For this writing I’m developing notes from a presentation I gave about Francis’ recent book Let Us Dream. The response of the audience, a study-group a local Methodist church, and the discussion that followed, are what lead me to write this introduction. It’s longer than my typical posting, but still a brief introduction to the 150-page book.
I had been asked to talk about “Healing Our Polarizations” and I decided to focus just on this book. It provides an important pathway or (as Jesuits say) a “way of proceeding” towards that healing. Yet I’m sure Francis would be the first to note that his Path to a Better Future (the book’s subtitle) is but one of many such efforts. For today, thankfully, many are also working towards that healing, both by writing and by more immediate and practical efforts.
I focus on Francis not just because he is the Pope and I am Catholic, but because he is at present one of the world’s most important spiritual leaders. He is, I often think, one very wise dude, a kind of Jesuit “spiritual director” for our world. He speaks to people of different faiths and different social positions – to business folks as much as religious people, to politicians and the poor, to the wealthy and the colonized.
In 2020 Francis wrote a major encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti, calling all people to recover a sense of social friendship and trust. (I have written previously on this site about that encyclical.) Yet it was during the subsequent Covid lock-down that this more popular follow-up to the encyclical was conceived and written – in separate English and Spanish editions – precisely as a call to both personal and cultural transformation during this “Covid Moment.” In the book’s “Postscript,” co-writer and papal biographer Austen Iverleigh describes the email-exchanges between he and Francis that led to publication. He also gives an excellent review of the book’s key themes.
Yet no summary of the book’s rich content is possible because of its very personal and somewhat rambling style. As Iverleigh says, “As so often with Francis, the ideas came as flashes of intuition” (141). In what follows, I simply wish to give an outline which evokes Let Us Dream’s rich content. Above all I hope to invite the reader to take up the book itself. I also want to suggest that it needs to be read slowly. Perhaps in prayerful quiet. And in discussion with others.
Lest it get lost in what follows, let me note three themes which are central to this book – themes found in all of Francis’ writing and embodied in the witness of his life:
1) his critique of our dominant economic system as a “throwaway economy” (that throws people to the margins), an economy of profits over people;
2) his “option for the poor,” calling his church and others into the streets, seeing from the margins, opening ourselves to human suffering, and learning from popular movements for change;
3) his continual call for both personal and social transformation.
The book’s three chapters follow the “see-judge-act” model familiar in many social movements. I will follow that three-fold development here, with the reminder that Francis’ insights and arguments are typically repeated in different ways in each of these chapters.
Francis first challenges us to really SEE the multiple crises we face – from Covid to climate change to a very violent world and a reigning economic/cultural system which marginalizes so many and leaves others uprooted and without spiritual grounding. He also challenges us to SEE the many ways we avoid seeing: our various forms of indifference and cynicism, our sense of paralysis, feeling overwhelmed and retreating to privacy or taking up simplistic (and polarizing) ideologies. He urges us (not just Christians) to sit together and talk in an attempt to discern the “spirits” moving within us – our many forms of denial as well as the many forms of compassion still moving within and among us.
His opening lines emphasize that ours is a “time as a reckoning” when “categories and ways of thinking get shaken up; priorities and lifestyles are challenged” (1). He further describes the present as “a time of trial” akin to what the Bible describes as “passing through the fire.” These times force us to choose, and “in making your choice you reveal your heart” (1).
Francis frequently speaks of ours as a “covid moment.” At one point (39-43) he describes three major and transformative “covid moments” in his own life. Yet he also warns against focusing only on the pandemic and assuming that after this everything will return to “normal” and we’ll hardly have to change anything. Rather, he challenges us to see with equal apprehension the multiple and overlapping crises we face.
“Think, for example, of the wars scattered across different parts of the world; of the production and trade of weapons; of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity; of climate change” (4-5). (That latter and larger crisis was the focus of his great 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’.) “Just look at the figures, what a nation spends on weapons, and your blood runs cold. Then compare those figures with UNICEF’s statistics on how many children lack schooling and go to bed hungry…. In the first four months of this year, 3.7 million people died of hunger. And how many have died from war? Arms spending destroys humanity. It is a very serious coronavirus, but because its victims are hidden from us we don’t talk about it” (4).
Again, he challenges us to recognize the obvious and more subtle ways by which we fail to face these multiple crises. Perhaps better said, by which we refuse to see them. For many will just shrug, saying what can I do anyway, it’s all too overwhelming. Others will take the path of “functional retreat” that Francis sees playing out in the parable of the Good Samaritan – passing by because I have a job to do, and I can’t afford to have my way of living disturbed. While others, motivated by deep fear as much as anger, will turn to passionate forms of belief in “our way” of thinking and acting. Ideologies which further polarize hearts and minds. “Right now,” Francis says at one point, “I see a lot of digging in” (44). He regularly emphasizes such refusals throughout the book since recognition of them is where our transformation, personal and social, must begin.
Finally, Francis argues, “You must go to the edges of existence if you want to SEE the world as it really is” (11). Go to the marginal areas of the world, of our nation, of our hometown, of our own selves. Why? For two reasons (at least). First because an exposure to suffering – really touching the wounds of our world – can and should deepen our sense of compassion and of active response. Too often, he suggests, we see only quick pictures of suffering in news reports. It remains distant and abstract. We need to really be in touch with the suffering parts of our humanity which we find “on the margins.” We need the kind of seeing involved in touching and being touched.
Yet, secondly, we also need to go to the actual margins of our societies because there, he argues, among the poor and the least, perhaps especially among the young, we will find a resurgence of hope in popular movements for different ways of structuring our societies. (Think, for example, of BLM and Me-2, and of the many popular movements, some representing indigenous peoples, demanding greater change to respond to our climate crisis.)
As we see, we must then also JUDGE OR DISCERN. We must learn to discern among the various currents of ideas and feelings (passions) moving within each of us and in our larger culture and world. To discern among the spirits (evil and good) moving us.
For Francis, of course, we must above all discern how the Spirit of God is moving us. “It’s like God says to Isaiah: come let us talk this over” (Is. I:18-20). Which I take to mean both let us talk with God about this, and let’s let God move us to talk with each other. That’s my own sense of SHE WHO IS or the Great Mother. SHE provides counsel to our discernments and urges her children to seek counsel together. “Come let us talk this over.” Let us have the courage to dream together about our common human future.
For Francis, this judging process is simultaneously both individual and communal. You can’t have one without the other.
We clearly must discern the tendencies of our own hearts. Yet for such discernment, he immediately notes, we need “a robust set of criteria to guide us” (51). Jesus gave us just such criteria when he summarized “the grammar of the Kingdom of God” in those Beatitudes which shake our categories and challenge our lifestyles (52). These gospel criteria, Francis then says (52-4), have been developed over centuries by Catholic Social Teaching about solidarity and the common good.
Of course, for discernment we also need “a healthy capacity for silent reflection [and] places of refuge from the tyranny of the urgent (52). Yet the need for criteria even in such private reflection further illustrates how much we need community – talking together, at every level, from small groups to church bodies to professional groups and political groups – all seeking to discern the common good or our country and world. For our criteria come to us from the larger communities of thought and practice within which we live and work. For Catholics and other Christians, such criteria come to us, as noted, from Jesus and the tradition of Christian social thought. Equally robust criteria for discernment come from other religious communities, from humanist philosophies, and from the mission statements and practices of many professions and corporations.
Yet there are also many pernicious criteria for judgement which pervade our world and lead us to refuse to see. Business, after all, is business; the market must remain free; religion must stay out of politics; we all have our individual right to do and see as we please; and so on.
The Pope’s own primary way of enabling such common discernment is the “synodal process” he has called the entire Catholic church to undertake. A process of “coming together” as people of God which officially began in each Catholic diocese throughout the world at Mass on Oct. 11 of this year. In Let Us Dream (81-93), he provides an extended discussion of the meaning of synods and of recent Catholic synods (especially the Synod of Amazonia in October of 2019). There he also explains the guidelines and goals for this unique worldwide synodal process. His words also make it clear, at least to me, that a synodal mentality is much-needed not only in religious groups, but in all kinds of secular groups whatever names they may give to their “sitting together.”
Francis has been criticized (often justly in my view, yet often narrowly and ideologically) for his failures to promote the role of women in all such processes of governance and discernment. Yet he stresses that “A sign of hope in this crisis is the leading role of women” (62). In subsequent pages (62-68) he provides a significant discussion of the role of women in society and then in the church. He talks about his recent appointments of women to key roles in the Vatican. He affirms the real leadership roles that so many women already play in churches and church groups throughout the world. Then argues the controversial position that the real problem in the church is not patriarchy but clericalism – the ingrained belief that clerics alone (and thus men alone in Catholicism) must lead the church. We need, he urges, to transform our churches — including, I add, Protestant and Orthodox churches which also have a major problem with clerical castes — so that many lay women and men will officially and actually be leaders in the Church. Speaking of his recent Vatican appointments, he says he chose these women “because I believe women in general are much better administrators than men” (67).
Some may see his whole discussion of clericalism, and this particular line about women’s administrative abilities, as little more than a sop thrown to his critics. I personally find what he says “right on” even as I continue to support women’s ordination to specific clerical roles in the Catholic church, not only presiding and preaching at worship, but baptizing and confirming, hearing confessions, anointing the sick, visiting prisoners, burying the dead, and so on. I think of these as separate ordinations for crucial ministries, not as the entrance of women into a clerical caste. But I do support the ordination of women to the office of bishop in Catholicism.
Francis’ third chapter challenges us to ACT on the basis of what we have seen and judged. On first beginning this chapter I had expected to find a series of proposals for action. Nor does Francis avoid broad proposals for action here and in previous chapters. Proposals that, for instance, we work to change our agricultural systems in response to world hunger. Or, more broadly, that we must transform our entire global, “neo-liberal” economic system in response to poverty and inequality. And that we must then change political systems and vastly reduce the militarization of our economies and international relations. (Francis, I would add, continually makes such proposals in his messages, for instance in a recent “tweetstorm” that gave a long list of much-needed structural changes.)
Above all he regularly argues that we get out of the way and allow poor countries to develop their own economies and poor peoples’ movements to transform our societies. Indeed he ends this third chapter with some very good pages (128-32) on the systemic transformations demanded by such movements, what he and they call “the three L’s” of Land, Lodging, and Labor. For people everywhere need to recover the use of their own land and its resources. They need good, secure housing and good, dignified work.
Such proposals will be dismissed as typical socialist idealism. Or as religious entanglement in politics. Neither is true. They are visionary proposals, not specific policy or political programs. Yet they call us, together, to find specific policies and programs in response to our multiple crises. Above all to let people themselves, locally and nationally, find such policies and programs by “sitting together.”
Yet while the final chapter (and the entire book) contains many such “proposals,” the fundamental ACT Francis calls for throughout his final chapter is action to restore our sense of being a people, in every country and region. This, he argues, is the foundational form of action without which all specific proposals will again turn into polarized positions. We must, he says, recover the sense tradition and memory whereby each national and regional group knows itself to be a people. We must recover a deeper sense of “being in this together” than one finds and feels in simply being a society, an economy, or a national state. For “Without the ‘we’ of a people, of a family, of institutions, of a society that transcends the ‘I’ of individual interests, life quickly fractures and becomes violent, a battle for supremacy between factions and interests…. [Yet, he adds] We are not there yet. This crisis has called forth the sense that we need each other, that the people still exists” (46).
“A people is not the same as a country, a nation, or a state, important though these entities are” (100). Rather, a “people draws on and expresses many sources: historic, linguistic, cultural (especially in music and dance), but above all a collective wisdom and memory. A people is held together by that memory, treasured in history, custom, rites (religious or not), and other bonds that transcend the purely transactional and rational. At the beginning of the story of every people is a quest for dignity and freedom, a history of solidarity and struggle” (96-7). This was true for the people of ancient Israel, “the archetype of what we are discussing” (103). And equally true “For the nations of the American continent [where] it was the struggle for independence” that gave and still gives them a sense of being a people (97). True for our United States and his Argentina, for Mexico and Canada and so on.
Throughout his final chapter, Francis also distinguishes this sense of being a people not just from the state and nation, but from the reigning neoliberal sense of the nation/state as a free collaboration of interests (108-17) which has increasingly destroyed the more fundamental reality of being a people. He also distinguishes the reality of a people from contemporary nationalist or “populist” movements which co-opt the idea of a people even as they destroy its reality (117-19).
He believes and hopes that times of crisis “reveal not just popular feeling but the feeling of a people, [of] its ‘soul’…. It may seem strange to say it [he adds], but it’s true: the people has a soul. And because we can speak of the soul of a people, we can speak of a way of viewing the world, an awareness. Such an awareness is the result not of an economic system or political theory but of a personality shaped in key moments of a people’s history. These milestones have imprinted on the people a powerful sense of solidarity, of justice, and of the importance of labor” (101). (Think, for instance, of the many historic landmarks by which we in the US identify and celebrate our identity as a people.)
Approached from another angle, “To speak of a people is to appeal to unity in diversity: e pluribus unum” (102). This was true for the 12 tribes of ancient Israel and remains tenuously true today for the 50 of our United States. And, of course, true for the diverse regional groups (even language groups or dialects) of so many contemporary countries in Europe and Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Specifically, I must add (because of our war there), it’s true for the people of Viet Nam. Their recent history has seen violent divisions and now endures the forced unity of communism. Yet the soul of the Vietnamese people, at home and in diaspora, still hungers for a more real unity of its many parts.
Not surprisingly, Francis begins this third chapter by stressing that “In times of crisis and tribulation, when we are shaken out of our sclerotic habits, the love of God comes out to purify us, to remind us that we are a people” (97). Later, in a remarkable historical reflection on the meaning of “People of God” (103-07), Francis develops this idea.
“The dignity of a people—even the poorest, most wretched, enslaved people—comes from God’s closeness. It is God’s love and closeness that confer dignity, and always raise up a people, offering it a horizon of hope” (103).
This was true for the people of Israel and “Jesus is a child of the Jewish people’s history of grace, of promise, of redemption. His is a story of a people seeking liberation, conscious of its dignity because God has appeared and come close and walked with them. Jesus comes to restore Israel to the remembrance of God’s closeness, to return to the people the dignity of the promise…. Jesus restores dignity to the people in acts and words that perform God’s closeness” (104).
“To be Christian, then, is to know that we are part of a people, a people expressed in different nations and cultures yet which transcends all boundaries of race and language. The People of God is a community within the broader community of a nation, serving the nation, helping to shape that nation’s self-understanding, while respecting the role played by other religious and cultural institutions. But if the Church has a particular role to play at times of crisis, it is precisely to remind the people of its soul, of its need to respect the common good. This is what Jesus did: He came to strengthen and deepen the bonds of belonging—of the people to God and to each other” (104-5).
Said differently, the Christian churches must not only recover their sense of being God’s people, but must serve the larger national culture within which they live by enabling it to recover its soul, its historic sense of being a people, its feeling of being in this together, in solidarity for the common good.
In a long section at the end of the chapter (118-32), Francis returns to his conviction that we must go to the margins of our societies, especially to meet and learn from the popular movements which have arisen there. His long personal experience (in the barrios of Buenos Aires and since) leads to this conviction that through such movements we too may recover a sense of what it means to be a people. For there he finds evidence of the recovery and emergence of “peoples” rising against the more dominant forces of liberal democracy and nationalist populisms. Earlier in the book (25) he had even made specific reference to the world-wide response to the murder of George Floyd, a response exemplifying the popular movements in which he puts such hope
Francis concludes this third chapter with a final call to action: “By making the restoration of our peoples’ dignity the central objective of the post-Covid world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions. To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future” (132-33, emphasis mine).
Of course, many will find this book and the entirety of Francis’ papacy to be little more than a totally unrealistic dream. I will admit that I am also tempted, as I read the daily news (with reports of such deep divisions in our politics and culture, of so much deadly violence, endless lawsuits, and mindless political debates), to wonder whether what Francis calls for is an impossible dream. Yet there is also contrary evidence in the news, such as recent suggestions that the pandemic has led a large number of people not to return to their jobs but to seek better, more humane and meaningful work. Or reports from abroad of many popular movements for freedom and equality. And also much much evidence in our cities — in the many movements and systems, often small and little noticed, for service and solidarity.
In the end, I am personally compelled by the overall impact of the book — with its many ideas and arguments and its references to many sources of wisdom and grace, what I’ve previously referred to as its richness of both content and style. Compelled by the urgent truth of its challenge. I hope this may be true as well for most who will take and read.