“Laudato si” and the Historic Roots of the Discourse on Global Inequality

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by Julia McClure (HEC MW Fellow 2014-2015)(*)

The Laudato si, the Encyclical letter released by the papacy last week, has been described as a call for all people, Christians and non Christians, for a cultural revolution against the ‘treacherous appetites of capitalism’, to save our planet from the disasters wrought by over-consumption and a utilitarian approach to the world. Like so many times during his papacy, in this letter Francis looked to the history of the Franciscan Order, a socio-religious movement with a unique doctrine of poverty, which has been a powerhouse of radical, alternative ideas. The importance of Franciscan ideas, and their alternative perspective on the world, may too easily be overlooked by the modern observer, who locates religion outside of secular and rational ‘modernity’: outside of relevance. And yet, emerging in the Middle Ages as a socio-political movement as well as a religious movement, the Franciscans can be seen as the engineers of the first alternative global discourse: critics of global capitalism even before capitalism was ‘global’. As Hans Baron eloquently wrote, ‘the Franciscan demand for evangelical poverty developed among the citizens into an early intellectual reaction against an age in process of becoming capitalist’.[1] It is important not to dismiss the importance of Franciscan history, and the ideas developed by the Franciscans, as something relating only to the history of religion or the Middle Ages. Such dismissals contributes to the denial of coevaleness: the mechanism which enables the secularism (defined literarily as that which lasts over the centuries) of ‘modernity’.[2] Pope Francis taps the alterity of the Franciscan perspective to call for an alternative global discourse which will facilitate an alternative global future.

In the Encyclical, Pope Francis argued that his namesake ‘helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human’. This statement taps into the core of Franciscan ideas, which developed in opposition to the rise of the money economy, the power of markets, and the discourse of capitalism. In the Middle Ages the Franciscans tried to realise an alternative relationship between man and the world that was not ruled by the paradigm of property. During this process they devised a discourse that was in opposition to the language of mathematics and the scientist metrics that came to underpin the ideology of finance. In the fourteenth century, one radical Spiritualist Franciscan, Angelo of Clareno, illustrated this by writing ‘can you measure the waters with your hand and heaven with your palm?[3] Why then do you try to weigh and to hold within the grasp of your fingers the earth and the great elements which can be measured only by their maker? Know yourself first.’[4] The theological dimension of this message is clear, yet it also holds a broader epistemological point that encourages a questioning of the politics of the mechanisms and representations of global discourses today. It is a reminder of the need to accept the fallibility of the human condition and the limitations of scientist knowledge systems.

The prevalence of the scientist perspective, engineered in particular by the field of economics, as a method for understanding society contributes to the dominance of the ideology of capitalism. The language of mathematics becomes a mechanism for validating truth claims, for constructing a hegemonic perspective. Scanning the pages of The Economist, the Bible of the capitalist discourse, one gets a sense of the danger of reducing understanding to the language of mathematics. It creates models using metrics which can only lead to the positive reinforcement of the value system of capitalism, and it invents its findings as truth claims by performing results using the ‘empirically sound’ language of mathematics and using the aesthetics of graphs, spreadsheets and pie charts. An article published earlier this year asked ‘Is your degree worth it?’ Arguing that it is what you study not where you study, the article presented a graph showing that your degree is ‘worth it’ if you study engineering, computer science, or maths, rather than the arts or humanities because you will earn more. Arts and humanities degrees are designed to encourage critical thought and to promote a learning which enriches individuals and their ability to contribute to civic life and improve societies. The problem is that these ‘values’, to use a capitalistic metaphor, don’t lend themselves to a metric that can be mapped on a graph or permeate the public consciousness through media publications such as The Economist.

The recent papal Encyclical touches on this problem, arguing that part of the problem of today’s planet and its people comes from the dominance of one form of knowing and ‘developing’, which is itself appropriative. Pope Francis criticises the globalization of the technocratic paradigm, the way in which ‘humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object’, and describes this method as ‘already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation’. Similar criticisms of the way in which people were appropriating the planet, and scepticisms concerning the role of knowledge, were first voiced by the Franciscans in the Middle Ages. Of course, the Franciscans were not opposed to science and the order produced many great scientists, but they also philosophically explore ways of knowing. Following ideas stemming from Franciscan history, Pope Francis argues that we need to escape ‘globalized logic’: that the battle for biodiversity is linked to intellectual diversity. Medieval history, and especially new forms of global intellectual history, can contribute to the programme to escape from ‘globalized logic’.

In Laudato Si Pope Francis uses the history of the Franciscan Order to illustrate how, if we are going to reshape the future of our shared global environment, we must transcend our utilitarian approach to nature and knowledge and to think differently. We must maintain the diversity of our intellectual ecosystem. Most importantly in thinking differently we must focus on the experiences of the poor around the world, who are disproportionately affected by climate change. He wrote that ‘the poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled’. In the Encyclical, Pope Francis uses a Franciscan approach to outline the problems of the conjoined deterioration of the natural and human environment from the perspective of the experiences of the poor. The prevalence of poverty in our global landscape today calls for radical change, for human action that does not objectify poverty and for a new global discourse that escapes both an appropriative relationship with the world and a utilitarian approach to knowledge.

[1] Hans Baron, Franciscan Poverty and Civic Wealth as a factor in the Rise of Humanistic Thought’, Speculum, 13:1 (1938), 1-37, 4.

[2] For more on this see my earlier blog post: http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/isis-politics-middle-ages/

[3] Angelo Clareno cited ‘Gregory’, probably Gregory the Great, as posing this question, but the citation comes from Isaiah 40:12.

[4] Angelo Clareno, A chronicle or history of the seven tribulations of the Order of Brothers Minor, trans D. Burr and E. Randolph Daniel (New York: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2005), 98.


(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme