Fulfilling Christ's call to love God, live in community, and serve our neighbor

Pope Francis on the Environment: Part III

October 2015: Don Frey's third installment on Pope Francis's special encyclical

We’ve previously seen that Pope Francis presents the realms of the holy, of human relationships, and of nature, as being thoroughly intertwined. A man-made crisis in nature therefore means a crisis in society and in human relationships with God. Francis also suggests that economic self-interest, unrestrained by moral boundaries, leads to misuse of nature. And technology, he adds, multiplies the power of economic self-interest.

Francis on Technology

Only in the last two or three centuries has humanity gained powerful enough technology to threaten the earth itself. While not anti-technology or anti-science, as such, Francis warns that technology in the service of profit is dangerous.

It is almost trite to say that power (technology included) is morally neutral, because it can be used in either good or bad ways. Francis, for his part, affirms that modern humans have been blessed by many scientific and technical advances (see pars. 102-103—paragraphs in the encyclical are all numbered). But Francis puts a sharper point on his argument: that contemporary values, which exalt autonomy and self-interest, encourage irresponsible use of technology by those with the power to use it that way (par. 105).

Francis is especially critical of technologies that favor large-scale production, particularly in agriculture. Farms become huge, mechanized, and consume many chemical inputs. This puts small farmers out of business, harms nature, and makes much of humanity a stranger to nature. The problem is even worse in less-developed countries where no alternative to small-scale farming may exist for millions of poor people. (Francis consistently links harm to the natural world with its impact upon the weakest and most marginalized humans.)

Francis also speaks of labor-reducing technologies (par 128): “We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity.” Here, a theological insight is used to make a judgment about a particular kind of technology. Again, Francis is much attuned to the impact of job-loss on those in the weakest position, unable to adapt.

How Technology May Shape Moral Values for the Worse

As noted, Francis thinks that cultural values can foster the bad use of technology. But there is a feedback loop: technology can, in turn, influence modern values. If technology can provide almost unlimited material goods, then consumption will be encouraged to grow and grow (par.203). People, made in the image of God, come to define themselves as consumers—selling their birthright for trinkets.

 Technology gives humans the extra power to act on nature as a thing to be exploited; and when we are engaged in exploitation, we can hardly respect nature as part of God’s creation. It is but a short step to see other humans in the same way—as objects to be used or manipulated, not persons bearing the image of God.

Antecedents in Local Moravian History

Rapid technical change during the Industrial Revolution greatly disrupted our Moravian community of Salem, NC, by the 1830s. The skilled tradesmen of Salem were ultimately driven out of business by factory production. The church-government of Salem was challenged, and ultimately doomed, by new problems and by the values associated with industrialization. Some individual Moravians chafed under the communal values of Salem, and sought profit by adopting the methods and values of the new technology.

We might discuss endlessly whether these changes were for good or ill, how things might have turned out differently, and how these social and economic changes impacted our natural environment. But, at a minimum, our own history supports Francis’s argument that technology can have very powerful effects on society, human values, and even nature itself.

You may read the encyclical for yourself here.

—Donald Frey, for HMC Earth Stewards