'Laudato Si'' and Romano Guardini Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Aug. 06, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

In 1986, after serving in a variety of capacities in the Jesuit province of Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio commenced doctoral studies in Germany.

The focus of his research was the great 20th century theologian and cultural critic Romano Guardini, who had been a key influence on, among many others, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger.

Influence of Guardini

As things turned out, Bergoglio never finished his doctoral degree (he probably started too late in life), but his immersion in the writings of Guardini decisively shaped his thinking.

Most commentary on Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si' has focused on the issue of global warming and the pope's alignment with this or that political perspective, but this is to miss the forest for one very particular tree.

As I read through the document, I saw, on practically every page, the influence of Romano Guardini and his distinctive take on modernity.

Interaction with nature

To get a handle on Guardini's worldview, one should start with a series of essays he wrote in the 1920s, gathered into book form as Letters from Lake Como.

Like many Germans, he loved to vacation in Italy, and he took particular delight in the lake region around Milan.

He was enchanted by the physical beauty of the area, but what intrigued him above all was the manner in which human beings, through their architecture and craftsmanship, interacted non-invasively and respectfully with nature.

When he first came to the region, he noticed how the homes along Lake Como imitated the lines and rhythms of the landscape and how the boats that plied the lake did so in response to the swelling and falling of the waves.

But by the 1920s, he noticed a change. Homes being built were not only larger, but more "aggressive," no longer accommodating to the natural setting. Motor-driven boats were no longer moving in rhythm with the waves, but cutting through them indifferently.

In these unhappy changes, Guardini noted the emergence of a distinctively modern sensibility. The attitudes first articulated by Francis Bacon in the 16th century and René Descartes in the 17th were coming to dominate the mentality of 20th-century men and women.

Controlling the environment

Bacon opined that knowledge is power, more precisely power to control the natural environment. He insisted the scientist's task is to put nature "on the rack" so she might give up her secrets.

Descartes told the intellectuals of Europe to stop fussing over theological matters and philosophical abstractions and get about the business of "mastering" nature. 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.

If you want to see an English version of Guardini's perspective, I 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.

Background to encyclical

It is only against this Guardinian background that we can properly read the pope's 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 -- 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, and Francis of Assisi, 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.

What strikes the pope as self-evident is that the nature we have attempted to dominate has turned on us, like Frankenstein's monster. As he put it in a recent press conference,"God always forgives; human beings sometimes forgive; but when nature is mistreated, she never forgives."

These lessons, which he learned many years ago from Romano Guardini, are still worthy of careful attention today.


Bishop-elect Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and has been named an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org