This article was originally posted to First Things.
The Pope And The Plowman:
The Rhetorical Rendezvous of Francis and Wendell Berry
After you exit the interstate and turn on a two lane strip of asphalt headed towards Wendell Berry’s old Kentucky home, one of the first signs you see proclaims—with the leading word emblazoned in red letters: “Caution, Church Entrance Ahead.” It is a warning that Mr. Berry, the celebrated author, farmer and champion of localism, has no doubt passed hundreds of times and seems to have taken to heart. Berry eschews formal congregational membership and attends services with his wife only as a “bad weather churchgoer,” preferring to spend most Sunday mornings wandering the woodlands communing with nature and nature’s God, an exercise that has led to several hundred “Sabbath poems.”
In his essay “God and Country,” Berry describes himself as “deeply estranged from most of the manifestations of organized religion.” Yet, while reading Laudato Si—the encyclical penned by the leader of the largest religious organization in the world—my thoughts regularly returned to the uncollared Southern shepherd who favors the King James Version of the Bible. However they each got there, the Bishop of Rome and the solitary Sage of Henry County have been drinking from the same well.
Central to Pope Francis’s recent work is the idea that “the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others.” This is a theme Berry develops in numerous places, most notably his seminal essay on Christian environmental stewardship, “The Gift of Good Land.” Both counsel gratitude and humility, for this gift (like any real gift) is far from deserved. Berry calls hubris “the great ecological sin” and Francis warns that “once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment.”
Francis and Berry both preach against an individualism that trumps community and compassion; note the Creator’s love for his creation regardless of its utility to humanity; and affirm a special status for people but rebuff a theology that equates our “dominion” with an unfettered domination. They decry what Francis calls the “rapidification” of culture and the over-specialization of knowledge; reject a hyper-dualism that completely severs body and soul, the spiritual and the earthly; and are even similarly wary of our relational reliance on electronic screens. Berry famously described “eating” as “an agricultural act.” Francis, quoting his predecessor Benedict XVI, makes a similar, if broader, point: “Purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act.”
The two also offer extended criticism of what the Pope calls a “deified market” and Berry deems “an opposing religion, assigning to technological progress and ‘the market’ the same omnipotence, omniscience, unquestionability, even the same beneficence that the Christian teachings assign to God.” Moving on from the shared renunciations, they each praise the actions often taken by small landowners and local peoples and affirm the value of physical work and artistic beauty. In short, both men refuse to swallow the myth of progress or, conversely, diagnose humanity as a planetary cancer.
Significantly, but to the consternation of American political labelers, Berry and Francis also link the care of the earth with the care of the unborn. Francis sees this as part of an “integral ecology” and as an aspect of what he calls a “culture of care.” In one of several passages on the topic, the Pope says clearly, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” Berry sings from the same songbook when he writes in “The Conservation of Nature and the Preservation of Humanity,”
If abortion is wrong, as I believe, it is wrong because it excludes some of our fellow humans from our care. But to think that abortion is wrong is to risk dangerous over-simplification if we cannot follow our thought to its logical conclusion. If we cannot justify violence to unborn human beings, then how can we justify violence to . . . the world that they are born into?
In a later work, Berry—after being scolded by leftist allies who warned that “‘most readers’ [would] object to [his] treatment of abortion”—reminded his audience:
The attempt to make a categorical distinction between a baby living in the womb and a baby living in the world is as tenuous as would be an attempt to make such a distinction between a living child and a living adult. No living creature is “viable” independently of an enveloping life-support system.
The womb of a woman is but a microcosm of the womb of the world upon which we all depend. Attempts to subtly set the two against each other—such as this mural that adorns a Planned Parenthood clinic in an Austin, Texas barrio and states “love yourself love the world”—have roots that extend to the pit of Hell.
I come not to argue for Berryan infallibility. Doubtless, his alienation from the church is in many ways a self-inflicted exile, and in recent years, Berry’s words on gay marriage have been disappointing, discombobulated, and sometimes filled with a disheartening animus towards the religious people with whom he disagrees. Nevertheless, his core argument—that the citizenry would be better off with the government out of the marriage business—would have been preferable to the outcome we have now.
The great thing Francis and Berry share is the way they put climate change in a much larger paradigm. A Christianity Today profile of Berry was titled “Imagining a Different Way to Live,” and a Latin version of the same could have easily been used in place of Laudato Si. “Put simply,” says Francis, “it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress.”
Such talk spooks some commentators who sense a revolutionary spirit in the air and caution that most attempts at remaking the world end in failure. But if the Pope is calling for a revolution, it is really a counter-revolution, one in response to the excessss of an Industrial Revolution undertaken largely without any forethought as to its proper limits. More appropriate is the language of renewal.
In “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Berry rejected calls from some environmentalists to move beyond the faith of our fathers:
A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself, so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be. On such a survival and renewal of the Christian religion may depend the survival of that Creation which is its subject.
During the past century the flickering flame of renewal was often carried by loner prophets who, like Berry, were generally relegated to the shadowy fringes of institutional Christianity. Today, though, Small is Beautiful author and late-in-life Catholic convert E.F. Schumacher must be smiling in heaven to see Francis talk of “less is more.” Likely beaming alongside him are Jacques Ellul, whose critique of The Technological Society meshes well with the Pope’s observation that “science and technology are not neutral,” and Earth Day pioneer John McConnell whose mantra of “Peace, Justice, Care of Earth” is echoed even more closely. Romano Guardini is probably more than happy to see The End of the Modern World repeatedly cited by an admiring pontiff.
“A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us,” Francis writes, “and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.” As in heaven, here on earth, those of us who have advocated a pro-life, pro-planet, pro-limits perspective largely in obscurity are energized to see that a pope has lifted high the torch and is now leading the way. And, perhaps, those like Wendell Berry, who have found the church a place of estrangement, will begin to again feel at home.