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Catholic Re-Visions

The Science of the Last Things in Time of Climate Apocalypse

What happens when Catholic eschatology confronts the environmental apocalypse?

Do you really think that the world will end? – is a question I often hear whenever I confess that I work on apocalypticism. “Well,” one may respond, “apocalypse is a bit like a ghost: it doesn’t really matter whether we believe in it or not; in the right time and place it will haunt us.” 

To be precise, apocalypse is actually the opposite of a ghost: if the latter is a formless spirit looking for a body to possess, then apocalypse is more like a creature with a fragmented body – a virtually contentless form captured by the ambiguous theme of “the end of the world” – which reconstitutes itself by feeding on its surroundings. 

The shape of a particular form of the apocalypse is determined by the historical situation in which apocalypticism resurfaces. As Jacob Taubes puts it, “if they are to retain their validity in the community, apocalypses have to be adapted to each new situation, and this inevitability leads to interpolations.” (70)  

This is evidenced by the fact that we frequently preface the word apocalypse with an appropriate adjective (ecological, nuclear, economic, etc.), which enables us to distinguish between different historical tissues which cover the apocalyptic skeleton, giving rise to distinct types of apocalyptic manifestations. 

The individual apocalypses making up the diverse array of the ends of the world, however, are neither singular nor uniform. Even a surface level probing into a particular type of apocalypse reveals a swarming of often conflicting ideas, beliefs, and commitments. As a recent volume I edited makes clear, this is undoubtedly the case with one of the apocalyptic siblings: the environmental apocalypse. 

There is a type of article focusing on climate apocalypse which follows a common argumentative pattern: the author, for whom apocalypse is initially synonymous with a catastrophic end of the world, discovers that, etymologically, apocalypse means “revelation,” and that, historically, apocalypticism constitutes a genre of redemption narratives. The discovery of the religious – and surprisingly hopeful – genealogy of the word “apocalypse” usually serves as a starting point for interventions in secular debates on the climate crisis, which aim to uncover the redemptive possibilities inherent in our catastrophic situation. 

A reader familiar with Biblical eschatology – in which the images of salvation are often surrounded by accounts of catastrophes, including environmental ones (see, for example, Rev 8:6-12) – may feel smug for anticipating the etymological and conceptual “discovery” of secular authors. However, a less complacent Biblical reader may also ask: if the purely catastrophic notion of climate apocalypse is transformed by its encounter with the eschatological tradition, what happens to eschatology when it comes across climate apocalypse in its purely catastrophic form? 

More specifically, and more technically, we can suggest the following hypothesis. If bringing an eschatological focus to climate apocalypse involves expanding the catastrophic meaning of the term to include redemptive possibilities, then the inverse movement of bringing an apocalyptic perspective to eschatology might untether the traditional notion of the apocalypse, separating  its disastrous and salvific aspects. If, in the first case, we witness a synthesis of opposites inspired by traditional eschatology (where catastrophe and redemption are thought together), in the second case we find a fission of eschatological unity, and the impossibility of synthesis between climate disaster and redemption. 

Although the authors of the essays included in this symposium may not necessarily agree with the above hypothesis, their contributions share both an intuition that something happens to eschatology in its encounter with the eco-apocalypse, and a belief that this happening is worth investigating. 

While there are many sciences of last things, we have chosen to situate our thinking within the context of Catholic eschatology. There are at least two important reasons for turning to Catholicism in the midst of the climate apocalypse. 

First, the publication of Laudato si’ marks the recognition by the magisterium of the centrality of the environmental crisis, which invites (or, rather, forces) a comprehensive Catholic response to the climate disaster. Laudato si’ articulates this response in part by re-visiting eschatological themes. The engagement with the encyclical, therefore, can bring to light the multifaceted impact of eco-apocalypse on eschatology. 

Second, the Catholic tradition offers theoretical resources to fix, articulate and critique the two-fold process of becoming-eschatological of climate apocalypse and of becoming-(eco)catastrophic of eschatology. In other words, Catholicism can generate concepts for a critical engagement with the swarm of eschatological ideas circulating in today’s ecological discourse. 

More specifically, to return to the figure of apocalypse as a half-formed beast, this symposium aims to stretch the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy by investigating how the various expansions and reductions of the flesh of the eco-apocalyptic creature are inextricably bound up with the positions of trans, gendered, raced, and colonised bodies in the climate discourse.

The contributions by Nicolete Burbach and Elizabeth Pyne problematise Pope Francis’s eschatological visions found in Laudato Si’. As both authors make clear, the image of a future generated by the tenets of integral ecology presupposes an exclusion of trans and queer subjects. 

The essays by Ben Randolph and myself argue that the climate apocalypse discourse operates – often unwittingly – with eschatological models of history guilty of either neutralising or obscuring the suffering of others generated, for example, by European colonialism. 

To address these issues, the authors draw on diverse sources – a novella by Torrey Peters; Sophie Lewis’s work on family abolition; the insights of Johann Baptist Metz; and Joachim of Fiore’s illustrations. When read together, these essays, by engaging in a dialogue with authors within and outside Catholicism, gesture towards the many possible futures of both Catholic eschatology and climate apocalypticism. 

Overall, if apocalypse is like a fragmented creature which constructs its monstrous tissue by swallowing parts of its surroundings, then a close inspection of one of its feeding grounds – the meeting point between Catholicism, eschatology, and environmentalism, problematised by excluded bodies – can generate the tools necessary to domesticate the apocalyptic beast in order to unleash its critical power. Or so we hope. 

Symposium Essays

Is nature taking its revenge on us?

There’s an understandable temptation to think that climate disaster is nature’s way of rebelling against the Anthropocene. But this is a dangerous way of thinking we should ward against.

Creation, Vengefully Transfigured

Pope Francis suggests that trans people are destroying the world. Perhaps he might learn something if we did.

Unnatural Futures and Hope for our Common Home

The call to abolish the family sounds bad – really bad; then again, so does the end of the world. In a moment rife with talk of “environmental apocalypse,” the position of negativity and non-futurity assigned to queer people in Catholic environmentalism becomes a starting point for rethinking the role of “the family” in a genuinely integral and sustainable ecology.

Decolonizing the Climate Apocalypse with Joachim of Fiore?

Can a medieval monk help us decolonize eco-apocalyptic history?