A key to understanding Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment is Romano Guardini’s book The End of the Modern World.
Guardini was a major writer on Catholic spirituality and culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Though his parents were Italians, his father was a diplomat, so Guardini grew up in Germany, and became a priest and professor there.
His importance to Francis is obvious to anyone who knows the biography of this pope. Then-Fr. Bergoglio wanted to write a doctoral dissertation on Guardini in Germany in the 1980s, though he did not finish the degree.
But Guardini was important not only to the not-so-academic Pope Francis. He was also a major influence on the professor-Pope Benedict. In the introduction to one of Josef Ratzinger’s most important and influential books, The Spirit of the Liturgy, he says the book is named after Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, and credits Guardini with being the key player in launching the “liturgical movement” that culminated in Vatican II. Ratzinger says one of his greatest hopes is to relaunch that movement.
It is no surprise, then, that Guardini first appears in a papal encyclical in that “work of four hands” (on two keyboards), Lumen Fidei, partly the last encyclical of Pope Benedict, partly the first of Pope Francis. It is hard to say which pope added the Guardini footnotes.
The great popularizer Fr. Robert Barron wrote a helpful piece explaining Laudato Si in light of Guardini’s brilliant and accessible piece Letters from Lake Como. In that book, Guardini talks about a trip to his ancestral homeland, in the lake country in the north of Italy. The old architecture blends in with nature. The new architecture jars against nature.
Guardini sees this as a metaphor for modernity. Once we understood that we were part of God’s creation. Now we see ourselves as conquerers. From gay marriage to contraception to ugly architecture to deforestation, modernity can be defined as the great rebellion against Creation, the great rejection of Nature and Nature’s God. That doesn’t mean deforestation is the same kind of sin as sodomy – but it does give insight into the deeper loss of vision.
In Laudato Si, though, Francis does not quote from Letters to Lake Como, but several times from Guardini’s The End of the Modern World.
The title might sound apocalyptic at first, but that isn’t the point. Guardini is not talking about the end of the world; he’s talking about the end of “modernity” – and the beginning of a “post-modernity.”
Unfortunately, the book is a bit of a slow go. In order to make his point in the second half, he spends the first half trying to explain what he means by “modernity”. And in order to do that he begins by trying to explain how modernity was different from the ages before it.
His point is that modernity, roughly the period from 1500-1900 – or from Columbus to World War I – was a time of wild optimism about the powers of man. Human reason could do no wrong. We were the victors, the conquerors, the improvers.
The twentieth century blurred that optimism. Oh, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is still a “modern” in this sense, confident that anything we think up must be wonderful. But from the trenches of World War I to the gas chambers of World War II, the nuclear terror of the Cold War, and the torching of Vietnam, from the devastation of the sexual revolution (do you ever talk to your clerks, Justice Kennedy?) to the banality of pop culture, we are slowly realizing that human reason seems more likely to create a hell on earth than a heaven.
“The End of the Modern World” is the end of that optimism. What comes next?
Guardini’s answer is a line Spiderman picked up: with great power comes great responsibility. The power is now in our hands. To an extent unthinkable in former ages, we can do whatever we want. We can walk away from our families and communities, reshape our landscape, immerse ourselves in visual worlds of our own creation. The pre-modern world had its own problems – but the reality of creation was always clear.
The strange thing about our post-modern world is that people think there is no such thing as human nature, even no such thing as reality. Modernity taught us that we can create our own world. Post-modernity realizes that we can create our own hell.
Guardini’s answer is responsibility. Yes, the power is in our hands. No longer does sex have natural consequences, most of the time. No longer are we forced to live in community. No longer do we have to spend more time in reality than in the imaginary world of our screens.
Now we have to choose it.
And that’s not such a bad thing. It just makes more obvious what was always the case: the choice is ours.
Laudato Si is not an encyclical about global warming – in fact, global warming is a pretty minor part. Laudato Si is an encyclical about responsibility, about choosing to embrace creation rather than to destroy it, choosing to embrace God’s beautiful, wise plan rather than replace it with our own, choosing to find ourselves in God’s wisdom rather than substitute our own foolishness.
Like Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como, and like Benedict XVI, it uses the language and imagery of nature. But environmentalism is just one part of this vision. The bigger point is not just that our architecture fits into the landscape, but that our behavior fits into our own nature.
In what ways do you see the world forgetting the reality of Nature?