This business of Popes' publishing books is still relatively new, but I guess it's here to stay. Given any pope's already supersized influence both within the Church and on the world stage and given the de facto popular amalgamation of personal papal utterances to quasi- magisterial standing, the practice of papal book-writing (or at least of publishing papal books while the author is still on the papal throne) may appear unnecessary at best and problematic at worst. Yet the practice is obviously here to stay and is yet another dimension of the contemporary, increasingly powerful papacy. That said, Pope Francis and his literary collaborator have given us a unique book for this perilous moment in our history.
Composed in collaboration with his English-language biographer and admirer Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream The Path to A Better Future offers, as its subtitle suggests, Pope Francis' expansive proposals for an alternative path for individuals and societies.
The Pope begins by exploring what this pandemic can teach us, the opportunities for change contained in this crisis. He calls Covid-19 "our Noah moment, as long as we can find our way to the Ark of the ties that unite us: of love, and of a common belonging." For Francis, the pandemic "has made visible the throwaway culture," thus enabling us to respond to what indifference hides, opening us to new and unexpected possibilities that "burst the bonds of our thinking."
On the other hand, the media, that have become "our main windows onto the world," can instead obscure reality. Here the Pope takes a poke at "certain so-called Catholic media that claim to be saving the Church from itself." In our American context, it is not hard to guess what media outlets he might be referring to!
The Pope comments quite a bit on some contemporary developments and movements (e.g., the #MeToo Movement and the protests following the murder of George Floyd). But he is also alert to another sort of protest: "an angry spirit of victimhood. but this time among people who are victims only in their own imagination: those who claim, for example, that being forced to wear a mask in an unwarranted imposition by the state, yet who forget or do not care about those who cannot rely, for example, on social security or who have lost their jobs." Again, it is evident which country's particular social pathologies, so much on display in this plague year, are being noted. And again he does not "ignore those in our Church who fall into the same mindset."
Particularly attractive is the Pope's style of writing and especially the way he recalls his own personal experiences and how he has learned from them. In particular, he shares with us three very personal crises in his own life, what he calls the "three 'Covids' in my own life: my illness, Germany, and Cordoba." From each of these profoundly painful personal experiences, he learned "that you suffer a lot, but if you allow it to change you, you come out better. But if you dig in you come out worse."
What kind of change does Pope Francis envision? He says "we must redesign the economy so that it can offer every person access to a dignified existence while protecting and regenerating the natural world." He says "we have to avoid falling back into the individual and institutional patterns that have led to Covid and the various crises that surround it: the hyperinflation of the individual combined with weak institutions and the despotic control of the economy by a very few."
Again he takes particular aim at the United States, diagnosing well what has happened to this country in the last 40 years especially:: The hyperinflation of the individual goes along with the weakness of the state. Once people lose a sense of the common good, history shows that we are left with anarchy or authoritarianism or both together: a violent, unstable society."
The first, diagnostic part of the Pope's book is called A Time to See. The second is called A Time to Choose. Our Jesuit Pope, formed by the Ignatian process of discernment, invites us to enter into a similar process: "A time of trial is always a time of distinguishing the paths of the good that lead to the future from other paths that lead nowhere or backward. With clarity, we can better choose the first." For this process, he recalls fundamental principles and criteria of Catholic Social Teaching: the preferential option for the poor, the common good, the universal destination of goods, solidarity, and subsidiarity. While this section suffers from the perennial problem of trying to address too many issues and trying to justify particular papal projects and policies, it is a wonderful window into Francis' own spirituality of discernment and reading the signs of the times.
The third section is called A Time to Act. In language somewhat reminiscent of his recent encyclical, the Pope speaks of this as a "time to restore an ethics of fraternity and solidarity, regenerating the bonds of trust and belonging. For what saves us is not an idea but an encounter. Only the face of another is capable of awakening the best of ourselves. In serving the people, we save ourselves."
As he has done elsewhere, the Pope speaks eloquently about the failures of the prevailing market economies. None of this is really new, not even at the level of papal teaching, but the informal and very personal way the pope presents it gives traditional teachings a certain freshness their more philosophical presentations might seem to some to lack. Nonetheless, he remains rooted in traditional teaching, as for example when he praises his predecessor Pope Saint Paul VI's 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, which warned "of the temptation to view human life as one more object over which the powerful and educated should exercise mastery. How prophetic his message now looks!"
Francis proposes a sort of blueprint for constructing a better world for all. one which puts the poor and the marginalized at the center, seeking to empower ordinary people to collaborate together despite differences and so usher in new possibilities for our troubled world.
Intensely personal books like this are not a substitute for magisterial teaching, but Francis has demonstrated how such efforts can effectively illuminate what the Church can be for the world - at all times but especially in this era of inevitable transformation.