People wave to Pope Francis as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Revolution Square in Havana, Sept. 20. (CNS photo/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters).

Pope Francis: Calling Upon the “Better Angels of Our Nature”

In his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis voices his conviction and concern regarding “the immensity and urgency of the challenge we face” (no. 15). That challenge finds specific focus in the harm humanity has inflicted “on our common home.” For this reason the Holy Father addresses his encyclical not only to Catholics, but to “every person living on this planet” (no. 3).

But the richness of the encyclical lies in the fact that the pope presents a vision that is more global, more catholic (in the sense of comprehensive) both in its analysis of our plight and in the scope of the proposal he sketches. He advocates, as the title of chapter four announces, an “Integral Ecology:” one that embraces not only the environmental, but the economic and social orders as well.

It is my hope that Francis will succeed in making plain to his various audiences the complexly interrelated dimensions of the challenges we face. For all of us invariably hear selectively and resist whatever seems to unsettle entrenched positions and biases. We may willingly fixate upon the environmental or the economic and basically ignore the social and the personal. A Catholic and catholic vision demands a universal attentiveness and commitment.

A particularly suggestive sentence of the encyclical reads: “There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (no. 118).

However, as the encyclical maintains, our dominant “anthropology,” our lived understanding of human nature, is severely inadequate. Indeed, it is constricted and truncated. The encyclical laments some of the unattractive traits of this shriveled postmodern anthropology. An anthropocentrism that leaves scarce space for the Transcendent. A consumerism that covets and discards. A practical relativism that “gives absolute priority to immediate convenience” and “interests” (no. 122), while scanting “objective truths” (no. 123).

Hence Francis repeatedly proclaims the need for “a more integral and integrating vision” (no. 141).

It is my further hope, therefore, that Pope Francis, with his bold speech and aptitude for the telling image, can provide further concrete content for such an integral vision, even at the risk of discomforting his hearers—whether in Congress, the United Nations or the church.

I do not expect a philosophical exposition, which may have been Pope Benedict’s, but is not Francis’s style. Rather, what would serve is a vibrant evocation of “the better angels of our nature” (in the words of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln). Not a scolding denunciation (a posture that Francis sometimes assumes), but a joyful annunciation of that “distinctive way of looking at things,” that “way of thinking,” that “spirituality” (no. 111) which are necessary for developing an integral ecology.

He needs to insist, in short, that nothing less than conversion is required if the peril he discerns is to be addressed adequately. New perception, new consciousness: metanoia. And humanity, whether in the first or the twenty-first century is resistant to conversion. It will take all Francis’s rhetorical skill to subvert our defenses. For, though our nature does indeed boast of “better angels,” they must be daily released from the bondage in which we too readily constrain them.

My fear follows upon this persuasion. It is that the pope’s radical message be co-opted and forced into the well-worn pathways of already determined positions. That the message of metanoia be shrunk to a “selfie.” Think of the uses and abuses to which the most-quoted phrase of this pontificate has been subjected: “who am I to judge?” Here the pope himself bears some measure of responsibility. As he is becoming more aware, context is crucial, but tends to be ignored by the media’s consuming lust for the sound bite. So he needs to be concrete and evocative and challenging without allowing the salt of his words to lose their savor through media manipulation.

No wonder he keeps asking for our prayers!

The Rev. Robert P. Imbelli is professor emeritus of theology at Boston College.