Creativity & Conversion: Evangelization in Light of Laudato Si

Keith Douglass Warner OFM
Santa Clara University

(NAIROBI, Kenya, July 2, 2018) For our international discernment and strategy council, the Franciscan friars gathered here to reflect upon how we could best live and share our spirituality today. The eco-spirituality encyclical written by Pope Francis, Laudato Si, emerged as a recurring theme at this council. This is the most Franciscan papal encyclical ever written. It presents our founder St. Francis as a model for contemporary Catholic spirituality, and uses a Franciscan approach to analyzing our twin crises of global economic injustice and environmental degradation. With Laudato Si, Pope Francis has challenged everyone, but most especially Franciscan-hearted people, to undergo ecological conversion and to respond with creativity to the needs of all creation.

Some friars shared their concrete responses and experience to the encyclical. The Latin American Franciscan family organized a hemisphere-wide Laudato Si Pilgrimage, with icons and prayer services beginning in Mexico and Chile, and concluding with a large gathering in Columbia. In both India and Indonesia, friars have sponsored rural sustainable development centers that teach peasant farmers how to improve their productivity and stewardship. The Franciscan family in France offered an “ecological journey” event, combining testimony, experiential education, prayer and reflection. These concrete examples speak to me of how we Franciscans can creatively present the good news inspired by Laudato Si.

With this global perspective, and inspired by how these Franciscan actions creatively call for conversion, I have been struck by the way that much American environmentalism is marked by the negative attitudes of doom and despair. Some of this is due to our politicians’ dismissal of the core problems as well as distortion of the issues by mass media. Nevertheless, the overarching American environmental narrative implies that if one is concerned about the environment, one must necessarily follow a path to depression. If we look only at scientific data about the environment, this appears to be the logical response. Also, more than almost any other country I have visited, the United States appears to disregard the disproportionate consequences of environmental problems on the poor.

Pope Francis calls us to conversion, not depression, and certainly not paralysis. Unlike conventional environmental messages, Pope Francis calls for a profound moral renewal of humanity. He calls us to love all, as God loves, all of creation and the peoples of the earth. The encyclical invites us to change our hearts, and to practice ecological virtue, in other words, to act justly and lovingly without pursuing personal reward. It presents St. Francis of Assisi as the example par excellence of this conversion to universal love, which he named “integral ecology.”

Pope Francis calls us to exercise our collective moral imagination. This, too, is profoundly Franciscan, for a moral imagination approach asks: “How could I act in such a way as to allow God’s goodness and Love to shine forth? How could I reimagine my actions, my life choices, and my vocation as a person of faith, so as to fulfill the vision of Laudato Si? So as to translate its message from text to flesh? The exercise of moral imagination is not a flight of fantasy, rather, offers a profound expression of human creativity, for it brings God’s goodness to life. It illuminates new paths for human action that can lead to a more just and sustainable future.

As I prepare to return to California, I am struck by the potential of my home state to help to fulfill the vision of Laudato Si. California and the Pacific West hosts cultures remarkable for their creativity and ingenuity. Although Laudato Si does not involve use the term “social innovation,” I am convinced that this will be central to fulfilling the vision of this encyclical. “Social innovation” here is defined as the intentional creative design of technology, ecological processes, and human organizations and behavior to achieve social justice goals. I believe this can guide us in our journey into ecological conversion.

As I travel throughout the world, I notice that when I tell people I am from California, the first question they ask me is almost always about Hollywood. Born in Northern California, I was raised to look askance at the movie and TV industry. Yet there is no doubt that Hollywood is a huge creative force. Its represents a relatively small group of people who have tremendous sway over our contemporary cultural narratives. Hollywood has, to a considerable degree, taken control over our myths, the stories of explanation we all share. Certainly, many of these stories Hollywood presents are superficial, clichéd, and sordid. Certainly, many in the industry act in greedy and egotistical ways. However, movies and TV can still tell immensely powerful stories, stories that have the capacity to make us feel and think more profoundly about our lives. Think about your favorite movie, for instance, and the way it put you in touch with an important aspect of your life and humanity. Think about your favorite thought-provoking movie as well, and consider how it may have compelled you to reconsider your views on a given subject. What if…Hollywood could find a way to tell more stories about cultural creativity and ecological conversion?

When I explain I work in Silicon Valley and draw on its creativity to fulfill the imperatives of Laudato Si, most people pause. But, Silicon Valley is more than an aggregation of engineers, technology, and computers. It is the world’s most entrepreneurial ecosystem, one that has created dramatic innovations that have touched and affected the lives of most people on the planet, and in many cases, has improved them. For example, in the developing world, mobile phones provide vital information about health, education, or economic opportunities. They are arguably a most important technological innovation for helping poor people improve their lives. Certainly, many people in the Valley are greedy and egotistical, pushing marketing hype to get rich quick. Certainly, many innovations are designed to make the lives of the affluent even more comfortable. But this is far from the whole story.

At Santa Clara University, I teach social entrepreneurship, which is a form of social innovation that helps develop entrepreneurial organizations that pursue social goals, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This approach can blend the innovation and entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley with the vision of Pope Francis – and at my university, many of us do this every day. What if….Silicon Valley could devote even more of its creativity to fulfill the vision of Laudato Si?

Innovation and creativity abound in California’s Great Central Valley as well. I conducted my doctoral research among networks of growers and scientists that were quietly working to enhance the sustainability of California’s agriculture. They were borrowing numerous ideas from innovative growers – some of them organic – and mainstreaming them in certain crops. I interviewed hundreds of men and women collaboratively developing new strategies to steward California, motivated by a blend of economic and environmental values. From them I learned that the best way to fight suburban sprawl onto our farmland is to make agricultural economically viable.

I also spent some years collaborating with the Diocese of Stockton’s Environmental Justice Initiative. This local effort educates Catholics about the Church’s teaching and the links between social justice and environmental protection, and to organize Catholics to bring this approach to the public arena. This kind of initiative anticipated the teaching of Laudato Si by about 15 years. What if….the Catholic Church in California could take this kind of approach statewide?

All of these “what if?” questions are grounded in a certain Franciscan optimism, or moral imagination. This optimism must certainly not be dismissed as naïve idealism, however. Franciscan optimism is rooted in the life journey of St. Francis himself, who was gifted by God with profound experiences of conversion throughout his life. This journey and process was frequently uncomfortable and confusing for him, and at times, was marked by profound suffering. Yet, today, we Franciscans continue to present our founder Father Francis as an example par excellence of conversion to Christ, an example of God’s love shining forth through a fallible human being. Given the dramatic and wholesale transformation undergone by St. Francis, the “what if?” questions do not seem so fanciful. In his time and place, he dramatically inspired both Church and society to collective conversion.

These “what if?” questions do point us to a path that is morally ambitious. However, by the standards of creativity and conversion left to us by St. Francis, the vision they convey appears attainable. The Pacific West is not short on creativity – but do we have the necessary moral courage to undergo a true ecological conversion? To help others deepen their own ecological conversion? Franciscan optimism requires of us moral creativity and courage, for we must not only avoid but also seek to engage the greed and violence in our society as it is.  At the same time, we are called to help guide human society to a more equitable and sustainable common future. This is what Pope Francis means when he calls us all to ecological conversion –  and this really is good news indeed.


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