The Papal Encyclical and Collective Action

As Pope Francis begins his first visit to the United States it seemed appropriate to reflect on the leadership his Holiness has shown since becoming pontiff. While I am not Catholic myself – though many in my family are – it seems reasonable as a person in the world to give some attention to the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people worldwide.

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to read and reflect on Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, which was released back in June. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a Papal encyclical is essentially a formal letter on Catholic doctrine sent sent by the pope to the to bishops.

The encyclical drew attention for its strong words of environmentalism: “…Our common home is like a sister…This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”

Personally, I was more intrigued by his civic message: “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

He thanks those who are taking action and stresses the urgency of further action, but at its core, his message is a call for dialogue. Importantly, he doesn’t offer a specific policy prescription, he doesn’t tell us what to do – he tells us the tool we should use to figure it out.

Some have criticized this approach – if the Pope has the ability to galvanize billions of people, should he not urge them focus their collective energies on a concrete, meaningful, and impactful goal?

In someways, this question mirrors a common debate of community organizing. The most effective way to address a concert problem in a community is generally not the most egalitarian. But developing the leadership of all people equally is better for a community in the long run. Miles Horton describes this tension eloquently:

If you’re into having a successful organizing campaign and dealing with a specific project, and that’s the goal, then whether you do it yourself or an expert does it or some bountiful person in the community does it, or the government does it without your involvement because that solves the problem—then you don’t take the time to let people develop their own solutions. If the purpose is to solve the problem, there are a lot of ways to solve the problem that are so much simpler than going through all this educational process…But if education is to be part of the process, then you may not actually get that problem solved, but you’ve educated a lot of people. You have to make that choice.

I suppose the Pope could just give us answers. He could be the expert and tell us what to do the way that politicians, businessmen, and other technocrats tell us what to do. In a lot of ways it’s easier when someone tells us what to do – we can judge the advice by our opinion of the person giving it, but we don’t have to work out any hard problems ourselves. We can leave that to the experts and the people in charge.

I find it very powerful that Pope Francis chose not to go this route. Because he isn’t a politician or businessman, or some other technocratic expert. He is a spiritual leader. Education is his goal. Supporting the positive development of diverse people across the globe is his goal.

So, no, he won’t tell us what to do. But he will urge us, strongly and in no uncertain terms to find it within ourselves to act.

We are leaders. Our thoughts and voices and actions are needed. Each of us has something to contribute and we all must work together if we are to ever hope of addressing the intractable problems of our day.


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