Francis’ encyclical on the environmental crisis, Laudato si’, is an apocalyptic document in both senses of the word. It responds to a global threat to human life. But it also finds in this context a revelation of how we ought to live.
Key to its apocalyptic vision is the idea that God created the world to exist in a certain kind of relationship with Him; one that we creatures can only inhabit if we correspondingly exist in certain kinds of relationships with one another. However, these relationships were disrupted by our sinful presumption “to take the place of God”. In this, we lost sight of our human limitations, and of our responsibilities towards other creatures (§66).
This presumption, it claims, has led us to replace responsible tending of the garden with nihilistic, instrumentalist, “technocratic” (§101) domination. In turn, for Francis, this leads us to exploit the earth’s resources, and abuse our fellow creatures.
Correspondingly, the focus of the encyclical is on restoring these relationships. This restoration finds its fulfilment in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, Christ bridges the alienation between creation and God, and thus enables creation to return to the communion for which it was created: “Joined to the incarnate Son… ‘creation is projected… towards unification with the Creator himself’” (§236).
This redemptive Eucharistic communion is a bodily communion. In the Eucharist, we are united within the Body of Christ. This Body connects heaven and fallen earth, and we live in its resurrection. To be a creature is therefore not simply to live as a body but to live as the Body, and it is as bodies that we are incorporated within its communion.
Hence Laudato si’ is concerned with the ways in which we relate to individual human bodies. Nowhere is this clearer than in the encyclical’s concerns around gender, as an ostensible component of human nature. Warning about ignoring human nature and thus the detachment of human life from moral law, Francis states that
…valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator… It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it”.§155
This passage obliquely addresses transness. It portrays transness as negating natural sexual difference, and thereby also disrupting the norms attached to it, along with the human relationships that ought to be mediated by them. Here, Francis opposes transness to the body, and thus the relationships in which our bodies exist and are redeemed. In turn, he aligns transness against creation and the Body in which it lives. In other words, transness is aligned against life itself.
This puts into question the nature of the bodily communion Francis glimpses in the Eucharist. Laudato si’ is hardly unusual in its exclusions: our communities are marked by exclusions at the altar, staked out according to disciplines that police our bodies and what we do with them – which is to say, which police us as bodies. In this vein, for many trans people, the peaceability of the Eucharistic communion is only achieved through our often-violent exclusion. By forbidding our bodies from approaching the altar, the various tensions that circulate around our bodies can notionally be excluded from the Body that is produced by the Eucharist – which is to say, the Church and our ecclesial communities. And by extension, certain theologians who place Eucharistic communion at the heart of their politics likewise have no place for trans bodies within their broader political vision.
To the extent that Eucharistic bodily communion is glimpsed today in actual communal lives and practices, it therefore seems far from peaceable at all. Laudato si’ speaks very much from within this scene. In aligning trans bodies against nature and life, its revelation of a hopeful future is the revelation of their disappearance, along with every other supposed disruption of our creaturely relationships.
On the other hand, in inscribing bodily communion into this apocalyptic frame, Laudato si’ also opens up a path to think beyond its own exclusions and limitations. This becomes apparent when we look to other forms of apocalyptic bodily communion, which stake out alternative visions for communion itself. One such vision, which revolves specifically around trans embodiment, can be found in Torrey Peters’ novella, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones.
Playing on transmisogynistic associations between trans women and contagion, Infect is set around the onset and aftermath of “the Contagion”: a plague that causes humanity to stop naturally producing hormones. It explores the tumultuous relationship between two trans women over this period. They are the vengeful Lexi, who engineered and released the Contagion into the population, and an unnamed narrator.
The Contagion is an apocalypse in the destructive sense: the population dwindles as fertility drops, wars rage across the US, and the world post-Contagion is one of subsistence farming, black market hormone production, social stratification around access to testosterone, and marauding bands of raiders and militias. Trans women are collectively blamed for this apocalypse, and on the spurious basis that they “were jealous everyone else could breed” (49).
This new world is, in many ways, a dark caricature of contemporary society: access to exogenously produced hormones is a privilege often unattainable by trans people, and trans women are subject to “trans-misogyny”, while being scapegoated for cis fears about gendered embodiment and fertility. And in this vein, the destruction of the Contagion is a direct outworking of contemporary transphobic violence. Lexi engineers the Contagion in a spirit of vengeance for this violence, seeking a future in which “everyone will be trans” and have to take hormones – “Even the cis… Especially the cissies” (15).
Likewise, the starkest illustration of this relationship comes in the final twist of the book: the narrator, non-consensually injected with the pathogen by Lexi, is hurrying home in the hopes of quarantining herself before spreading the infection. However, she is accosted by two men, who sexually assault her. Swept up in her own tide of vengeful rage, she coughs into their faces – thus deliberately releasing the pathogen into the general population.
In this way, the apocalypse of the Contagion is also revelatory. It is transphobic violence spiralling out of control to reflect back upon cis bodies. The result is that everyone becomes trans – at least in certain respects which are often central to that violence in the real world. This parody suggests that any bodily communion based on cissexist norms (even in inversion) would only serve to embody that violence, threatening not only the trans but the cis bodies within it.
However, the Contagion also offers a more hopeful revelation. This is embodied in the arc of Lexi and the narrator’s relationship. To begin with, the narrator is an arrogant, self-centred, bourgeois babytrans, who seeks out Lexi in self-pitying despair after her long-term relationship falls apart around her transition. Lexi, in contrast, is a self-destructive, alcoholic high-school dropout living in squalor. Until the Contagion, the narrator is unable to lower herself to a position of true solidarity with Lexi. Instead, she measures herself against her: her self-image is based on her supposed class, sophistication, education, and beauty; everything Lexi lacks. Lexi, in contrast, is emotionally manipulative, guilting the narrator into caring for her, before freezing her out of the trans scene after one too many perceived betrayals.
Lexi goes on to live with what a trans man briefly dated by the narrator unsympathetically describes as a polyamorous “coven” of trans women, bound by a kind of toxic, paranoid solidarity (41). In response, the narrator seeks to distance herself from trans women like Lexi and her coven.
However, she also recognises Lexi’s lifestyle as a response to real trauma. Trans women live against a constant background of hostile scrutiny. However, she notes that calling this traumatic sounds “unhinged” (44) when it is laid out on an event-by-event basis, mirroring the craziness of Lexi’s group. She starts to miss Lexi after this, and eventually they reach a kind of reconciliation – which is ultimately betrayed when Lexi injects her with the Contagion.
The pair separate again, only to reunite after the Contagion has run its course. However, by this point, the narrator has lost her arrogance. This is represented by facial scarring, caused by deliberately contaminated oestrogen, which has ruined her much-prized beauty. This reunion occurs after she is rescued from brigands by Zoey, a friend of Lexi’s. She finds that Lexi has become the centre of a community united by shared respect and an ideal of authentic solidarity quite unlike the toxicity of her coven and the vengefulness of the Contagion.
Their new relationship is an uneasy one, but it holds within itself the glimmer of real communion, bearing up the marks of their respective wounds, but nevertheless pointing beyond the destruction that haunts their story. The revelation here is that redemptive communion is found neither in cissexist social visions, nor in the simple inversion of their violence.
Instead, it emerges from the kinds of life which persist in the face of that violence. This communion is also a bodily one: in Lexi and the narrator’s first scene together, they explore Lexi’s scars, which she claims were self-inflicted while drunk. These inscribe Lexi’s abject inferiority upon her body, relative to the (apparently) more put-together narrator. However, in their final scene together, their positions are reversed: it is the narrator whose scars, born of her humbling experiences, are now being explored. While their relationship remains difficult, they now share an embodiment which levels the former distinctions originally marked by Lexi’s.
Perhaps the tension between Infect and Laudato si’s visions of bodily communion lies in the fact that Laudato si’ seeks to recover something lost. Francis’ backwards-looking stance is primed to identify things like transness, which offer a challenge to established certainties and herald future transformations, with further degeneration. Thus he also ends up defending the (here violent, cissexist) status quo. This is not to say that Laudato si’ actively aspires towards this violence. But it does betray its aspirations towards peaceability.
The parodic communion of the Contagion demythologises this vision of the past, revealing its violence. But Infect also refuses to replace it with an alternative that simply reproduces that violence.
Instead of (re)constructing an alternative state of perfection, Infect looks instead to the imperfect future of an ongoing commitment to realising communion. While this commitment is an authentically redemptive ideal, there is something about it which escapes us; which our ideas and actions will always fail. Infect thereby pushes us to attend to the constant reality of these kinds of failures. In doing so, it also pushes us to recognise and address the kinds of injustices I have argued are present in Laudato Si’.
This ethos of imperfection animates Lexi’s post-Contagion community, with its ideal of solidarity between trans women (“T4T”). This ideal is never fully realised, but is something to be constantly, imperfectly striven towards.
In doing so, Lexi’s community glimpse the apocalyptic revelation of true communion, and prophesy the way towards it. As Zoey puts it:
We aim high, trying to love each other and then we take what we can get. We settle for looking out for each other. And even if we don’t all love each other, we mostly all respect each other… T4T is an ideal, I guess, and we all fall short of it most of the time. But that’s better than before. All it took was the end of the world to make it happen.54-55