Pope Francis does not mince words in his new encyclical, Laudato Si’. He says, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (21) and “burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” (2) Francis continues, “We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in the developed countries and the wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels.” (27)

His assessment is stark:

“If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.” (24)

Is Pope Francis too pessimistic about the state of the world, as well as modern values and technology? Is he really a reactionary or a luddite, rather than someone who believes in progress and the benefits of modernity? The pope frequently quotes one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the 20th century, Romano Guardini, and his book The End of the Modern World in his new encyclical; looking at the parallels in this book and Francis’ encyclical can perhaps help to answer these questions.

Francis, like Guardini, either explicitly or implicitly denounces all of the false hopes for man’s salvation and human flourishing that have been popular in the past couple of centuries: technocracy, materialism, consumerism, hedonism, utilitarianism, free market fundamentalism, positivism, the maximization of autonomy, and the privatization of religion. Both reject the belief that progress is inevitable, pointing to history and the reality of free will. As Guardini says, “The human spirit is free to do evil as well as good, to destroy as to build.”

But Pope Francis does not turn away from the world in disgust. Perhaps he has the “valid pessimism without which nothing great is ever achieved,” as Guardini says. To see the dark side of the world and speak the truth, while at the same time persevering in hope, is fundamentally Christian. Francis is not calling for a return to a mythical golden age or trying to destroy the positive gains of past centuries, but rather taking up Guardini’s challenge to “fashion a new universal order” and “lay the roadway of the future,” conscious of human dignity.

It is this personalist, communitarian vision, which rejects false roads to progress, that allows for the real foundation of genuine progress: the responsible actions of free men and women who choose to do what is right. This is the path to the sustainable and integral human development that shapes Francis’ vision.

Salvation will not come from ideologies that deify the market or the ingenuity of the autonomous individual or utilitarian technocrats. Ultimately, the source of Francis’ hope is God. And human beings, made in the image of God, can help build the kingdom of God if we seek to do God’s will — if we embrace humility, service, virtue, and love. Francis calls on all Christians to live these values of our faith, but he also addresses the entire world, knowing that through dialogue and engagement, we might help others to break away from mindsets that destroy nature and abandon the poor. With this in mind, “we know that things can change” and that “humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.” (13)

Guardini writes:

“There is only one standard by which any epoch can be fairly judged: in view of its own peculiar circumstances, to what extent did it allow for the development of human dignity?”

This is Francis’ standard. When Francis sees the degradation of the environment, the impact on the poor, and the disregard for future generations, he must denounce these threats to human dignity, God’s creation, and the common good.

Francis must condemn the mindsets, ideologies, and actions that degrade and objectify the human person and place material interests above God’s will. The common good demands the creation of conditions that allow for human flourishing, for the development of each person — emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual — living today and in the future. Freedom is thus not understood as the liberty to do anything one pleases as an autonomous individual, but rather liberation from the chains — internal and external — that hold a person back from his or her full development.

When we understand the nature of the person in this way, no lives are disposable. Each has meaning and purpose. Just as Guardini worried about the isolated, alienated, depersonalized “mass man” of 20th century totalitarianism and bourgeois culture, Francis calls on us to refuse to simply accept the “throwaway culture” and acquiesce to contemporary assaults on human dignity and creation. He calls for “another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.” (112)

This demands a personal conversion from each of us. Do we live in excess and forget the plight of the poor? Do we ravenously consume goods with no regard for future generations? It demands a response from our local communities, our churches, our businesses—are we looking out for the vulnerable and building a better future for all or are we self-referential and fixated on our own interests?

It also demands a commitment to the common good and bold action at the national, international, and perhaps even the supranational level. Government exists to safeguard human dignity and promote human flourishing, and freedom cannot exist without governments fulfilling their responsibilities. The governments of the world are failing at the present moment. We must pressure them to do what is right. We have a right and a responsibility to do so.

Pope Francis does not reject the scientific method, technological progress, advances in democracy and human rights, or the possibility of protecting the earth and building better societies. He rejects the misuse of modern developments to depersonalize ourselves, dehumanize others, and destroy creation. And he reminds us to be humble — that humanity separated from God, creating its own artificial morality will never solve the problems facing the world.

Like Guardini, he calls on us to recognize our proper role in God’s creation and to affirm the dignity of the human person. Only then might we be good stewards of creation who help to build a better world.