By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
It’s time for a confession. When I wrote The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus back in 2009, I didn’t develop the theme of Steward Leadership as much as I would have liked to.
Over the years, I jotted down notes to do more with it here in The Catholic Leader and on our website, but like so many things on my innumerable “To Do” lists, I have never gotten around to it.
Now I’m glad I didn’t. Because Pope Francis has done it for me.
And better than I ever could.
You’ll find his thinking on the call to – the necessity – of good stewardship in his encyclical, Laudato Si’ (Praise Be To You), with the subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home.”
Another confession: I’ve been meaning to read it since it was published back in 2015, but that’s yet another thing on one of my lists that I had not gotten around to – until earlier this month.
Once I started it, I could barely put it down. Morning after morning, I found myself waking up enthusiastically to the thought that I could grab a cup of coffee and curl up with the pope’s manuscript again.
As I underlined and scribbled notes in the margin, I found myself saying again and again, sometimes breathlessly, “Wow!”
Yup, it’s that good.
In just 246 brief (but densely packed) paragraphs, followed by two brief prayers, Pope Francis presents a comprehensive picture of what’s wrong with the earth, why, and how we can fix it -- individually and collectively.
Call to conversion
At the heart of his analysis and appeal is nothing less than a call to profound conversion of heart and head. Time and again, he says, we have to develop a new “mindset” about the world and humanity – and our relationship to both.
He completely rejects an “atomistic” view of creation – the notion that it can be understood in terms of individual, largely unrelated agents. Instead, we must see all of creation as a rich and absolutely interdependent web of life encompassing all of the natural and human orders.
Scientists would use the term “open system” – indeed, a complex, interdependent system of open subsystems.
Thus, the conviction that we all share – or should share – that “everything is interconnected and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.” (¶ 70)
Pope Francis sets out some basic principles in his encyclical:
- The universe is God’s creation -- it is both God’s work and God’s gift.
- We are the most exalted of Earth’s creatures – made in God’s own image – but creatures nonetheless.
- The good of the Earth is entrusted to our care; we are to exercise domination over the Earth (Gen. 1:26, 28), not for our good alone but for the good of all across all generations.
Pope Francis rejects – in company with virtually all scientists – the notion that climate change is just a natural flux in the ordinary course of natural processes. The title of chapter three of the encyclical makes that clear: “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis.”
His point is briefly but comprehensively reviewing the deteriorating condition of the Earth’s ecosystem: We can and we must do better. It will not be easy. But it’s absolutely necessary.
He says early in his encyclical, quoting Pope St. John Paul II: “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in ‘lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies’.” (¶ 5)
Teaching deeply rooted
Some people, notably Catholics, have sought to discredit this pope for not measuring up to their understanding of orthodoxy. But Pope Francis makes it clear that his call for radical conversion stands on the shoulders of popes before him, beginning with Pope St. John XXIII.
In his introduction, he discusses that pope’s teaching and then quickly summarizes the similarly supportive teaching of Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as that in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But going back much further, he frequently cites the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments.
No matter how counter-cultural Pope Francis’ teaching may appear – and it is counter-cultural in many respects -- it is also sound Catholic teaching deeply rooted in Revelation and the ancient wisdom of Christianity.
Communion and love
Approaching poetry, the pope writes: “Creation is of the order of love” (¶ 77).
However, he is not naïve. “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” (¶ 20) he writes, adding: “our common home is falling into disrepair …we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point” (61).
A big part of the problem, according to the pope, is that “caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation” (36).
He argues that entrusting the natural and human realms solely to the marketplace is naive, because a hunger for short-term gains often trumps the necessity of sustaining the life-giving capacities of a healthy natural order.
Dominion for all
Over the ages, God’s plan as noted in Genesis that humanity should have “dominion” over the created world has served as a rationale for the continued development of technology to increase the Earth’s bounty. Within limits, that has been a great boon to humanity.
However, Pope Francis makes clear that God’s intent, as reflected in the scriptures, was for humanity to exercise a perpetual dominion – one that by definition would assure the health and continued bounty of the Earth for all humans across all generations.
God’s plan has never been that some humans can so monopolize the Earth’s gits that they are exhausted or permanently fouled beyond regeneration.
That’s more of an issue today than at any earlier point in human history because, says the pope: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used” (¶104).
The issue of how humanity is to exercise dominion raises the notion that we are never owners but always stewards. “Thus, God rejects every claim to absolute ownership,” (67) Francis writes.
Pope Francis’ call for a new mindset about our relationships is not limited to the natural order. He argues that the human and natural orders are deeply interconnected and interdependent, and that problems in the natural order always impact the most vulnerable in the human order – the poor and marginalized.
In any event, we are all accountable to one another as well as to God, and so we must be good stewards who put God first and who strive to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family,” (¶ 52) he writes.
We also must do all we can to rise above our tendency to be self-centered and consumed by the need for immediate and insatiable gratification.
Near the end he calls on people to “strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature” (144) – a way that is, paradoxically, as old as our Judeo-Christian heritage.
One more thing
The one dimension of steward leadership that Pope Francis does not explicitly address -- except in the broader context of endorsing values that serve life rather than undermining it -- is corporate governance.
Not a few of our problems regarding the exploitation of both the natural and social order by business organizations are caused by leaders who see themselves as owners rather than stewards. From that faulty perspective, they often loot their own organizations -- cheating shareholders, workers and other stakeholders alike – as well as the natural order.
However, leaders who share the mindset of Pope Francis regarding our relationship to God, our neighbors and the natural order will be moved to be good Servants and Shepherds as well as Stewards -- and for that we can all be grateful.