Laudato Si’ and Catholic Dialogue on Integral Ecology
In his social encyclical Laudato Si’ On the Care of our Common Home (2015), Pope Francis urgently appeals for a new dialogue about how to redefine our notion of human progress (cf. LS, 3; 13-14; 194). In response to this appeal, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) based in England and Wales, has facilitated an international dialogue with its partners in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia, Bangladesh, and its UK stakeholders, about Laudato Si’ and about how a new model of development could be built. The process took place between October 2015 and February 2017, and was led by CAFOD’s theology team, of which I am part.
Inductive and inclusive methodology
The methodology of the dialogue can be synthesised as follows: firstly, participants were invited to ‘see’ what is good – from God’s viewpoint as informed by biblical stories of creation, from the Church’s perspective as informed by Laudato Si’, and from their own experience and context. A similar process was conducted to ‘see’ what is damaging the ‘seen’ goodness, particularly in the name of progress. Secondly, participants were asked to revisit Pope Francis’ ‘judgement’ on what hinders and promotes development, and then to provide their own judgement, including their perspective on ‘integral ecology’ (the integration of the ecological and social aspects of development). Finally, after listening to the proposals for action in Laudato Si’, participants reflected on what they believe they ought to do differently in four aspects of life: ‘myself’, ‘my family’, ‘my community’ and ‘my nation/world’. In order to explicitly include the spiritual aspect highlighted in Laudato Si’, they celebrated God’s gift of creation and the role they play in it as responsible stewards.
Coming from Latin America, I was not surprised to see the method ‘seeing-acting-judging-celebrating’ in action. But what did surprise me was the fact that the method has inspired people from completely different backgrounds who are involved in one particular process: redefining the idea of progress so as to respond to an unprecedented socio-ecological crisis.
Initial findings from the dialogue on progress
Discussing all the findings of these dialogues will require more than one blog (the extensive final report will be shared with all Caritas agencies worldwide). Yet, it is worth sharing some initial reactions to the process. First, in terms of the discussion on ‘what hinders’ and ‘what helps’ development, it was notable that five major topics emerge across all workshops in response: technology, politics, urbanisation, economics and culture & nature.
As these themes were discussed in the light of the teaching in Laudato Si’, it is fascinating to compare how the issues are perceived by the Pope and how they are experienced in the local contexts of workshop participants. For example, while Pope Francis is concerned with the structural problems behind technological development ̶ because it is controlled by those with economic power ̶ participants accentuate the advantages of technology for the poor.
While Pope Francis sees politicians as key drivers for change, participants are far more sceptical about their roles, especially due to corruption. Where the Pope underlines the structural issues behind urbanisation and violence, participants focus on the day-to-day problems city dwellers suffer due to insecurity and violence; however, they also point out the opportunities that cities provide to fulfil people’s dreams.
With regard to economics, participants agree with the Pope about the need for urgent change. However, different approaches for achieving future change emerge: one involves complete and immediate change; the other is a more gradual – though still radical – approach.
In terms of culture, participants agree with and add to the Pope’s analysis of the devastating effects of a consumerist and individualistic culture, as well as the threat from a global culture which does not respect diversity. However, a key difference rapidly became evident under the theme of culture: the link between gender equality and development. Whilst for participants across all workshops gender equality is an absolutely vital element of sustainable development and integral ecology, this topic is completely absent from Laudato Si’.
Initial reflections on what actions are needed
For participants, a first fundamental step to change the current development model is related to “time”. We need more time for personal and community reflection on how we relate to each other and to nature; more time to discuss what is the best way of moving forward; and, strikingly, more time for contemplation, since we need to slow down if we are to re-define our priorities, plans and development programmes.
A second step to forge a new model of progress, for participants, is the need for joint actions. This collaborative understanding of promoting development applies to all relationships, from inter-personal to national and international. It also implies that there are different individual and national responsibilities, according to positions of power and what resources are available. But joint actions cannot forge sustainable development if they are not rooted in actual dialogical processes where the voices of the powerless ̶ and the cry of the earth ̶ are truly heard. Moreover, shared actions comprise the need to rethink our lifestyles, seeking a simpler way of living and using natural resources wisely, or what Laudato Si’ calls an “ecological conversion”.
Desire for radical change
Unanimously, participants acknowledged that the current model of development must change, and in a radical way, although the sense of urgency for this change was more noticeable in Latin Americans and African participants. But they all agreed with Laudato Si’ with regard to seeking for change through dialogue and participation, not by imposition. Still, they emphasised that if the marginalised voices are not heard, the process cannot be called dialogue. Participants’ desire for transformation and their enthusiasm was contagious. It was enlightening to hear their analysis, rooted in their particular contexts. Also, their proposals were feasible and significant enough to encourage everyone present, and to stimulate analogous thinking elsewhere. As a theologian, I have never experienced such engagement with a papal document.
Some vital and challenging questions arose from the dialogue. For example, from a personal perspective, am I ready to create the time and space I need to check that my current priorities reflect my own deepest values? Am I being the person that I really want to be? Or has the current rapid pace of life got the better of me? And from a collective perspective, if we really want to help create the structural changes needed to forge integral development and integral ecology, are we prepared to face our cultural blind spots (corporate and national) that restrict actual change? Where are we going to find the motivation for the radical change that is needed so as to care for our common home?
In short, from this series of workshops, in which we have dialogued with partners from different countries on how to redefine the notion of progress (cf LS, 148), we have taken more than a confirmation about the importance of the latest Papal encyclical. We have been enthused, and have learned something about “how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously” (LS, 46).