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Everything is Connected: Surprising Links in Pope Francis's Theology
Synodality, Social Change, and the Mystery of the Universe
“Everything is connected.” This refrain, in various forms, appears at least ten times in Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. Francis is referring to the relationships between organisms within an ecosystem, and those between the natural environment and human society, but it is likewise true of the main themes in his teaching.
Over the past month, I have been immersed in Francis’s thinking. In addition to my ongoing writing on Francis and synodality here at Window Light, I’ve been involved in: a symposium on his recent apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum, as well as a lengthier essay on the document; a close reading of Laudato Si’ in one of my classes; serving as a guest lecturer on Laudato Si’ in another professor’s class; two showings of the film The Letter: A Message for Our Earth; and a panel discussion on Laudate Deum next week.
Spending so much time with Pope Francis’s words, I have noticed some connections between aspects of his thought that, on the surface, seem unrelated. I make no claim to originality regarding these insights; someone else might have noticed them long ago. But they were new to me, and I thought they were worth sharing.
In my recent article on the Synod on Synodality’s synthesis report, I praised the document for providing a relatively clear and straightforward definition of synodality (the official English text is now available, so I am using that instead of my own rough, unofficial translation that I used earlier):
[S]ynodality can be understood as Christians walking in communion with Christ toward the Kingdom along with the whole of humanity. Its orientation is towards mission, and its practice involves gathering in assembly at each level of ecclesial life. It involves reciprocal listening, dialogue, community discernment, and creation of consensus as an expression that renders Christ present in the Holy Spirit, each taking decisions in accordance with their responsibilities. (1h)
This definition expands on, and adds detail to, a definition offered by Pope Francis in 2015 in an address commemorating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Synod of Bishops: “[T]he ‘journeying together’ of God’s flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord.”
The synthesis report’s definition can be broken down into core elements of synodality, each of which could find support in Pope Francis’s various remarks on the theme:
Synodality is linked to the Church’s unity in diversity, reflected in the Apostle Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ, animated by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12); the Church is a unity of diverse members, with diverse gifts and vocations.
It should be reflected in the Church’s structures, ranging from the local to the universal.
Synodality is a dynamic concept, expressed here in terms of “walking” or “journeying,” and oriented toward the Kingdom of God. It is essentially linked to mission.
It involves communication among the Church’s diverse members: listening, dialogue, discernment, and building consensus.
In the above-cited address, Francis also remarks that synodality rules out seeking after power or relationships based on domination: “[W]e understand too that, within the Church, no one can be ‘raised up’ higher than others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person ‘lower’ himself or herself, so as to serve our brothers and sisters along the way.” This remark prefigures later criticisms of clericalism and authoritarian leadership styles expressed by participants in the synodal process.
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On October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I had a chance to watch the film The Letter for the first time at a public event co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Dubuque. The film tells the story of five individuals from around the world who represent the different “peripheries” most impacted by climate change—the poor, youth, the indigenous, and the natural world—as they journey to Rome to meet Pope Francis. This story is interwoven with teachings from Laudato Si’ presented in a compelling and visually stunning way.
Over the course of the film, the five individuals come to see themselves as working toward a common goal in their struggle to combat climate change, despite their different backgrounds and vocations; they realize that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The film helped me to better understand my own vocation, as well. While some of us, like Pope Francis, are destined to play a major role on the world stage, most of us play only a small part in furthering the Church’s social mission. Nevertheless, when taken together, those small roles add up to a profound force working in history. Indeed, they represent the working of the Spirit in history. It is just difficult to see the whole from our limited perspective.
Many years ago, I served as a volunteer at a system of schools and homes for impoverished children in Honduras run by the Franciscans. Volunteers, both short-term groups and longer-term staff, would come and go, working alongside a more permanent local staff to carry out the work of the mission. For this reason, the priest who founded the mission would regularly remind us that whatever project we were working on, we likely would not see it to completion, let alone watch it bear fruit. That work would be taken up by the next group of volunteers, and then the group after that. Without downplaying the importance of the results of our work and its benefit to the children, this philosophy emphasized the value of the community we formed amongst ourselves and with the children and instilled a sense of humility about what we could contribute.
Pope Francis adopts much the same philosophy in his social thought. His periodic addresses to the World Meeting of Popular Movements should arguably be considered an essential part of his social teaching alongside the encyclicals Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti. In 2015, he spoke to the second such meeting in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. In an important section of the address, he speaks about how social movements can bring about change. Touching on a traditional theme, he notes that lasting change requires the conversion of hearts as well as structural changes. He then points out that change is a process that takes time, and that we each only play a part in this process:
That is why I like the image of a “process”, processes, where the drive to sow, to water seeds which others will see sprout, replaces the ambition to occupy every available position of power and to see immediate results. The option is to bring about processes and not to occupy positions. Each of us is just one part of a complex and differentiated whole, interacting in time: peoples who struggle to find meaning, a destiny, and to live with dignity, to '“live well”, and in that sense, worthily. (2, emphasis added)
Working for social change requires a sense of humility, both in accepting that one may not see immediate results and in recognizing that we each have a small part to play in the process.
There are obvious similarities between his remarks here on social change and the more ecclesiological concept of synodality. Indeed, his comment that “each of us is just one part of a complex and differentiated whole, interacting in time” could almost be a paraphrase of the notion that we are “journeying together . . . on the paths of history.” Likewise, his emphasis on process over immediate results in his address to the popular movements is striking in light of recent discussions about whether the process of engaging in “conversations in the Spirit” in the recent Synod was more important or transformative than the results of the gathering (for example, see here and here). His warning about the ambition to seek positions of power also mirrors his criticism of a desire to be “raised up” in the ecclesial sphere.
Although the film The Letter focuses on the perils of a warming climate, Laudato Si’ itself is much more than a letter about climate change. The second chapter, in particular, offers a profound theology of creation, exploring humankind’s place in a universe guided by the creative Spirit of God and our sense of kinship with the other creatures with whom we share our planet. In the introduction to the encyclical, he points to St. Francis of Assisi as a model of living out this kinship.
Francis returns to the topic of our kinship with other organisms in the third section of the second chapter. Although acknowledging the uniqueness of humankind relative to other creatures (81), he adds: “[I]t would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society” (82).
In the following paragraph, he closes out the argument with a profound (and arguably Scotist-inspired) theological statement, which I will quote in full:
The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things. Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator. (83, emphasis added)
Here again we see the pattern of a unity in diversity, in this case the unity of the diverse creatures of the Earth, in motion or on a journey that ends with the encounter with God. Is the cosmos itself synodal? Or does the synodal Church reflect something fundamental about the cosmos? Similarly, note that the previous paragraph’s warning against what he elsewhere refers to as a “misguided anthropocentrism” (118), an attitude of domination toward other creatures in pursuit of profit, is another example of his repeated concern with power relationships and an exclusive focus on “results.”
In other words, there is a distinctive pattern that we can find in the Church, in the common pursuit of justice, and even in the cosmos itself. Not incidentally, when the protagonists of The Letter come to recognize their interconnectedness with each other, to even think of themselves as a “family,” they are on a pilgrimage to Assisi in the aftermath of their visit with the Pope, tracing the steps of St. Francis and learning about the kinship he expressed with Creation.
What ties all of these things together? Pope Francis provides an answer in a mostly overlooked section of Laudato Si’, near the end of the encyclical. In this section, he appeals to the medieval theologian St. Bonaventure, who teaches that the Trinity is reflected in all Creation:
For Christians, believing in one God who is trinitarian communion suggests that the Trinity has left its mark on all creation. Saint Bonaventure went so far as to say that human beings, before sin, were able to see how each creature “testifies that God is three”. The reflection of the Trinity was there to be recognized in nature “when that book was open to man and our eyes had not yet become darkened”. The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key.
The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity. (239-240, emphasis in original)
The pattern we can see across Pope Francis’s reflections on synodality, social change, and our kinship with other creatures is the “Trinitarian structure” of Creation, the mark of the Creator. God’s unity in diversity, the trinitarian communion, is the key.
It’s also worth noting that the three main documents considered here— Francis’s address on synodality, his address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, and Laudato Si’—were all written within the span of just a few months in 2015, and so seem to reflect a particularly fertile and cohesive period of theological reflection, a period that turns out to be central to understanding his legacy.
Over the weekend, I wrote about what the recommendations of the Synod’s final report would mean for Catholic parishes. Writing at America, Ashley McKinless argues that the work of the Synod will only fully bear fruit if parish priests buy in. The Catholic faithful, lay people in particular, could still live out aspects of synodality, as laid out in the document, even without the support of their pastor, but McKinless makes a good point that it will be difficult to establish a truly synodal parish unless priests adopt a synodal style of leadership and help create an environment designed to foster the participation of all the faithful in the mission of the Church.
On the other hand, Australian theologian Stefan Gigacz has an important analysis of what the synthesis has to say about lay people and lay movements, and particularly their role in the Church.
For those who enjoy getting into the weeds, Luke Coppen at The Pillar has an interesting analysis of how the Synod’s final document differs from the initial draft presented to the Synod Assembly. The analysis was possible because a copy of the initial draft was leaked to The Pillar.
There is too much news and commentary on the conflict in Gaza to share here. But last week the editors at Commonweal published an editorial that largely echoes the arguments I made here in the newsletter. I also argued that Israel’s actions so far demonstrate “a willingness to indiscriminately destroy civilian buildings and even kill civilians unable or unwilling to evacuate rather than engage in the exacting process of identifying legitimate targets and making efforts to minimize civilian casualties, for example, as was used in counter-terrorism efforts against ISIS in Syria and Iraq during the 2010s.” It turns out that, according to reporting from CNN last week, the U.S. military thought the same: “Instead of launching a full-scale ground assault on Gaza, which could endanger hostages, civilians, and further inflame tensions in the region, US military advisers are urging Israelis to use a combination of precision airstrikes and targeted special operations raids.”
Now that the Synod is over, I want to get back to interviewing theologians and ministers engaged in work that can help shed light on the state of theology today. I will start reaching out soon, but if you have any ideas or suggestions, please let me know in a comment or email!