244.  In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast. In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God, for "if the world has a beginning and if it has been created, we must enquire who gave it this beginning, and who was its Creator". Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.                                                                                                      

- Pope Francis, Laudato Si

“Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for our planet never take away the joy of our hope.” Pope Francis breathed that in paragraph 244 of his encyclical, Laudato Si, issued this week.

“The joy of our hope” hardly was evidenced in responses to the document by one cast of quoted politicians, opinionators, industrialists, and interest-group leaders.

The pope may have been inspired and moved by the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Roman Catholic (and in one case Orthodox) documents, but many in the press, looking not very far, turned up joyless, hopeless dismissals of him, the document, and the testimony of spiritual leaders almost (no, not quite all), across the board.

The first days of public-religion responses seemed to pose the issue as a holy war, in which Saint Francis was effectively to be countered by Saint Ayn Rand and other defenders of unqualified, uncriticizable “free market” ideology.

In two days I have encountered hundreds of quotations, clips, clicks, and snippets of negative responses to the papal letter. “Papal infallibility,” whatever that used to mean, was apparently replaced by dismissals, also by disagreeing Catholics, with charges of “papal fallibility.” 

My response began with my three-hour reading of Laudato Si (see link below), which cannot have been read by many of the instant and interest-group responders. They relied on dramatic, out-of-context, and sensationalist dispensers of bites.

Now, if you give the document and the beleaguered pope a chance, you will find a complex, textured, and, yes, not infallible statement of concern. After reading it, I fantasized about how I would have responded were I a pulpiteer four days into the time post-Laudato Si.

First, I would revisit the nature of prophetic language. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer somewhere defined “prophecy” as “hope projected backward.” This papal document does such projecting, as in the cited paragraph 244. The Hebrew prophets and their followers and some corollaries in other faiths were far more critical of their people, their leaders, their wealth, their selves, than Pope Francis allowed himself to be.

But they did not leave the issue there. Read Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Amos—Amos if you have a strong stomach!—and study their analyses and judgments. After all that, picture the “hope projected backward” approach as it might apply today.

Second, a response would include a call for me to imagine my way back into a pulpit and being charged with preaching on a prophetic text in which “the joy of our hope” is not taken away.

My book would fall open to Jeremiah 29: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

And with the promise, I’d find practical details—worthy of consideration—in laboratories, legislatures, universities, congregations, and public forums in which, today, people responsive to the described situation of the planet and the cries of the heart, would read, still in Jeremiah: “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, etc, etc…” There has to be an agenda for follow-up.

Apologies: Pope Francis and Jeremiah led me to a once-a-decade violation of the genre of Sightings. Now I am being inspired to note that by the fourth day after the publication of the papal encyclical, many more “open” and responsible people on the Left and the Right, Catholics/Christian/Evangelicals/Everyone, are speaking in more measured ways.

The odds may not favor them, but they are not allowed to let the joy of the hopes of the world’s peoples be obscured or dismissed as they get to praying and working.


Pope Francis. “Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home.” Rome Reports TV News Agency, June 18, 2015. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

“Free Market.” Entry in the Ayn Rand Lexicon. Accessed June 21, 2015. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/free_market.html.

Rocca, Francis X. “Pope Blames Markets for Environment's Ills: Pontiff condemns global warming as outgrowth of global consumerism.” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2015, World. http://www.wsj.com/articles/pope-delivers-powerful-message-on-climate-change-1434621606.

Winters, Michael Sean. “Laudato Si' - Magistra No.” National Catholic Reporter: The Independent News Source, June 19, 2015, Distinctly Catholic Blog. http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/laudato-si-magistra-no.

Faiola, Anthony and Chris Mooney. “How climate-change doubters lost a papal fight.” Washington Post, June 20, 2015, Europe. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/how-climate-change-doubters-lost-a-papal-fight/2015/06/20/86af3182-15ce-11e5-8457-4b431bf7ed4c_story.html?wpisrc=nl_p1wemost&wpmm=1.


Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. .

Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud.