In his recent encylical Laudato Si, Pope Francis often quotes Romano Guardini (1885-1968), an Italian-born German theologian and philosopher, whose book The End of the Modern World was particularly influential on both this pope and his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI. Matthew Schmitz connects Father Guardini to Francis’s thinking. Excerpt:
Guardini’s book begins with the premise that “There is only one standard by which any epoch can be fairly judged . . . to what extent did it allow for the development of human dignity?”
In Guardini’s terms — not in terms of GDP, of life expectancy, or of any other statistic — Francis finds our own time wanting. Technology has “joined indissolubly” with an economy of “uncontrolled greed” that allows injustices to combine into an impersonal force — sometimes called “progress,” sometimes “the market” — for which no one claims responsibility or accepts blame.
Our glorification of technology, Guardini argues, leads us to view everything and everyone as means rather than ends. This entails consequences extending not only from economic exploitation to nuclear warfare but also “from control of conception to interrupted pregnancy, from artificial insemination to euthanasia, from race-breeding to the destruction of undesirable life.”
Guardini’s critique cuts across the usual categories of left and right. …
Schmitz goes on to say that unlike Guardini, Francis remains optimistic that the world can get it together and turn things around absent Christian conversion. Schmitz:
Whereas Francis believes that the church can express universal desires and lead all men of goodwill in healing the planet, Guardini predicts that Christianity “will be forced to distinguish itself more sharply from a dominantly non-Christian Ethos.” Francis expects cooperation; Guardini, conflict.
So do I. If Christianity doesn’t define itself more sharply against the modern world, it will be assimilated out of existence.
In these unhappy changes, Guardini noted the emergence of a distinctively modern sensibility. He meant that the attitudes first articulated by Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century and René Descartes in the seventeenth were coming to dominate the mentality of twentieth-century men and women. Consciously departing from Aristotle, who had said that knowledge is a modality of contemplation, Bacon opined that knowledge is power, more precisely power to control the natural environment. This is why he infamously insisted that the scientist’s task is to put nature “on the rack” so that she might give up her secrets. Just a few decades later, Descartes told the intellectuals of Europe to stop fussing over theological matters and philosophical abstractions and to get about the business of “mastering” nature. To be sure, this shift in consciousness gave rise to the modern sciences and their attendant technologies, but it also, Guardini worried, led to a deep alienation between humanity and nature. The typically modern subject became aggressive and self-absorbed, and the natural world simply something for him to manipulate for his own purposes.
If you want to see an English version of Guardini’s perspective, I would recommend a careful reading of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their Inklings colleagues on the relation between capitalist, technocratic humanity and an increasingly aggressed nature. If you want vivid images for this, turn to the pages in The Lord of the Rings dealing with the battle between Saruman and the Ents or to the section of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe detailing the permanent winter into which Narnia had fallen.
It is only against this Guardinian background that we can properly read the Pope’s latest encyclical. Whatever his views on global warming, they are situated within the far greater context of a theology of nature that stands athwart the typically modern point of view. That the earth has become “piled with filth,” that pollution adversely affects the health of millions of the poor, that we live in a “throwaway” culture, that the unborn are treated with indifference, that huge populations have little access to clean drinking water, that thousands of animal species are permitted to fall into extinction, and yes even that we live in housing that bears no organic relation to the natural environment—all of it flows from the alienated Cartesian subject going about his work of mastering nature. In the spirit of the author of the book of Genesis, the Biblical prophets, Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi—indeed of any great pre-modern figure—Pope Francis wants to recover a properly cosmological sensibility, whereby the human being and her projects are in vibrant, integrated relation with the world that surrounds her.
The challenge, at root, is to recover an older sense of cosmology — that is, the belief that the natural world has metaphysical meaning, versus the modern view that it is nothing but matter to be shaped according to the prerogatives of man’s will. The same-sex marriage issue must be understood in this light.
Romano Guardini insists that the music has stopped, even if some witless nostalgists keep humming the old tunes. What comes next, what has already arrived, is in radical discontinuity, something no earlier generation could have conceived, and something the wisest of us little understand.
More Father Neuhaus:
But his is a disposition toward a hope that is unblinking in the face of all the reasons for despair. His hero the kind of man he intended to be and invites his reader to be is not unlike Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith.” The question is not whether the glass is half full or half empty, but what do you do when you know it’s empty.
For a longer, in-depth essay about Guardini, read Wayne Allen’s piece here. I don’t know Guardini’s work, but I have a feeling that I’m going to have to get to know it, and soon. What do you do when you know the glass is empty? How do you maintain hope? That is the question facing orthodox Christians right now.