Weeds in the Holy Garden: A Wildist Review of the Laudato Si'

Jeriah Bowser I Ecology & Sustainability I Commentary I July 30th, 2015

When Pope Francis published his second encyclical letter in May earlier this year, it was almost immediately regarded as one of the most controversial encyclicals in the history of the Catholic church.[1] Previous encyclicals have touched on social issues such as war, birth control, racism, and poverty, but this latest letter is a radical departure from any of its precedents. In this 180-page message to the Catholics of the world (some 1.2 billion humans), Pope Francis attempts to take on what he perceives as the greatest problems of our time: climate change, mass extinction, modernism, neoliberalism, capitalism, technology, scientism, globalization, consumerism, individualism, and anthropocentrism. This is an admittedly daunting task, made all the more daunting when one considers the fact that the Catholic Church has been the vanguard of these very same ideas for the past two millennia.

Although the Laudato Si' has garnered widespread criticism from conservatives, politicians, and corporate media outlets for its seemingly radical stance on social and environmental issues, the letter falls short of any real critique of our species and its relationship to the rest of the world. Couched in reformist language, religious doublespeak, and a social-ecology dialect that reeks of Bookchin, Pope Francis truly channels his namesake as he subtly conflates relationship with domination, dignity with work, respect with paternalism, creativity with technology, and freedom with moral relativism. On the other hand, the letter carries some very valid critiques of modernism, technology, social alienation, and the Judeo-Christian legacy of de-sacralizing and dominating the natural world that are commendable and quite impressive, considering its source. Despite its numerous shortcomings, the letter is significant in that it is daring to question some truisms of civilization, namely the Myth of Progress and radical anthropocentrism. The simple fact that a powerful symbolic figurehead is willing to pause for a second on his Ascent of Humanity, this tiny crack in the logic of Logic, is noteworthy and begs to be examined fully by those interested in the state of wildness on our planet.

The relationship between Pope Francis and his namesake, Francis of Assisi, is notable if nothing else, so a brief history of the much-revered saint is relevant here. The historical account of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardon (nicknamed Francesco by his father and shortened to Francis by his peers) is lost to the annals of time, but the mythology is what's really important anyways. Giovanni was most likely born at the end of the 12th century in Assisi, Italy to a wealthy merchant family. His early life was marked with privilege, wealth, and revelry, until a brief stint in war and prison introduced him to the darker side of human existence. Later experiences with poverty and disease made a profound impact on him as a young man, as he became deeply involved with the outcasts of his society- lepers. Lepers were the lowest social caste in early 13th century European culture; they filled the social role that our "mentally insane" serve today, as Foucault pointed out.[2] In Jungian terms, lepers and leper colonies represented the shadow side of civilization, the objectified "other" upon which domesticated and repressed humans were allowed to project all their hatred and fear of all that is wild, feral, and free.[3] Engaging with this cultural fear had a profound effect on this young Italian aristocrat, and he lost all desire to pursue his family trade, preferring instead to spend his days praying, sleeping, walking through the forest, and building relationships with lepers and other social outcasts. His rejection of domestication famously culminated in an incident where, when confronted with his anti-social choices and given an ultimatum, he chose the path of wildness: he stripped off all his clothes, renounced his nobility and wealth, and walked away from his family into the wilderness. Giovanni eventually found an old abandoned church, restored it, fashioned clothes for himself out of natural materials, and foraged for food for years, fully embracing the "wild-man" archetype. Eventually he gathered followers from among both the poor and the wealthy of Italy, the only requirements being a vow of poverty and a commitment to following the teachings of Yeshua, the dissident rabbi more commonly known as Jesus. His wilderness cult grew as he began teaching his simple gospel to anyone who would listen, abandoning traditional religious teaching for more informal, open-air messages that advocated prayer and contemplation, animism, simplicity, voluntary poverty, and resistance.

The Catholic Church was quite adept at dealing with dissent at this point, having only very recently finished its massacres of the Cathars/Albigensians in France and the Bogomils in Macedonia. However, for whatever reason, they decided that co-optation would be a more strategic move for young Giovanni and his wilderness cult, and Pope Innocent established the "Franciscan Order" in 1210 with Giovanni at the head. Their strategy worked, as the now-christened Francis spent the rest of his life working within the confines of the church, turning his focus towards pacifism and monasticism; he even made a journey to Egypt in a quixotic attempt to convert the sultan al-Kamil to Catholicism. The re-domesticated Giovanni abandoned his nomadic lifestyle and, settling into a friary, became an avid gardener. His famous gardens, in which he dutifully tamed wild soil in hopes of growing food with which to feed his followers and the poor, had one feature which made them unique among gardens of the day: Giovanni would always leave a small section of the friary garden untouched, letting wild plants take over and live in relative peace. This "weeds in the garden" tradition carries on today, not only in Franciscan monasteries around the world, but also in various "green" ideologies which acknowledge importance of the environment while still assaulting it at full bore.

The Franciscan Order quickly became another safe outlet for empire to let off steam, as individuals drawn towards wildness and resistance were instead drawn towards this officially sponsored (and tightly controlled) group which posed no real threat to Progress. In the words of Perlman, "Francis himself becomes aware of this ruse only at the end. He dies marked by the stigmata of an earlier resistor, thereby trying to communicate with his last act that his whole life has been as deflected and betrayed as the life of his Judaean forerunner." [4]

The legacy of Francis was even further corrupted after his death, as is often the case with resistors, and today over 30,000 men are members of Franciscan orders around the globe. It remains remarkable, however, that such a revolutionary figure is not only enshrined and sanctified within the Catholic church, but is currently being held aloft as an example and inspiration for the Catholics of the world. It is intensely appropriate that this figure should provide the setting and context for the Laudato Si', for this intellectual garden with a touch of wildness creeping in around the edges.

Pope Francis opens up the letter with a verse from Giovanni's "Canticle of the Creatures," a famous Catholic hymn which is imbued with animist undertones, as the hymn addresses Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister/Mother Earth, and Sister Death with a level of respect, humility, and tenderness that is foreign to much of the Judeo-Christian tradition.[5] This language sets the tone for the remainder of the letter, as Pope Francis continually refers to the Earth in tones of sisterly affection, and even lends her a voice, imploring us to listen to her as she, "cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her."[6] This seemingly wildist/animist perspective is tempered by the fact that it is always placed within the context of a masculine, monotheistic, anthropocentric, time-and-space transcendent Sky-God; our Sister is still subject to the whims and designs of the Father. This subtle conflation remains consistent throughout the text, as the Pope attempts to craft a new ecological language for the church within the confines of catholic monotheism; he is indeed attempting to pour new wine into old wineskins.

Of course, what remains unstated and unexamined in the Laudato Si' (and just about everywhere else throughout the history of organized religion) is that as long as there is a God, there will be a priest-class - those who claim to have special access to the thoughts of God and who see it as their duty to inform the rest of us what they are. Even if one were to accept the existence of a monotheistic deity, there remains the question of: What does (s)he want from us? Pope Francis assures us that he knows what God wants, but how do we know this to be true? How do we know what anybody says about God is true? Maybe if we allowed God to speak for her/himself, we could transcend this problem of the mediating priest-class, but we all know what happens to those who attempt to pursue direct relationship with the "other," via mysticism (hint: crucifixion and burning at the stake come to mind).

By far the most critical aspect of the letter is its indictment of modernism (scientism, technology, Progress, anthropocentrism etc.) While managing to avoid exploring into the roots of these phenomena (as that would be talking himself out of a job), the Pope manages to provide an impressive understanding of the history and philosophy of modernism and its implications. Beginning in the first chapter of the letter, he begins critiquing reductionism, "the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects… the book of nature is one and indivisible. [7]" He questions the sanctity of technology many times when he urges that we should, "look for solutions not only in technology but in a change in humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms, [8]" when he states that, "Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create another,[9]"as well as, "Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned to technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence." Yet he again lapses into reformism when he differentiates between "beneficial" and "destructive" technologies, and argues for "well-directed technoscience. [10]"

The theme continues, as the Pope brings up scientism, globalization, anthropocentrism, and other truisms of civilization, even going so far as to criticize those who uphold the myth of Progress[11], yet this astounding level of insight is always mitigated only a few sentences later with a reaffirmation of monotheism and a dogged belief that forward is the only way.

Pope Francis is apparently able to pull off these philosophically acrobatic feats due to a simple formula: by working from a monotheistic narrative which desacralizes all that is not of God, he is able to attribute the evils of civilization to "humanism," "worldliness," and "moral relativism," which makes God and his followers solely responsible for all that is true, beautiful, and free in the world. This depiction of humanity completely ignores the realities of pre-civilized human existence, which the Pope is, unfortunately, uneducated in. By drawing from this Hobbesian worldview, he is able to offer God as the only force capable of acting as a restraining force on us vicious and depraved humans, determined to destroy ourselves and our planet at a moments notice. Only by listening to God and obeying his instruction will we find the way forward, saving ourselves from our fallen state. The Pope is clearly either naively unaware or wilfully ignorant of the history of catholicism and monotheism, for it is carved in the flesh of those who have fought and died trying to protect our environment from monotheists, those who have resisted civilization's death march and died in the process.

The enshrinement of Work is reiterated throughout the letter, with the Pope even going so far as to call Work a basic human right and using it as a placeholder for relationship, "Underlying every form of work is a concept of the relationship which we can and must have with what is other than ourselves, [12]" and when he compares Work to spiritual practice, "Personal growth and sanctification came to be sought in the interplay of recollection and work.[13]" This deification of Work is perhaps the most honest part of the letter, as there is little need for deconstructing or analyzing this theme. Work is indeed a placeholder for relationship; in a (civilized) world where all relationships have been desacralized and commodified, we seek solace in repetitive, isolated tasks and services for one another, as Manicardi said, "Life does not consist anymore in what we are, but in what we represent for the civilized world - in the function we must learn to perform through the years.[14]" It is unfortunate that for all his (limited) criticisms of modernity, the Pope never questions the validity or sanctity of Work. Perhaps it was a simple oversight, or perhaps the Pope realizes that in the absence of Work, there would be relationships, there would be play, there would be healing, there would be wildness, there would be no profane "world in need of development,[15]" and there would be no need for an "other" to measure ourselves against... truly not an environment hospitable to monotheism or popes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a fascinating idea that the Pope considers in his letter: the conception of the self which is reflected into the world and vice versa, known as "soul alchemy" to New Age gurus, "internal alchemy" or "Neidan" to esoteric Taoists [16], the "parabola" or "philosopher's stone" to depth psychologists and Jungian analysts, and to ecopsychologists, it is the eighth and final principle of ecopsychology: "there is a synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being.[17]" Simply stated, this concept states that whatever is done internally is also done externally, and whatever is done externally is also done internally. The Pope alludes to this principle throughout the letter, without ever specifically naming, describing, or elaborating on it, when he refers to, "the violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life, [18]" when he notes the connection between alienation and consumerism, "When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person's heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own, and consume, [19]" when he draws a parallel from desertification and disconnection, "The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast [20]," and when he later argues that, "no one can cultivate a sober and satisfying life without being at peace with him or herself. An adequate understanding of spirituality consists in filling out what we mean by peace, which is more than the absence of war. Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life. [21]"

The presence of this self-other parabola is curious, as it does not conform to the form or style of the rest of the letter and it is a radical departure from the philosophical assumptions of civilization. To acknowledge that what is done to you is also done to me speaks to the fluidity of the Self and Other; it acknowledges a basic level of connectivity and interdependency of all things, which is a principle that exists in direct opposition to the logic of civilization. Civilization (and its various appendages) can only exist in an environment of objectification, disconnection, competition, alienation, and atomization. The Pope seems to understand the philosophical implications of this self-other parabola, at least to an extent, as he also directly addresses the issue of connectivity when he speaks of an "intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected,[22]" when he urges for more thorough ecological research to be done because "all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another, [23]" and when he insists on a "loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.[24]"

Without the context of the remainder of the letter (and the history of the Catholic church), these statements could be placed in any radical environmental journal, anarcho-primitivist lecture, or animal/earth liberation communique without raising eyebrows, but of course the context does not allow for such an ideological leap to take place. For every nod to connectivity, there is a bow to disconnection as evidenced in subtle anthropocentric bias and human utilitarianism, as the Pope implores us to halt the destruction of our environment because "human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement,[25]" when he defends clean water because "it is indispensable for human life… necessary for health care, agriculture, and industry,[26]" when he laments the loss of biodiversity because certain species, "may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing diseases and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs, [27]" when he warns of the dangers of industrial fishing practices because, "marine organisms which we tend to overlook, like some forms of plankton… represent a significant element in the ocean food chain, and species used for our food ultimately depend on them[28]" and when he outrageously states that animal testing is morally permissible, "when it pertains to the necessities of human life."

This cleverly modernistic doublespeak really is at the core of the Laudato Si'; and it finally begins to crystallize into an ideology which the Pope calls, "integral ecology." Although he never specifically defines integral ecology, he describes it as, "an openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it means to be human, [29]" and, "a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis… one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions,[30]" as well as, "a unifying principle of social ethics.[31]" For those familiar with Bookchin's writings on "social ecology," this is beginning to look all too familiar, to the extent that one almost wonders if "Pope Bookchin" might have been a more suitable papal name for the author of this letter. For those unfamiliar with Bookchin's social ecology model, it is essentially an attempt to understand that ecological problems are also social problems, while somehow steering clear of both deep ecology (the belief that all forms of life are of equal value; interspecies egalitarianism) and anarchism (the belief that all humans are of equal value; anthropic egalitarianism). Pope Bookchin, I mean Francis, again manages to couch this essentially reformist critique of society within with the language of monotheism, crafting an ideology which posits that although hierarchy, domination, scientism, and anthropocentrism might be destructive and unsustainable, there are no other options worth exploring or critiquing and should therefore be carried out…. more responsibly.

In order to effectively carry out this "integral-ecology," the Pope imagines a globalized authoritarian power structure that will regulate environmental destruction in an ethical and responsible manner, that will assist in "planning a sustainable and diversified agriculture, developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy, encouraging a more efficient use of energy, promoting a better management of marine and forest resources, and ensuring universal access to drinking water,[32]" and that will help manage the oceans with "an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called "global commons" [33]." He minces no words when he ultimately states that, "there is urgent need of a true world political authority.[34]"

At this point in the Laudato Si', all the poignant critiques of modernism, technology, scientism, and objectification are completely overshadowed by this sweeping endorsement of the whole mess, as the Pope, unable to see past his blinders of domestication, naively falls for the oldest hustle around - more Progress will fix Progress. More control, more regulation, more authoritarianism, more technology, more democracy, more science, etc.

Rather than letting wildness take over the garden that is our planet, abandoning our futile quest for control, domination, and the domestication of all of life, the Pope Francis miraculously believes that letting a small patch of weeds and wildflowers grow in a corner will somehow remind us to practice restraint and sustainability in our daily dealings with civilization. For those of us who are less optimistic about such miracles, there is the daily reality of resistance to domestication. While it is encouraging that the Pope is at least validating the existence of wildness and is cautiously questioning the truisms of civilization, he has a long way to go in understanding the roots of our present crisis and the incredibly limited options we face as we look forward to the collapse of civilization.


[1] https://laudatosi.com

[2] "Madness and Civilization" - Michel Foucault (1964)

[3] "Jung on Evil" -C.G. Jung (1996)

[4] "Against His-story, Against Leviathan!" - Fredy Perlman (1983)

[5] "Francis of Assisi - The Saint: Early Documents, vol 1" - Regis J.Armstrong (1999)

[6] Laudato Si, verse 2

[7] Laudato Si, verse 6

[8] Laudato Si, verse 9

[9] Laudato Si, verse 20

[10] Laudato Si, verse 103

[11] Laudato Si, verse 60

[12] Laudato Si, verse 125

[13] Laudato Si, verse 126

[14] "Free From Civilization" - Enrico Manicardi (2012)

[15] Laudato Si, verse 170

[16] "Foundations of Internal Alchemy: The Taoist Practice of Neidan" - Wang Mu (2011)

[17] "The Voice of the Earth" - Theodore Roszak (1992)

[18] Laudato Si, verse 2

[19] Laudato Si, verse 204

[20] Laudato Si, verse 217, quoting the "Homily for the Solemn Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry" - Pope Benedict XVI (2005)

[21] Laudato Si, verse 225

[22] Laudato Si, verse 16

[23] Laudato Si, verse 220

[24] Laudato Si, verse 70

[25] Laudato Si, verse 5

[26] Laudato Si, verse 28

[27] Laudato Si, verse 32

[28] Laudato Si, verse 40

[29] Laudato Si, verse 11

[30] Laudato Si, verse 137

[31] Laudato Si, verse 156

[32] Laudato Si, verse 164

[33] Laudato Si, verse 174

[34] Laudato Si, verse 175, quoting Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical letter Caritas in Veritale (2009)