By Christopher Zehnder

Well, I’ll admit that the title of this essay is not just a little inaccurate – if we take “environmentalist” in the narrow sense we understand it today. But if we understand “environment” more broadly – as those conditions that surround us and influence us – then, I think, calling Pope Gregory XVI an “environmentalist” is not too far off the mark.

Gregory XVI.jpg

Pope Gregory XVI

Indeed, Gregory took the “environment” of his day very seriously; some might say, too seriously. One might think, in fact, that he fit well the stereotype of the modern environmentalist – that he lacked balance and perspective, confusing the essential with what is merely external and contingent. For, he vehemently opposed republican government and would accept no lay participation in the government of his Papal States. His 1832 encyclical, Mirari Vos condemned liberty of conscience and the freedom to publish any and all opinions. He stood resolutely against every revolution in his time – even the rebellion of the Catholic Poles against their persecutor, the Orthodox tsar of Russia. Why, Gregory XVI was so reactionary that he even forbade the building of a railroad and the installing of gas lights in the the Papal States! He despised railroads. He called them chemins d’enfer (“roads to hell”) – a pun on the French chemin de fer, “iron road.” (This, of course, suggests that Gregory had a sense of humor, which he did. Those close to him knew him to be jovial, friendly, and a lover of good conversation – thus demonstrating that even reactionaries can be fun.)

Rome before railroads

It is in his opposition to the modern technology of his day that this pope most closely approximates, at least, the caricature of the modern environmentalist. Such an environmentalist, at the very least, would see a severe curtailment in the use and development of certain forms of technology (such as air conditioning or the automobile) because they harm the natural environment and human health. The more subtle among them may even point to the effects of such technology on human culture. Certainly, Pope Gregory XVI was not thinking of air pollution or climate change when he excoriated trains. What he objected to, and what he thought inexorably bound up with the expansion of the technology of his day, were habits of mind and morality that most modern environmentalists take as self-evident truths. In a word, what Gregory objected to was Liberalism.

This Liberalism was not simply the “liberalism” of the U.S. Democratic Party; indeed, it encompasses the fundamental ideals that lie behind the American political order itself, as well as the those of most nations on earth today. At the basis of this Liberalism is the premise that man’s most natural state is one of radical freedom and autonomy; that human community is a construct to preserve individual freedom, and thus not proper to man as man. Forms of community, including political community, are thus artificial and have the character of an imposition, even if a necessary imposition. But if they are necessary, they are only so because they protect and preserve individual freedom. The limit of human aspiration remains absolute autonomy – even if it can never be fully attained.

Individual liberty is the only absolute for Liberalism. Its limitation can only be justified by liberty. Public order thus becomes the only excuse for law and government – not the common good; for, the expressions of liberty – freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of choice – imply that it is the individual who determines the content of the good. Law and government delineate a space wherein each individual can exercise maximum autonomy, nothing more.

In opposing Liberalism, Gregory was not condemning human liberty as such. It was this pope, for instance, who in his 1839 apostolic letter, In Supremo Apostolatus, sternly condemned enslavement and the slave trade. Gregory understood that freedom is proper to man; what he condemned was the principle of fundamental human autonomy. Gregory operated out of the Catholic social and political tradition that saw organized communal life as a given for man, as an expression of human nature – man as a social and political animal. Based as it is in human nature, the organized communal life has a goal or purpose, which is none other than the good of man as man: the inculcation of virtue, understood not simply as moral rectitude but the perfection of all human faculties – physical, moral, intellectual, and, ultimately, spiritual. It was in defense of this tradition that Gregory exercised all the powers of his mind and heart.

Pope Pius IX in 1847

To appreciate this, one need not agree with everything Gregory XVI did and said. One certainly need not share his disdain for railroads and gas lights. [His successor, Blessed Pius IX, in his reign established both these technologies in the Papal States, as well as a lay advisory senate for their governance – for which he was dubbed (mistakenly) the “Liberal pope.”) But, I think, we might be indulging in a bit of disdain ourselves if we simply laugh off Greogry’s pun, chemins d’enfer. It may be, in his rejection of the “modern” technology of his day that Gregory was on to something. He may have understood implicitly what one of his successors on Peter’s Throne has stated explicitly:

We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.

Thus, Pope Francis (Laudato Si’, 107) – arguably a pope of a very different stamp than Gregory XVI. But though Gregory would very likely find some of Francis’ comments and actions appalling (and might think they justify his detestation of railroads), he might discover, in Laudato Si’, kindred sentiments. Gregory forbade the building of railroads because he saw them as avenues by which Liberalism might infiltrate the Papal States. The technology of the period was an expression of a conviction that rose with Francis Bacon’s ipsa scientia est potestas (“knowledge is power.”) It was the notion that knowledge is ordered, not to contemplation, but to craft – to subduing the world for the utility of human freedom. In other words, the function of knowledge and therefore technology is to set us free from the limitations of nature, just as politics is to set us free from the limitations imposed by all tradition, custom, and authority. Such technology, in the words of Francis, “create[s] a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” The powerful groups of Pope Gregory XVI’s day were those that sought the overthrow, not only of the Church, but of the human culture that Church had protected and fostered. And their boast was the power their technology gave them over the powers of nature.

Space does not permit me to expound on just how technology does condition human society and culture; that can be the subject for a future essay. But I think a little reflection on history and, in particular, on the technological changes that have occurred in the lives of us middle-aged folk, will exemplify the truth of Pope Francis’ words and Pope Gregory XVI’s intuitions. What is called for, of course, cannot be a simple rejection of technology, “a return to the Stone Age,” in Pope Francis’ words; but what is demanded is a re-evaluation of technology, of its power to influence human life and culture and a reining in of its pretensions. As Laudato Si’ (114) puts it, we “need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

Both Francis and Gregory XVI call us to walk the narrow way to true human fulfillment, not simply hitch the next ride on the chemins d’enfer.