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The Pope and the Politics of Hope

06/22/2015 01:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si, is a bold and brilliant challenge to business as usual. "It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done no good," Francis wrote. "We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it."

Already, conservatives and liberals alike have mounted rebuttals in ways that illustrate the limits of their own ideologies.

Former governor Jeb Bush, a convert to Catholicism, said religion "ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm."

In fact the encyclical shows the profound resources of the Christian faith to illuminate the problems in what Bush means by "politics." "A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth," Francis writes. "The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda," adding that "we need to reject a magical concept of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals." The evidence is now overwhelming, he argues, integrating religious faith with science, that unbounded faith in the market is radically insufficient.

Meanwhile Joseph Heath, a professor of philosophy, took aim from the left. Writing in The New York Times, Heath argued that Pope Francis "wants an economic system that satisfies not whatever desires people happen to have but the desires that they should have -- a system that promotes the common good, according to the church's specification of what that good is," but "appeals to a conception of the common good that is specifically Christian." Heath proposed "that we cannot wait around for people to come to some kind of spiritual agreement" and called for a "liberal" solution, carbon credits, "so that all businesses and consumers are held accountable and charged for the environmental consequences of their actions."

Heath, like the conventional left, envisions solutions enacted by governments and guided by scientifically-trained experts. While Francis shares with the left concerns about unregulated capitalism he describes a pattern neglected by the left. "The basic problem goes even deeper" than concentrated economic power, he argues. "It is the way that humanity has taken up... an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm [that] exalts the concept of a subject, who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object." He adds: "The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominant economic and political life."

Both Bush and Heath miss Pope Francis' call for a different kind of politics based on relationships and the dignity of each person. "What is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral, and interdisciplinary approach," Francis proposes. "A strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety."

Pope Francis is calling for a politics attentive to the overall ecology -- what I would call a politics of democracy, not only politics about issues in democracy. This is like "the politics of a common life" which theologian and political theorist Luke Bretherton describes in broad-based community organizing in his new book, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life.

Such politics does not begin with a "common good" determined by Christians or anyone else. Rather it develops a sense of multiple and overarching "commons" in the process of collaborative work, negotiation, and dialogue over time.

This politics is richly conveyed by Bretherton's account of London Citizens. The group, among other accomplishments, brought "the Corporation," at the center of global finance, out of the shadows and won anti-usury measures which for the first time regulate its powers.

Democratizing politics like this opens space for immense diversity. In London Citizens, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims join with secular organizations to create "a realm in which those of different faiths and identities forge a common life," a space where "religious beliefs and practices co-construct and are interwoven with other patterns of belief and practices."

Laudito Si envisions in effect expanding such politics vastly in scope to the narrative we have about our common world. Along the way, while the encyclical evaluates policies like the carbon tax from a Catholic vantage, it doesn't prescribe. "There are no uniform recipes," Francis argues. "He's not saying what the solutions are," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Washington diocese to Judy Woodruff on the NewsHour. "He's not saying to politicians here's what you must do. He is saying 'I'm calling everyone to look at the problems and begin to come up with the solutions. We have to work together.'"

Like broad-based community organizing, Pope Francis also pays special attention to action which develops the power and capacities of everyday citizens and communities, including the most vulnerable. "While the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference." Francis says. "A healthy politics is sorely needed capable of reforming and coordinating institutions... and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia."

This politics needs a large spirit. "Even the best mechanisms can break down when there are no worthy goals and values...to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society." I would suggest that such spirit and sense of abundance is nourished by a democratic way of life.

There is also historical irony here.

As the political theorist Michael Walzer shows in The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, the democratic movements of the 20th century -- he analyzes Algeria, Israel and India and also draws wider conclusions -- were based on a "secularizing, modernizing, and developmental creed." They envisioned "a new beginning, a new politics, a new culture, a new economy... a new man and woman." They disdained traditional cultures and religions.

They also provoked counterrevolutions from populations that concluded, after a time, that they didn't want to be "made over" by secular modernizers.

Laudato Si and its politics, by way of contrast, are grounded in ancient faith traditions and also promise new hope.

Times they are a changing.