Opinion

Pope Francis's dream

The pope's latest treatise is a powerful critique of our modern world

Pope Francis.

With the easy credulity that has become so typical of journalists during his pontificate, many observers, both Catholic and secular, expected Pope Francis's recent apostolic exhortation to relax the ancient discipline of clerical celibacy for some priests of the Roman Rite. This did not happen.

An entire column (indeed a document very much longer) might be devoted to the question of why so many people insist upon seeing Francis as some kind of antinomian liberal modernizer. But it seems to me somehow unimportant. Instead, the correct response to Querida Amazonia ("The Beloved Amazon") is joy. Here at last is a return to the great intellectual themes of Laudato si', the 2015 papal encyclical in which the Holy Father first articulated his critique of the neoliberal revolution in economics, the globalized regime of spoliation, exploitation, infertility, and distractedness that make possible the supposed "economic miracle" of consumerism. For Francis all of these things — the climate crisis, wage slavery, the mirage of technological progress, greed — exist along a sinuous continuum of immiseration; the planet is being destroyed because we are destroying one another because we are destroying ourselves.

It is no accident that the present document is organized not in chapters but as a series of four "dreams." Many of the footnotes refer either to documents from the recent Amazonian synod held in Rome or to Francis's own previous utterances. I do not think any comparable papal document has contained so many quotations from poets.

The pope's emphasis on imaginative literature is not incidental. What he seems to suggest throughout is that there are certain truths that cannot be articulated in prose. If philosophy, according to Hegel, is always an exercise in belatedness, then perhaps it is only through art that we can express the most serious longings of our age. This is why, despite the inevitable presence of jargon, the exhortation itself is full of poetic expressions, including some ("This dream made of water," "a dance of dolphins") which impress themselves effortlessly upon one's memory.

Francis's ostensible theme in this reflection is the destruction of the Amazon and her indigenous peoples, both physically and spiritually, at the hands of neoliberal capitalism, leaving the soil exhausted and fruitless and the men and women of the region impoverished and atomized in cities where they live as strangers. But this sense of "bewilderment and uprootedness" extends well beyond the Amazon. It is, in fact, the defining characteristic of modern life. Overcoming these evils in South America and throughout the world will involve something more than international climate summits or NGO-sponsored PowerPoint presentations. It will require nothing less than the destruction of the existing order of things and its replacement with a new humane form of social organization whose first principles are not the acquisition of wealth or the pursuit of fleeting pleasures but love, fraternity, and serenity.

It would be interesting to know what, in addition to those sources that appear in the footnotes, has informed the pope's thinking here. It has been known for some time that Francis is devoted to the great anti-modern philosopher Fr. Romano Guardini and that he is a keen Wagnerian. When the pope calls upon readers "to enter into communion with the forest" so that "our voices will easily blend with its own and become a prayer," it is difficult not to imagine the figure of Siegfried (for whom the corrupt order of Valhalla possesses no charms because he has grown up outside it) following the quiet song of the woodbird to the ring. There are echoes here also of the late Heidegger, with his horror of mankind becoming the slave of technology and his insistence upon philosophy and even "thought" giving way to the musings of artists. But I must admit that the book I thought of most when reading his reflections on "integral ecology" was Frank Herbert's Dune, in which the boy hero uses aboriginal "desert power" to overthrow a mechanized galactic empire. It is precisely this sort of synthesis between indigenous capability and political will that Francis seems to be proposing when he says that the solution to the present ecological crisis will "combine ancestral wisdom with contemporary technical knowledge." In any case, it is no surprise that a thinker so wide ranging in his interests should address his reflections not only to the Catholic faithful but to "all persons of goodwill." People of every political tendency, from the more humane voices among the new nationalists in the United States and Europe to leftists attempting to imagine what a world would look like without economic growth as we currently understand it, would profit from engagement with these ideas.

How likely is it that Francis's vision will be fulfilled in our lifetimes? I think attempting to answer this question is the wrong response (though it is worth pointing out that in the last century the turn against laissez-faire economics was influenced to a greater extent than is widely acknowledged by papal encyclicals). In fact, I think it would even be a mistake to consider this exhortation a teaching document in any narrowly pedagogical sense. Instead it should be welcomed on the terms in which it is presented: as a dream, one that all persons of good will can dream together.

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