Values are slow to change and yet when they do, so do our priorities. People of faith look to theology to set the direction for their deepest values.
This is what makes Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment so compelling. Can a thought leader entrusted by millions to interpret what faith requires finally secure a deep change in the values we need to give protecting the earth the priority it desperately needs?
Many news analysts are focusing on how the new encyclical addresses the perceived conflict between science and religion. Pope Francis chose to draw authoritatively from both traditions to make the case for the environment.
Some analysts wisely recognize an even deeper values conflict that must be resolved to live in harmony with creation. American culture particularly is more individualistic and communitarian. This values conflict plays out in the Christian faith through theological disagreements about whether Jesus came to save our individual souls or the soul of our community. Is his message seeking individual salvation or community transformation? It's not an either/or question unless people believe one outcome is far more important than the other.
In my experience as a member of a mainline Protestant tradition, far too many people find individual salvation easier to accept than a call to social justice. A religion that is “all about me” and my relationship with God makes fewer demands on our time and resources than a belief that we are our responsible for each other and for the Earth.
For people who care about social justice, it’s the benign apathy that disturbs us most. If the message of the church does not call us to actively work for including all of creation in God’s covenant, it is easier to blind ourselves to the brokenness in the world and our responsibility for doing something about it.
This is why I find Pope Francis one of today's most compelling thought leaders for our world. He is the contrarian voice saying we do have a responsibility to bring justice to the poor and the powerless and to the earth that sustains us all.
Will he be heard? Values are slow to change, especially when people find it more comfortable or convenient to hold onto a different set of values. At least Pope Francis is asking all of us to rethink what our faith requires. He is calling into question our way of living without regard to its consequences for the human family and our earthly home.
In any age, the power of a pope to compel people to change is limited. He has no greater influence than any other thought leader to change minds and hearts. The power of a thought leader is to draw us into important conversations we might prefer to avoid. This is the power of any moral authority. Let’s pray Pope Francis continues to be an inspired and provocative thought leader for the important questions of our time.