We were so thankful that Lucas Briola took the time to answer our questions about his latest book, The Eucharistic Vision of Laudato Si’: Praise, Conversion, and Integral Ecology (CUA Press, 2022). Briola is Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania.
Q: The titular encyclical is largely focused on the Catholic response to environmentalism and technology in a rapidly changing world. When did the importance of the Eucharist’s role in Catholic ecology “click” with you while you studied the document? What did you do next?
A: For much of my life, concern for creation did not “click” as something central to my Catholic identity. The celebration of the Eucharist, meanwhile, has always been a, if not the, central pillar of my Catholicism. I was generally aware that Catholics should care for creation, but only in a marginal way. At least that was until 2015 when Pope Francis released Laudato si’. While—to adapt a phrase from John Henry Newman—no man will be a martyr for an encyclical, my encounter with the encyclical was transformative and even life-altering. It was upon reading section 236 in particular, which eloquently linked the Eucharist with care for creation, that suddenly made everything click for me as it showed how care for creation was in fact something central to my Catholic identity. To use Pope Francis’s words, it was not “an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (LS 217). I then recognized how that passage on the Eucharist gave color to everything else in Laudato si’. It was during those years that my graduate studies at The Catholic University of America took on an ecclesiological focus, and I saw that this encyclical offered a compelling vision of the church’s doxological, Eucharistic mission in a post-Christendom world. So, I wrote a dissertation on that the topic, which, after significant revision, became this book.
Q: One of the core bodies of thought that you use to frame Laudato si’ is Bernard Lonergan’s theology of history. How did you come across Lonergan’s work, and when did you begin to see connections between it and the ecological encyclical?
A: I had first discovered Bernard Lonergan as an undergraduate at Saint Vincent College, and I found his work to be tremendously helpful in framing and clarifying complex theological questions. The fact that his students seemed to cut across ideological lines, while still performing robust theological work, only provoked my interest further. However, it was during my coursework at CUA that I suddenly grasped the Christocentric and, by (implicit) extension, Eucharistic dimensions of his project. While it can seem understated in his somewhat dry and technical language, Lonergan very much saw the paschal mystery as the only salvation for the technocratic and even violent character of the modern world. Though others (like Joseph Ratzinger) also name that bold claim, Lonergan offers the conceptual tools to understand it. In Laudato si’, under the auspices of “the technocratic paradigm” (LS 106-123), Pope Francis identifies the same fundamental cultural malaise of modernity that Lonergan does. Once I saw that both Lonergan and Pope Francis were naming the same problem, Lonergan helped me explain the Eucharistic solution offered by Laudato si’. At the same time, Lonergan never wrote directly on ecological questions. Reading Lonergan in tandem with Laudato si’ could thus also unearth the ecological potential of his work. Reading the together has born much fruit for me in general.
Q: In addition to Lonergan, you examine how the works of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis all play a role in Laudato si’. What was one unexpected connection or difference you found between these four theologians?
A: Lonergan is a fundamentally synthetic figure. His work is bridge building. It is no surprise then that his work helped me see fundamental similarities between all the “protagonists” of my book: Lonergan, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. One commonality in particular stood out: namely, how all of them name a deeper spiritual crisis behind technocratic modernity that threatens the natural world and human society alike and that confounds the political left and the right alike. While those figures might differ in how well they articulate that problem, they all grasp its weight. In making that diagnosis, they also point to the theological and cultural depth of the solution. The ecological crisis is symptomatic of a deeper crisis that spans both human and natural ecologies, one that necessarily has a spiritual component. That dimension is often missed in conversations about the environment, even among theologians.
Q: Laudato si’, like most encyclicals, has seen its fair share of criticism within the church. How did that impact how you navigated discussing the topic?
A: In the introduction of my book, I discuss how the pernicious effects of polarization have disrupted the reception of Laudato si’ in the United States, on both the left and the right. The encyclical either gets reduced to miming secular pro-environmental soundbites, or it gets ignored all together. Thus, its reception points to deeper challenges that face U.S. Catholicism. Saint Paul understood well that the Eucharist should offer some sort of alternative to the partisanship that typically divides us (1 Cor 11:17-34). Indeed, the Catholic tradition has historically viewed the Eucharist as the paradigmatic sacrament of unity—with God, with others, and even with creation. As I inchoately realized the first time I read Laudato si’, the Eucharistic celebration contains the solution to the violence of technocratic modernity and grounds the many calls in the encyclical to care for our common home in all its facets, from the unborn to non-human creation. It is the Eucharist that unifies the often-sprawling character of the encyclical. To grasp the Eucharistic vision of Laudato si’ allows one to read it not as a conservative or a progressive but as a Catholic.