It’s Not About Defense of the Faith, but the Joy of the Gospel: Greg Boyle, S.J., on 'Laudato Si''

Over the last few weeks I've been talking by phone to a wide variety of prominent Catholics in California (including Former Secretary of Defense Leon PanettaGov. Jerry Brownthree local bishops and a diocesan environmental justice director, a college president, a resources executive and a Catholic book editor), getting their reactions to "Laudato Si'." This week I'm posting their comments.

Greg Boyle, S.J., is the founder of the Los Angeles-based Homeboys Industries, which provides employment, mental health and other services to former gang members, youth at risk and the recently incarcerated. He’s also the author of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times best seller “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion”.


What’s been your reaction to the document?

Everybody says it’s a climate change encyclical; well obviously it’s a bigger deal than that – the pope’s talking about ecology, but then that ties into economics and it ties into inequity. So it’s a bigger thing than at first glance.

There are a lot of pundits who are upset that he’s taking capitalism and disparaging it. But he’s not really doing that, he’s trying to reconfigure the whole idea of what progress looks like, what does development look like. He wants to change the paradigm of development. People are getting defensive and saying the capitalist system is the one that has lifted more folks out of poverty. He’s not denying that has happened, he’s just trying to underscore how unchecked development and overconsumption really do truly exacerbate the suffering of the poor, as does climate change. He’s really trying to get people to rethink, reconfigure, arrive at a new paradigm.

So he’s kind of the galvanizer in chief. He’s trying to mobilize the moral energy of humanity, and that’s just an amazing, wonderful, powerful thing.

As you note, in the document the pope continues to talk about is the consequences of a free market economy that has no moral compass. Would you say that the market system has any relationship with the struggles of the men and women you work with at Homeboys?

You need go no further than the huge and growing disparity between the haves and the have nots to see what the poor especially have suffered because of our economic system and the environmental degradation that is really a part of that system.

The pope is being described in some quarters as naive or misguided. I have to think in your work at times you’ve heard similar criticisms.

What he’s proposing is something that is integral – it’s not just climate change, it’s the connection between all these different factors, which is to say he has a high degree of reverence for the complexity of this thing. And I guess if there’s one thing that this place [Homeboys] wants to announce a lot is that we have a high degree of reverence for who our people are, that we’re able somehow to stand in awe for what these folks have had to carry rather than in judgment of it.

I just finished reading [Bishop] Walter Kasper’s book on the pope, about his theology. It’s so good. The pope is so clear not to be left or right or progressive or conservative. The only thing he talks about is the radicality of the Gospel. And that’s where the joy is.

So you won’t get him to speak anything without speaking about the margins, because he knows that the entire credibility of the church rests in this joyful Gospel at the margins. That’s what matters to him, the poor church of the poor. And this encyclical is in line with that kind of thinking.

A big part of what he calls for is people with very different points of view coming together, seeing beyond our oppositions to something farther on. How do we do that?

That’s the whole point of inspiration, is that it’s an invitation to something. It’s a non-settling. You could make the case, and maybe it’s polarizing, that in previous times we settled for a smaller church, but a more pure church. And he won’t have any part of that. He wants an inclusive church. And why would you settle for purer when you could have holy? 

Even spiritually when he talks about little signs, like when you’re fearful or sad, then you haven’t entered into the full engagement of what the Gospel at the margins looks like. Because that’s only about joy. And that’s about stuff being love-driven.

And frankly you think about the priorities of the Bishops’ Conference and they’re the old tunes, and it sounds nice – family and marriage and evangelization and vocation and religious freedom--but they’re all fear based. “What if they take away our freedoms? What if there’s marriage equality? What if we run out of priests?” – it’s all driven by fear.

So the difference is this, it seems to me: Pope Francis has become like Jesus entering into that room where the disciples are locked up because they’re frightened. And like Jesus, he opens the windows, lets in air, unlocks the front door and says let’s go, and let’s smell like sheep. That’s the Pope that we have, the Pope we want.

But frankly a great many bishops are so terrified that they enter that same room and they say by all means keep the windows closed, keep the door padlocked, don’t go out. You have every reason to be terrified. They co-sign on fear.  

You won’t see any of that in this pope. It’s all driven by love. It’s not about defense of the faith, it’s about the joy of the gospel. That’s a huge difference, a night and day difference. And imagine what if that got galvanized because of this pope, that people started to go where the joy was, and stepped away from where the fear and terror is.

And so, long may he live. Because now we’re talking about the stuff that matters, the fundamental priorities – When did that last happen before? It’s hard for me to remember in my sixty one years of living. 

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Joshua DeCuir
3 years 6 months ago
"And frankly you think about the priorities of the Bishops’ Conference and they’re the old tunes, and it sounds nice – family and marriage and evangelization and vocation and religious freedom--but they’re all fear based. “What if they take away our freedoms? What if there’s marriage equality? What if we run out of priests?” – it’s all driven by fear." I find this an off-putting & disappointing comment from someone who's work I have long admired. I would think the LIttle Sisters of the Poor certainly have the "smell of the sheep" on them regardless long before HHS regulations got in their way. But the assumption that if one is concerned over the Little Sisters' exemptions one is simply acting out of "fear" - contrary to the Pope & Jesus, is frankly an assumption of bad faith on the part of those of us concerned about these issues. Not to mention that the tactic of using words of a Pope to undermine the Bishops' Conference is a tactic progressive Catholics have long criticized.
alan macdonald
3 years 6 months ago
This interview really follows the Jesuit Gospel. It mentions same sex marriage but says not a word about abortion, which both the main stream media and the Jesuits are mute on.
norman ravitch
3 years 5 months ago
Frankly, the clergy are the blind leading the blind.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 5 months ago
My gosh, this is the best thing I've read all day. I'm with Fr. Greg. We're finally talking about things that matter. I never thought I would live to see this day. What a miracle.
Cynthia Bernardo
3 years 5 months ago
What a logical critique of Pope Francis encyclical. When Fr. Boyle talked about the fear of the people in the Upper Room and relate it to the fear that is within us in our daily walk in life, I could not help but admire the written work of our Pope Francis on ecology and environment. The focus is on joy and not on fear! Brilliant comparison! Brilliant encyclical! I remembered too the words of our Lord, "Be not afraid!" Sometimes, people are afraid to be joyful. They think that joy could be a sign of weakness and being glum and dead serious is professional. I totally concur with Pope Francis and Fr Boyle. We need to rethink and integrate the image of joy in our approach to environment, economics and basically in the fabric of our society. Joy is the trademark of the true gospel. Let us find joy in helping the poor and marginalised in the world.


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