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June 29, 2015

There have been few, if any, papal documents like Pope Francis' Laudato Si', On Care for our Common Home. Nor, for that matter, has there ever been a Church document like Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). In these two treatises Pope Francis profoundly alters what it means to be Catholic today.

Catholics for centuries have been raised on adhering to a prescribed set of beliefs and following the precepts of the Church – go to Mass on Sundays and holy days, make an annual Confession, provide for the material needs of the Church, etc.

Pope Francis has raised the bar much higher. His two major documents say, first, that to be Catholic today means to act out of a social and ecological conscience. They say, secondly, that the way forward for both Church and society is through dialogue. Such dialogue ought to be non-hierarchical; it is not simply a matter of the upper realms "consulting" the masses, but rather implies the formation of networks of groups and people who will work together toward common solutions.

On the first point, the pope is unrelentingly traditional. Acting in a socially and ecologically manner is essential to being Catholic, but such action must be rooted in a spirituality that is Trinitarian, sacramental and faithful to revelation. What has to change is the chasm between faith and culture, a chasm Church documents have deplored for decades.

Pope Francis, however, will wait no longer. Bridging this chasm is "urgent," a word he uses repeatedly through Laudato Si'. Pope Francis is blunt in saying maximizing economic value is the primary cause of the ecological crisis. The solution to the crisis is, ultimately, to reject consumerism and follow the Gospel. Merely to obey the precepts of the Church is inadequate.

On the second point, Pope Francis is in synch with a growing groundswell around the world in which people are demanding a voice in their own future. He puts great stock in civil society groups that advocate for change, much more so than in institutions dedicated to preserving their privileges.

Repeatedly, he challenges the economic and political structures of today's world, seeing them as causes of the current crisis. In The Joy of the Gospel, he calls for a pastoral conversion of the Church so that it renews structures "to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open . . .".

The struggles to renew Catholic life and to ecologically renew the face of the earth are one and the same. This challenges a Church which is settling more and more into a bunker mentality. Strictly hierarchical forms of governance need to be replaced by openness and inclusivity; pietistic Catholicity should be replaced by spiritual

engagement with the great issues of the day. The fate of life on our planet demands it.