By Pope Francis and Austen Ivereigh. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 160 pages. $26/hardcover; $17/paperback (available in March); $13.99/eBook.
As a baptized Catholic and a Friend by marriage and convincement, I came to this book with high expectations. After all, Pope Francis is the pontiff who wrote the groundbreaking encyclical Laudato Si; who has spoken out about the Catholic Church’s need to ally with other faiths for the sake of the planet; and to reach out to women, Indigenous peoples, and LGBT folk. His dreaming the path to a better future, I hoped, might genuinely speak to all people, pointing the Church toward the twenty-first century’s evolving ethos of equal rights. In this, however, I was disappointed.
Presented as Pope Francis “in conversation with Austen Ivereigh” (his biographer) during the global COVID-19 lockdown, Let Us Dream speaks to the moral and human rights questions posed by the pandemic, by the Black Lives Matter movement, and by climate change and its many forms of fallout. It speaks to the purpose of Laudato Si, written not as a green encyclical but as a social encyclical. In its opening and closing, it offers much for Christians of any denomination to meditate upon.
Dividing Let Us Dream into three sections (“A Time to See,” “A Time to Choose,” and “A Time to Act”), Pope Francis points in his prologue to this time of crisis as a time of moral revelation: “when you’re in a crisis . . . You have to choose. And in making your choice you reveal your heart.” He frames COVID as a time for turning, similar to the breakdown/breakthroughs of Saul of Tarsus, King David, and his own transformational near-death experience.
In “A Time to See,” the Pope calls out narcissism, discouragement, and pessimism as the toxins of our day that prevent our full presence and engagement with our world. The virus of indifference, based on selective seeing and “so-whatism,” and the hyperinflation of the individual weaken our response to the world’s needs. He calls for courage, discernment, and resistance to quick, simple, and exploitative solutions: “Our sin lies in failing to recognize value, in wanting to possess and exploit that which we do not value as a gift.”
But how to turn from these social sins? In “A Time to Choose,” Pope Francis introduces the principles of Catholic Social Teaching: the preferential option for the poor, the common good, the universal destination of goods, solidarity and subsidiarity (the recognition of both interconnectedness and autonomy), and discernment of spirits. These are offered as criteria for contemplation and integration, rather than as dogmas for fundamentalist enforcement.
But it is here, as he writes of the need to discern the voice of the Spirit in the signs of the times, that the deep ecumenism of his message breaks off. He veers off from universal principles into a defense of long-standing Catholic doctrine as he praises at length the intellectual, administrative, and leadership abilities of women, while forbidding them the priesthood: “To say [women] aren’t truly leaders because they aren’t priests is clericalist and disrespectful.” He follows this with a discourse on the “bad-spirit temptation” to withdraw from the church, turning into “beleaguered, complaining selves who disdain others, believing that we alone know the truth.”
He goes on to look at the work done in the 2019 Synod on Amazonia, which was called to “highlight the challenges facing the region and its peoples, including the destruction of the rainforest, the murders of indigenous leaders, the marginalization of the indigenous, and the difficulties facing the Church in the region.” But he focuses strictly on the missionary role of the Church and misdirection of media reporting. He never addresses the years of petitioning by Indigenous nations that the Church revoke the fifteenth-century papal Doctrine of Discovery in that Synod, which allowed for the takeover of Indigenous lands and exploitation of their peoples. In this omission, the affirmation of solidarity with Indigenous peoples rings hollow.
In the final section of Let Us Dream, Pope Francis attempts a return to the theme of unity:
This is the 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.
Sadly, this call to unity would ring truer if it had not been prefaced by such a lengthy dive into doctrinal and political divisions within the Church.
Ultimately, I experienced Let Us Dream as two books, awkwardly spliced together: a heartfelt call to all Christians to use the COVID crisis as an opportunity to change the ethos of our time to one of compassion, and a communique to the Catholic faithful, explaining and defending the Church’s lurching attempts, and stubborn refusal, to meet the changing needs of the present day.
Phila Hoopes is a freelance copywriter for regenerative business, a permaculture practitioner, and a spiritual edgewalker. She lives in Baltimore, Md., where she is a member of Homewood Meeting.