Eco-obedience: a lifetime of Lent with no pay-off

At least the gospels promise us the Kingdom of God - green self-denial gives us nothing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

It’s Easter! Traditionally a time when the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics do a bit of gorging following the self-deprivations of Lent. After 40 days and 40 nights of denying themselves some vice they’re partial to – usually booze or sweets, or both for the especially devout – the faithful tuck in to a fat dinner and lots of chocolate. This year, however, they might have to watch themselves. For there’s a new pope in town, and, by all accounts, many of them fawning, he’s an austere one, possibly even an ‘eco-pope’, who apparently frowns upon the ‘frenzied consumption’ of our age. It might not be wise to frenziedly consume Easter eggs with such an ascetic pontiff peering over your shoulder.

Miraculously – given how globally fashionable it was to hate the Catholic Church when Benedict XVI was boss – Pope Francis is proving popular, even among secularists. And the reason for his popularity is his austerity, his forswearing of popish bling and comfort in favour of what his spokesman calls ‘simple living’. Francis has refused to wear the red velvet cape with white fur trim that popes normally don, and he won’t be moving into the plush papal apartment in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace; instead he’ll settle down in a ‘communal building with other priests’. His determination to live austerely is summed up in his assumed name: Francis, after Francis of Assisi, that original hairshirt-wearer and eye-watering self-mortifier who was known to search high and low for the most uncomfortable rock to sleep on.

Unwittingly exposing the thinness of the line between old-world Catholic self-denial and new-fangled, green-leaning anti-consumerism, modernity-disliking commentators are cock-a-hoop over Francis’s self-imposed austerity. They hope it will send out an important message in this era of ‘excessive consumption, verging on squander’ – namely that at a time when mankind’s antics are having ‘a huge impact on natural resources’, it is time for ‘people to follow a simpler lifestyle’. Too many people ‘seek their salvation in the endless acquisition of stuff’, observers say, and ‘Francis’s asceticism is a clear repudiation of that mindset’. Francis is being asked to go the full hog and create a more ‘ecological church’ that might help reverse ‘rampant consumerism and the deterioration of the planet’. That is, we need a perma-Lent.

Let’s leave aside that there’s something ugly about the implicit berating of everyday people for their extravagance at a time when these people are having austerity imposed on them by a belt-tightening Brussels. The more striking thing about the talk of an eco-pope is that it reveals the deadly modern embrace between the new environmentalist elite and the old Catholic hierarchy – with the former hoping that the Vatican might add the weight of godly traditionalism to its demands for restrained living, and the latter hoping that cosying up to greens might give it a dash of relevance in these otherwise Vatican-suspicious times. The opportunistic marrying of these two mindsets has popularised a totally soulless, spiritually and intellectually unrewarding form of self-sacrifice, of restraint for restraint’s sake, of the kind that makes the mortifications of the pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, seem positively progressive by comparison.

The Vatican has been going green for three decades. Desperate for a way to connect with increasingly irreligious Europeans, and keen to repackage in more acceptable lingo its promotion of meekness and self-denial, it has leapt upon the joylessly austere eco-bandwagon, or rather juggernaut, that has ascended to the top of the moral mountain in modern Europe. In 1979, Pope John Paul II made Francis of Assisi, who was known to love birds and sleep in the great outdoors, into the Patron Saint of Ecology. In 1982, he called on humans to stop behaving like ‘dissident predators’ and instead to create a ‘healthy and integrated [environment] for those who succeed us’. Pope Benedict XVI talked of mankind’s ‘ecological responsibility’ and the importance of ‘overseeing the earth’s natural resources with justice and wisdom’. He announced that the Vatican would become the world’s first carbon-neutral state, partly by putting 2,400 solar panels on roofs in the Vatican City and saving 230 tonnes in CO2 emissions.

The aim is clear: to tune into the zeitgeist and connect with a church-avoiding but possibly green-sympathising public. Yet in its rush to go eco, the Vatican has forgotten about the spiritual and intellectual components, the soulful rewards, of its one-time promotion of self-denial. Where earlier Catholic mortifiers, or just Catholic campaigners for moderation, promoted resistance to the pleasures of the flesh as a way of achieving spiritual or intellectual enlightenment, modern Catholic eco-mortifiers promote carbon-cutting for its own sake, as simply a way of shrinking one’s personal eco-footprint and reducing CO2 emissions by a specific number of tonnes. There’s no higher purpose to eco-self-denial; it has no pay-off; it offers no transcendence whatsoever, instead grubbily encouraging folk to obsess over the minutiae of their daily behaviour and carbon output to the bovine end of being less of a burden on the planet.

This is why the comparisons being made between Pope Francis’s increasingly green Vatican and St Francis of Assisi are mad. Firstly, it is crazy to depict Francis of Assisi as a prototype ecologist, a twelfth-century Greenpeace type who wandered through woods cooing at sparrows. In truth he was a severe self-punisher, known to hurl himself naked into thorny bushes, to mix ashes or dirt into his food to make it taste foul (that’s when he could bring himself to eat), and to use rocks as pillows. When Greenpeace members start behaving like that, I’ll take them seriously. Secondly, and more importantly, Francis of Assisi didn’t deny himself bodily pleasures in order to ‘help nature’, or to live a few years longer, or to avoid being fat, or for any of the other purely physical, uninspiring reasons given for self-denial and eco-awareness today; rather he did it to sharpen his mind, to deepen his spirit, to achieve what he considered to be a kind of godliness, to be a ‘mirror of Christ’.

In the words of the twentieth-century Catholic writer GK Chesterton, Francis’s behaviour was ‘not self-denial in the sense of self-control’. Indeed, even a hundred years ago Chesterton was challenging the adoption of Francis of Assisi by ‘nature worshippers’, since Francis was seeking ‘something much deeper in human nature than nature-worshippers could ever understand’ (1). That is, Francis did all that hairshirt, flesh-punishing stuff in order to cultivate a higher form of spirit, believing that ‘the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh’. Asceticism had a high, grand aim. As the thirteenth-century Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas put it, temperance, which he described as being ‘in accord with reason’, is a way of ‘defeating our lower, beastly nature’ and allowing the mind and spirit to flourish.

It wasn’t only harsh, back-walloping monks like Francis of Assisi or bookish men of the cloth like Thomas Aquinas who saw the ascetic life as a route to profound spiritual ends. Throughout history, various movements that encouraged ascetic living tended to be tied to some mighty philosophical worldview, some idea of making humans better by testing them and developing them and building their character. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes lived in a barrel because he wanted to achieve purity of thought. The Puritans and the Victorians believed hardship could be a way of redeeming humans. In the nineteenth century, some Socialist movements promoted temperance as a means of encouraging workers to focus on something greater than post-factory boozing: the creation of an entirely new society, a world of abundance. From Francis to the Fabians, different kinds of temperance, moderation and the stifling of fleshly lusts were pursued for the greater goal of expanding the mind or becoming Christlike.

How different it is now. The most striking, and galling, thing about today’s insistence that we all be eco-restrained and foreswear ‘frenzied consumption’, that we all dutifully submit ourselves to the elite’s flesh-punishing wars against pollution, obesity, drinking and smoking, is how little we are promised in return. We’re not told that we will become mirrors of Christ or better philosophical thinkers, but rather that we might make our eco-footprint a hectare smaller or extend our lives by 2.8 years or make our waistlines two inches smaller. The payback for self-denial and eco-obedience is piffling, and entirely physical in nature: it’s the mortification of the body simply to preserve the body, or to protect the planet, not to release the spirit or the intellect. One Franciscan priest and fan of Pope Francis says the church must promote an ‘ethics of austerity’ that will bring about a ‘change in lifestyle’ – that’s it? – while Vatican officials constantly crow about the exact amount of CO2 tonnage their planting of trees and adoption of solar power have saved. This isn’t morality – it’s maths.

The flesh-restraining, desire-policing outlook of modern elites, shared now by everyone from the most secularist Brussels bureaucrat to the most pious pope adviser, speaks to a view of humans as purely toxic creatures. We’re now seen, not as individuals with inner moral lives that might be teased out and developed, possibly through the conscious demotion of the pursuit of more immediate pleasures, but rather as members or a polluting mass whose fleshly lusts must be restrained simply to make the planet less hot and us less fat. Even a totally atheistic post-Catholic like me, who was never a fan of Franciscan self-denial (hey, I was educated by Dominicans), can see there was more humanity in Francis of Assisi’s mad leaping into nettles than there is in Pope Francis and Co’s dead-end environmentalism.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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