My first thought when I read Laudato Si’ was not the “climate change question” that has pervaded discussion so far. My first thought was, “Wow – this is a call to asceticsm – how daring…”

Asceticism means that no one (incuding Jeb Bush) really gets to call out the Pope on being unqualified to speak to economics, politics, and science – because at its heart, this encyclical theologically raises up a significant aspect of Christian tradition. That means that while it uses science, political and economic theory, and sociology – and it should! – it’s not limited by them, and the pope’s writing shouldn’t be confounded by those who disagree with majority views in those fields.

I think it’s also an answer to Ross Douthat’s column from last week, in which he discusses the pope’s encyclical as representing (in parts) a catastrophism that believes we are doomed, unless a revolution takes place. While Douthat agrees with the pope’s basic contentions about contemporary civilization, especially in its technocratic nature, he disagrees with a catastrophism position. He ultimately suggests that we are in a “stagnationist” period of “sustainable decadence” that won’t ever quite reach the ability to achieve revolution. Yet regardless of whether Douthat’s version of the pope, or Douthat’s own argument is correct (and both are intrguing, though I think Douthat is not quite right in his assumptions) – an ascetic life given in witness to Christ is still the antidote

Asceticism means this encyclical is hard news for all of us because it’s a call to a changed lifestyle (which the pope discusses in chapter 6). Without attention to ascetism, I fear that the kinds of dialogues we need, and to which the pope calls us, cannot take place.

A Call to Asceticism

“Praise to you” – laudato si’: the pope begins the encyclical by citing words of Saint Francis, words that have often been recited and sung by Christians and others. It was a popular hymn in the Methodist church where I grew up: “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing: O praise ye, O praise ye!”

In sections 10-13, the pope discusses more concretely why he has chosen to begin with Saint Francis’ words.  The saint is “attractive and compelling,” and able to be an “example par excellence for care of the vulnerable and  of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.”

That is to say, it is important to think about the whole life and witness of the person who spoke the words “Praise to you.” And this will not be the kind of mere “inspiration” that the Catholic Herald Online meekly suggests.

“Praise to you” comes from a place of asceticism – a renunciation of many of the things our world loves and desires to have, and continues to love, even 800 years after the saint walked the earth.

A synonym for “asceticism” might be “renunciation,” and we can consider some of the many things the saint renounced:

  • Birth family and the home and job that come with it
  • Clothing
  • Wealth and the home and job that come with it
  • Standard cultural ways of treating others ungenerously
  • Food – except for that had from begging
  • Known institutions (he started from nothing)
  • Sex
  • Having his own biological family (for he considered his family to be the poor, those who joined him, as well as the other creatures he encountered, as Saint Bonaventure mentions (11)
  • Comforts of the technologies that were then known

If Francis is example par excellence , then we too are called toward renunciation and an ascetic way of life.

A Contemporary Asceticism….

The hint at renunciation that begins the encyclical gets reinforced in several ways. Not only does the pope specifically call out air conditioning and carbon credits as my colleague David Cloutier discusses, but he raises both problems and proper uses of:

  • Eating and drinking (27-31)
  • Technologies(26, 46, 112, 191)
  • Drugs, diamonds, fur trade (123)
  • Uses of animals and mineral resources (34-36, 211, 232)
  • Consumption (203)
  • Sex and children (117, 120, 136)
  • Large (wealthy?) homes (152, 211)
  • Use of data and social media (47)
  • Relationship with the poor around the globe (51-52, 232)).
  • Simplicity of life (214)

It is important to remember that renunciation does not merely mean giving up things, but in fact, to be able to appropriate things rightly – as in food and water. (e.g. Might we consider renouncing letting cold, good, drinking water run down the drain as we wait for the hot water boiler to kick in?) In chapter 3, the pope discusses the need to be able to renounce or partially renounce technologies – and holds up ascetics (we might think of the Amish here) as examples, while acknowledging that we tend to be dismissive of this kind of technological asceticism.

We can read the the entire second chapter that discusses the creation and the Cain and Abel stories in Genesis might be read as a call to renounce domination over the environment (our dominant narrative for centuries) in favor of generous and loving stewardship. We are even called to renounce sinful ways of working when the pope emphasizes our need – and all creation’s need – for a Sabbath (71).

If all of this were not enough, the pope mentions other saintly ascetics as examples – Blessed Charles Foucauld (125), Saint John of the Cross (234) and Saint Therese of Lisieux are all famous ascetics that figure prominently – in particular due to the specific ways these saints suggest how we might go about living an ascetic life. Saint Therese’s “Little Way”, for example, is directly mentioned as a means for how we might live a new kind of life (230)

And – moreover – the pope mentions “internal deserts” – a recollection of desert asceticism and the ways in which deserts, and “going into the desert” have featured in so many of Christianity’s famous ascetics. (217)

So, when the pope speaks of needing a culture that gives no weak response in direct opposition to all our cultures that are, in fact, very weak (53-54), I suggest that he is proposing instead that we foster cultures of everyday asceticism.


No Mere Veneer of Asceticism…”

If some have missed the call to asceticism that is a central theme of this encyclical, I suggest it is because culturally, asceticism is actually a prime suspect for what we think ails society (which he discusses in Chapter 6, in fact…)

We have an inexorable sensibility that what traditional asceticism has often renounced – food, clothing, gossip, money, speech, loud laughter, sex, and so on – are in fact human needs that make for human health and happiness. Renunciation of these things seems pointless if not dangerous.

To bring in a few examples of our current views of health and happiness:

  • Celibacy is apparently dangerous for health and fun
  • Not eating chocolate (or wine or any number of other foods that might be renounced) can be unwise for health and weight (aka eating disorders)
  •  Gossip is integral to our health
  • Consumerism as helping develop public health and well-being – or the idea that the consumer can and should drive how industries and societies function

We hold these things to be true deeply enough that anyone who might renounce them is seen suspciously, or at the least, with pity.

There are reasons not to be ascetic in certain ways (eating disorders being a reason to avoid certain types of fasting, for example). Yet when we remember that part of the point of renunciation is to appreciate things rightly, that makes renunciation not dangerous but sensible. An ascetic life is a life that recognizes that there is not a one-size-fits-all – a point the pope also mentions at the beginning of chapter 6. Indeed, a one-size-fits-all approach would seem to do the very kinds of objectifying other people and creation that the pope decries.

An ascetic life is not only sensible but far more than that. The pope discusses how Saint Francis lives no “mere veneer of asceticism” but that all of his renunciations go hand in hand with his joyfulness, his generosity, and his love of the whole world. The love and generosity and joy that Saint Francis identifies in “Praise to you!” can’t be separated from his way of life.

Saint Francis, of course, ultimately points to Christ and sees that generosity and joy of spirit linked closely with what it means to live a life in Jesus. Thus the encyclical discusses how Jesus’ life circumscribes how we are to understand askesis. In the second chapter, the discussion of the person and work of Jesus Christ describes what this renunciation is NOT, and what it is for:

His appearance was not that of an ascetic set apart from the world, nor of an enemy to the pleasant things of life. Of himself he said: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard!’” (Mt 11:19). He was far removed from philosophies which despised the body, matter and the things of the world. (98)

Rather, citing Colossians:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19-20)

Jesus is the way, in whom the unity and fullness of all creation is known. The asceticism spoken of here aims for that generosity and fullness.


The Abundant Life Jesus Offers

We are called to live ascetic lives because we seek this fullness in Christ. Asceticism is not, for Christians, about renunciations that do nothing other than emphasize an individual’s own “holiness” if such a thing is possible. Still less is asceticism about hatred of life, joy, love, or generosity. Rather, the Church argues that asceticism enables these – and indeed, Pope Francis spends a great deal of chapter six discussing how joy of an ascetic life is true freedom (see especially section 224)

So, when the pope speaks of needing a culture that gives no weak response in direct opposition to all our cultures that are, in fact, very weak (53-54), I suggest that he is proposing instead that we foster cultures of everyday asceticism. Everyday asceticism takes its cues not only from Saint Francis, but from Saint Therese, whose “little way” of small touches of generosity gets a complete paragraph.

On my reading, the encyclical’s very structure is asking for conversion in the hopes that we readers might be convicted by the Holy Sprit – for can true dialogue happen if one is not first at least attempting the Laudato Si’ that Saint Francis’ entire life raises up?