Blessed Be the Poor? St. Francis, Asceticism, and Climate Change

The pope's encyclical Laudato Si brings fresh urgency to the issues of climate change and environmental degradation. The sentiment is to be welcomed, and the call to action urgent, yet some of the arguments made are historically problematic. That climate change is real and consequential cannot be overly emphasized. But how do we solve this challenge?

"A picture is worth a thousand words" goes the old adage. Of the rhetorical devices used in the encyclical, the image that dominates them all is the one of St. Francis. The truth is, Francis (1181-1226) has captured the Western imagination. He's become so iconic it wouldn't come as a surprise if Ben and Jerry's named an ice-cream after him--"Naked Franciscan," or "Fresh Frangelico Francis." We tend to resonate with Francis because of the way he has been depicted throughout history, as a robed revolutionary, a man in Birkenstocks before Birkenstocks existed, a man who wasn't afraid to get back to nature and mix it up with the poor.

Here is the problem--while poverty may sound appealing on a literary level, as a badge of authenticity, no one actually wants to be poor. What we do tend to want is more time to be in community, to enjoy our friends and family, and to appreciate nature--but on our terms, not on nature's terms. Nature is brutal-- that's why over history we developed technology in the first place--to modulate it and protect us from its unpredictable forces.

Francis fits in to a very precise historical context. He was living in central Italy at the cusp of a revolution in commerce and trade. The story of Francis was a family drama, the saga of a young man who didn't like the perceived greed of his noveau riche father, and who decided to rid himself of his expensive garments as a sign of protest. What popular commentators tend to forget is that within only one generation, the Franciscan movement, which Francis founded and inspired, had become one of the largest and wealthiest in Europe. Donations were coming in from all quarters, and by the late 13th century, there was a massive debate raging within the order about what it meant to follow the rule of poverty.

What all this must remind us of is that asceticism and the pursuit of contemplation of the kind envisioned by St. Francis is actually a form of luxury--and luxury in the best sense of the word. It is a privilege, afforded by abundance. Meditation and quiet contemplation can only take place if there is a superstructure in place. You can't really meditate very well if you are being chased by wolves, or if you are thoroughly undernourished. The ascetic practice has to be a controlled and voluntary choice, otherwise, it is not a spiritual practice. It is simply deprivation.

Poverty, quite frankly, is no good for anyone. Those who are poor lack education, lack access to resources, and are generally stifled in their potential for human development. In order to give something up, as St. Francis did, you need to have it in the first place. If your decision is a choice, then it is one made from a position of power. If it is not, then there is little that is virtuous about it. We need to learn from the lessons of history, not idealize them. Addressing climate change need not mean looking to the 13th century for images of what it means to live in harmony with nature. 13th century "harmony" with nature was generally riddled by disease, lack, and uncertainty.

The compelling message from Laudato Si is one about being conscientious around consumption. It is an ethical message about understanding the consequences of our actions and consumption patterns. Part of what we need to do in moving forward is to break away from easy and often misleading dichotomies about poverty and wealth. Wealth need not mean conspicuous waste. Wealth, ultimately, derives from power, and power--personal, political, technological--is what allows us to make responsible and informed choices about what and how we are going to consume resources in a way that is sustainable.