Being a Conservative.” For Oakeshott, conservatism is not about particular policy positions or philosophical commitments. It is not an “ism” at all, but a temperament: a disposition to “delight in what is present” and to “enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else.” Oakeshottian conservatism is, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, a “conservatism of joy.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, I found myself recalling Oakeshott while reading Laudato Si’. Underneath the lament against environmental degradation, a consistent thread of “delight in what is present”—the joy of what is—runs through the encyclical. The world is not a “problem to be solved,” but a “joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise” (12), and we must learn to “be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be” (222).
For the Pope, the disposition to delight in what is is an essential preparatio evangelica. The tendency to rejoice in the created world as gift stands in fundamental opposition to the “throwaway culture” (22)—a familiar target of papal ire in many of Francis’s addresses and allocutions. It is a disposition that inclines us toward the sacramental life, culminating in the Eucharist—in which “all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation,” and in which grace finds “unsurpassable expression” as God gifts to us his own self (236).