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Essay

Dream Time

Arthur McCaffrey

 

Let us Dream: The Path To A Better Future, by Pope Francis, Simon & Schuster, 160 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 9781398502208

In Catholic liturgy, the Latin antiphon Oremus ‑ Let Us Pray ‑ has been used for centuries to introduce a whole variety of psalms, prayers, petitions, exhortations and invocations. Now Pope Francis has added a new antiphon, Somniemus ‑ Let Us Dream ‑ which is the title of his new book, just published with the help of his British biographer, Austin Ivereigh.

The pope’s concern for how we react to the Covid pandemic runs throughout this short but pithy book, infecting every page with his love and insight and foresight on how to rise up to meet the challenge in such a way that all humanity benefits from our new resolution fired in the heat of disease.

We are living in a time of trial. The Bible talks of passing through fire to describe such trials, like the kiln testing the potter’s handiwork (Sirach 27:5). The fact is that we are all tested in life. It is how we grow.
Don’t retreat; in spite of our ennui, our desire for normalcy, don’t let this crisis push you back into old ways and roles. Be like the Samaritan ‑ confronted with the sick, the suffering, the wounded ‑ stop, pull up, act! By serving others we enable change through compassion and service, helping create a new future.

This is Francis’s message throughout: do not suffer passively, go out to meet the challenge of the crisis as an activist, as a “co-creator” with God to change the world for the better. Echoing the message of previous encycicals Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, he asks why we don’t put on face masks to deal with the hidden pandemics of hunger and violence and climate change, in the same way that we respond to the invisible Covid 19?

Francis thinks of the challenge of the pandemic crisis as an opportunity for transformation; he urges us to seize this unique moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities about what we value, what we want, what we seek. He urges us to “dare to dream”, to be proactive as well as reactive:

God asks us to dare create something new. We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis. We need economies that give to all access to the fruits of creation, to the basic needs of life: to land, lodging, and labor. We need a politics that can integrate and dialogue with the poor, the excluded, and the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that impact their lives. We need to slow down, take stock, and design better ways of living together on this earth.

These are themes he already touched upon in his Easter message last year, arguing for rights to what he called in Spanish the three Ts: tierra, techo, trabajo (in English, the 3Ls: land, lodging, labour) ‑ namely, giving people, and especially those on the margins of society, access to land, housing and jobs, education and health care. Francis’s words might very well have been written to address the “rugged individualism” of Americans, who have such a hard time obeying health mandates to wear a mask. He dismisses such individualism as a fallacious organising principle for society. Echoing other recent calls for a new social focus from Harvard scholars Michael Sandel and Robert Putnam, Francis exhorts us to summon the courage and vigour to work for the common good. Sandel, in particular, in his new book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the Common Good?, offers a very “Franciscan” message in asserting that the cult of individualism and the false conception of the self-made man cut us off from a sense of responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves; it is a mistake to design an economy where having a college degree is a necessary prerequisite for a dignified life and decent work.

The common good, Francis argues, needs societies to now focus on fraternity with as much determination as they have focused on equality and liberty since the late ninetheenth century. Francis makes a priority of the necessity of dignified labour: “God gave us the land to till and keep. Our work is the basic condition of our dignity and well-being.” Labour (and business) should be a means not just of earning money, but of self-expression, of taking part in society, and of contributing to the common good, by everyone and for everyone.

There is a concrete, practical side also to this kind of papal dreaming. For work to be dignified, we cannot ignore those who cannot find work with a living wage, or those, like carers and mothers, who work without wages. The pandemic has exposed just how much of our society lives in precarious circumstances ‑ marginalised, in low-paying jobs, living from pay cheque to pay cheque. To restore dignity to both the employed and unemployed, Francis thinks it is time to implement strategies like a Universal Basic Income (UBI) which can provide a safety net, a floor, the basic security needed to live a dignified life free from the trap of poverty.

Francis confesses that his seven years as pope have taught him to see the world more clearly from the periphery: “[Y]ou have to make for the margins to find a new future … to go to the margins in a concrete way allows you to touch the suffering and the wants of a people.” He draws upon his travels abroad to the Rohingya, the Uighurs, the Yazidi, among the less fortunate to teach us about the contradictions between such endangered lives and the individualism and self-obsession and lack of solidarity which dominate wealthier societies.

He calls the frontline workers who have risked so much during the pandemic crisis to help others the “saints next door”. They remind us that our lives are a gift and that we grow by giving of ourselves and losing ourselves in service. He also pays special tribute to responsible news media, which have saved us from falling into indifference during this crisis.

In Part II (Time to Choose), Francis argues that our choices need guidance: “We need, too, a healthy capacity for silent reflection, places of refuge from the tyrrany of the urgent. Most of all, we need prayer, to hear the prompts of the Spirit, and cultivate dialogue in a community that can hold us and allow us to dream. Thus armed we can read right the signs of the times and opt for a way that does us all good.”

If the challenge of the pandemic moves us to act as a single people (and not, as Mark Lilla has pleaded, becoming lost in identity politics), life and society will change for the better. This kind of philosophical and practical solidarity is communism with a small “c”, which makes space at the table for everyone. Francis contrasts it with ‘enlightened elitism’ and its reductionism which excludes all those who do not conform to its social status, moral stature, or ideology.

In Part III Francis argues that unregulated markets have generated “vast inequality and huge ecological damage”. When a neo-liberal economy, he writes, ends up with no real objective other than growth it cannot deliver what we now need: “to regenerate the natural world by living more sustainably and more soberly while meeting the needs of those who have been harmed by or excluded from that economy until now. Unless we accept the principle of solidarity among the peoples, we will not come out of this crisis better.”

Despite the upbeat tempo of Let Us Dream, it is hard to ignore the fact that the book was published just a few weeks after a couple of damning reports on the church’s own involvement in another kind of crisis ‑ sexual abuse. So what does Francis the dreamer say about this elephant in his bedroom, given his advice that, in times of crisis, we need to “act concretely to heal and repair”?

As I will not tire of saying with sorrow and shame, these abuses were also committed by some members of the Church. In these past years we have taken important steps to stamp out abuses and to engender a culture of care able to respond swiftly to accusations. Creating that culture will take time, but is an unavoidable commitment which we must make every effort to insist on. There must be no more abuse … either inside or outside of the Church.

It would take another book to record what victims think of the misfortunate “unavoidable commitment”. In the meantime, I would note that we have gone from the centuries-old antiphon Oremus to Francis’s twenty-first-century Somniemus. Abuse victims will be left wondering when they will read another 140 pages by Francis devoted exclusively to their antiphon, Sanemus ‑ Let Us Heal.

1/4/2021

Arthur McCaffrey is a retired Harvard University psychologist.

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