Everyone, it seems, recognises that Pope Francis’s encyclical is a striking document. But to really appreciate its significance, it’s worth contrasting it with another document that purports to tackle the same challenge: the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).
The SDGs have emerged from a long, complex process, stretching over the past four years. They are hanging on a promise to be able to eradicate “all poverty, in all its forms, everywhere” by 2030, and to do so in a way that moves us to a more environmentally sustainable economy.
But while the pope’s encyclical has caused a stir around the world, almost no one is excited about the SDGs. On the contrary, they live almost exclusively in the dry, technocratic world of international development. This isn’t for want of trying by the UN and others. They have invested a lot of money trying to whip up popular enthusiasm and would love nothing more than to see the sort of excitement that has greeted the encyclical.
The problem is that, unlike the encyclical, the SDGs are not fresh, or paradigm shifting. They don’t offer anything that gets the blood flowing. They can’t be sold as exciting because they simply aren’t.
This is a question of substance. The encyclical is visionary. It is bold, uncompromising and radical, where the SDGs are staid, timid and mired in a business-as-usual mentality.
The pope doesn’t hit the right note on every issue, of course, and his statement – progressive though it may be – certainly doesn’t absolve the Catholic church of all its past and present failings. But it does have the feel of a zeitgeist document, in tune with the times, if not a few steps ahead. The SDGs, by contrast, feel like yesterday’s thinking. The SDGs are desperately trying to catch up with a public that knows something big and deep has to change, but are unable – or perhaps unwilling – to rise to that challenge.