By Christopher Zehnder
When I first learned of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down statutes forbidding same-sex marriage, I felt neither surprise nor dismay. No surprise, for it was just what I had expected. No dismay, for I did not expect anything other from our society, or its government.
I did feel annoyed, however – for, like a vamp coming late to a party, the Supreme Court has drawn all eyes from the one who had been the belle of the ball: Pope Francis and his encyclical, Laudato Si’.
Yet, it is fitting, in a way, that the Supreme Court’s decision should so closely follow the pope’s encyclical, for the former brings into focus the major theme of the latter. That theme is not the threat of climate change, whatever those who want either to dismiss the encyclical or coöpt it say. A major – if not the major – theme of Laudato Si’ is that, both in the moral order and the natural order, everything is connected. How we treat the “environment” is how we will treat ourselves, and how we treat ourselves is how we will treat the natural world outside ourselves.
This point may not seem immediately obvious. After all, an industrialist who pours sludge into a river is not going to mix it into his coffee. And people will take the most assiduous care of their pets even while they ruin their constitutions with unhealthy eating. Everyone probably knows someone who lives with such contradictions in their souls – but this is merely to point out that human beings tend to be self-divided in a profound inconsistency between ideals and actions – or, even, between one ideal and another ideal.
Yet, humans long for reconciliation, for consistency. And what one generation lives with as a tension, another will resolve in a further synthesis. This synthesis will be accomplished through the subordination of actions to a principle most deeply held – bringing what one does into line with what one believes; or by replacing one principle with another – deciding what one truly believes, and then directing one’s actions by what he believes. Such a synthesis happens on the level of the individual; but where it is most potent is on the level of society, of culture.
What Laudato Si’ teaches is that human society, particularly in the West, has for a long time operated according to a principle that people have not fully understood they held. That principle one can call “relativism” or “nominalism,” but it is essentially the denial that natural things and the natural order itself come to us with the character of a given; that they have a given character or interior principle that makes them what they are, that directs the manner in which they act, and proposes a goal toward which they tend. It is this principle – which we might call an essence or nature – that gives each creature its unity and integrity – both of which we are bound both by morality and the very exigencies of our own existence to respect.
This view of nature is the patrimony of western civilization – yet, it has been squandered. Laudato Si’ points out how it has been squandered in what it calls “practical relativism.” Basically, we have those who call for respect for the integrity of the natural environment, but presume to make themselves absolute masters over the environment of their own flesh. They do not ask, “what is the given character of my own body, what does it tell me about myself and what I am?” Rather, they treat their bodies as so much raw material to be manipulated according to their own good pleasure – either by altering even its most characteristic functions to suit their desires or using those functions against their natural intention. We have those, too, who treat the human body as a given, but act as if creatures and natural systems can be resolved down to their elements and reconstructed anew, or merely disregarded. For these, it seems, the natural world is absolutely subject to human manipulation; that is has no character or nature of its own that must be respected as a good that has been given. Then there are those who use other people as mere objects – those, for instance, who traffic in human flesh, kill the child in the womb, or “allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.” These reduce to the level of means what must be considered as ends.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis treats of all these aspects of “practical relativism.” More importantly, however, he shows our self-divided world that if it does not examine itself, it will create a new synthesis. All things are connected, he reiterates time and again. The way we treat our bodies will finally influence how we treat the natural world, and the way we treat the natural world will determine how we treat our bodies – for our bodies and the natural world belong to the same order. They both come to us as given. Those, therefore, who insist on the integrity of the natural world but rejoice at Friday’s Supreme Court decision are self-confused. Those who deplore the decision, call for respect for the nature of marriage and the basic meaning of sexual acts but ignore the integrity of the natural world, are self-confused. Those who think you must respect unborn human life but can subject human labor to irrational market forces are as confused as those who think you may kill unborn children but not oppress the worker. Sooner or later, these groups will need to decide on their core principle – relativism or respect for nature — for mankind will not remain in a state of interior division forever.
Everything, after all, is connected to everything else. All things are one.