“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 2

Following through with the historical and ideological background to Evangelii Gaudium which I wrote about here last time, I’d now like to carefully consider what the document itself has to say. As I said before, the main point is the matter of getting Catholics to evangelize more –– to spread the message about how wonderful their church is, to get as many new people to join as possible, and to convince those who have been baptized into it to take that identity a bit more seriously.

francis photo op

The irony, however, is that Francis comes across as honestly not being concerned about defending or popularizing the institutional structure of the church as such. The institutional self-preservation instinct is what he’d ideally like to escape from: “I dream of… a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs… and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” (27) He goes on to seriously slam the “spiritual worldliness” of those who put institutional concerns ahead of human needs in the Church. Dealing with this matter, he acknowledges, will require some significant changes in the status quo culture of Catholicism –– a major new counter-reformation of sorts. “When preaching is faithful to the Gospel… it becomes clear that Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or catalogue of sins and faults. Before all else, the Gospel invites us… to see God in others… and to seek the good of others. Under no circumstances can this invitation be obscured!” (39)  “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” (47)

The primary issue Francis raises with regard to missions is for this to be a matter of “flow,” for believers; for Catholics to be “in their element,” as Ken Robinson  would say, spreading the Gospel. Everything else is details. The more in need of compassion someone is, the greater the sense of flow in reaching out to them should be. This shouldn’t be a burden or a tiresome responsibility that goes with the job for priests and church workers; this should be their primary motivation for being in the business to begin with. This must never be forgotten: “Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters” (265). This gets messy, but that’s part of the thrill of it. “Jesus wants us to touch human misery…. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal and communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (270)

If someone doesn’t “get this,” she/he shouldn’t be involved in missionary matters. “Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary. This openness of heart is a source of joy.” Francis clearly doesn’t think very highly of those who lack his enthusiasm in this area, however. He has serious doubts about whether they can even be considered Christian believers to begin with. “Loving others is a spiritual force drawing us to union with God; indeed, one who does not love others ‘walks in the darkness’ (1 Jn 2:11), ‘remains in death (1 Jn 3:14) and ‘does not know God’ (1 Jn 4:8).” Summarizing this biblical teaching in his own words, Francis says, “We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.” (272)

This is infinitely more important to Francis than having power or influence as such. “My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an ‘extra’ or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world.” (273)

This doesn’t mean it always comes easy and effortlessly to him either. Since the extent to which he succeeds in his mission of expressing God’s love to people cannot be measured reliably in terms of quantitative effects, the process of maintaining motivation can be a challenge at times. “Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. […] It is true that this trust in the unseen can cause us to feel disoriented… I myself have frequently experienced this. Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything.”(279-280)

So helping his flock find or rediscover this joy of loving others, especially those who are not “safe” to love, especially when it gets messy, is the essential point of this exhortation. The rest is a matter addressing details of maintaining missionary motivation, not allowing the message of compassion to get lost under the rubble of moralizing, adjusting the preaching and liturgical processes to serve this purpose, keeping doors open for anyone who wishes to come in, and maintaining dialog with those who chose not to identify with the Catholic Church –– especially those who chose to “be part of a people” and to “love their neighbors as themselves” on the basis of some other spiritual or ideological understanding. That is what it takes him approximately 50,000 words to say here.

Which of those details are most worth pointing out is going to be a matter of editorial taste for any of us who attempt to review this document, but with all standard disclaimers in place, here’s my take on details I find particularly interesting and important. One particular issue I must raise at this point though: I don’t believe that this document can be done justice without some serious consideration of the mystical religious perspective it comes from. Thus it will not really work to take this as an ecclesiastical statement in support of the “Occupy” movement, as some have done.  The crimson thread tying this whole document together is what we Protestants tend to refer to as “The Great Commission” . It is not my intention to preach at anyone, but it would be absurd to try to sanitize the sermon elements out of my analysis of this important moral/political/devotional document. So if you have any sort of allergy to that sort of promotion of the Christian message, you might want to stop reading here. And now, on with the show.

First of all, in the section which has been the most thoroughly picked up on in the international news media, one passage in particular stands out with regard to the theological context I was talking about last time:

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? […] Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” (53)

Without stating so explicitly, Francis is here taking a direct stab at the principle from Veritatis Splendor that has been used for the past twenty years to justify Catholics distancing themselves from social justice issues. Positive requirements of love can no longer be a lower priority in terms of absolute ethics than negative requirements of God’s law. He’s telling his flock that they can no longer hide behind excuses of “cultural relativity” while supporting unjust social systems based on laissez-faire capitalism that are literally killing people. Unjust exclusionary and marginalizing practices designed to enable the rich to keep getting richer must no longer be considered acceptable! They must be considered to be absolutely evil, and any excuse for saying otherwise is contrary to the Christian Gospel. A good Catholic cannot support trickle-down economics in good conscience, for “Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.” (57) You can’t get much stronger language without a direct declaration of interdict!

Another thing that caught my attention about the section where he was going on about the rights of the poor and the evils of gross inequality was the extent to which the pope’s rhetoric sounded familiar from my Zygmunt Bauman readings from last summer. The second paragraph of part 54 could easily have come directly from Bauman’s Wasted Lives:

 “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. […] The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’.”

And the only Baumanesque touch missing from the cultural description at the beginning of part 62 is the use of Bauman’s trademark term “liquid modern”:

“In the prevailing culture priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances. In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated.”

Yet Francis’ take on the media generation is not entirely borrowed from other social theorists of his age and older. Rather than longing for a less liquid and connected world, the pope is reaching out and asking for help in finding ways to build genuinely spiritual, interpersonal elements into our virtual communities.

“Today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a ‘mystique’ of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage. Greater possibilities for communication thus turn into greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity for everyone. If we were able to take this route, it would be so good, so soothing, so liberating and hope-filled!” (87)

Yet the ways in which the ‘disembodied’ aspects of virtual communications provide a ‘safe distance’ from true intimacy are also a problem for this form of virtual pilgrimage.

“[S]ome people want… their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction… The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” (88)

People these days are thirsty for a sense of transcendent connection, and the challenge, Francis claims, is not so much to convince them of the value of this sort of spiritual experience, but to find fully adequate ways to satisfy their spiritual desires –– using the new opportunities of the age yet not allowing these cultural innovations to create a superficial, disembodied, further alienating pseudo-spiritual experience for them.

One of the major risk factors Francis points out in this regard is what he calls “spiritual worldliness” within the church: “seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being.” This has two interrelated causes: gnosticism –– reducing the faith to a subjective sense of spiritual enlightenment, and promethean neopelagianism –– a superiority complex based on remaining “intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.” (94) This leads to a preoccupation with formalities, ceremonies, prestige factors and political influence, among other things. But whenever the principle beneficiary “is not God’s people but the Church as an institution,” this is a sign of a loss of the missionary spirit that should be the focus of the Church’s identity.

Under a heading of “Other ecclesial challenges” then, Francis briefly takes up the topic of women’s role in the church. The conservative statement that will get the feminist ink on this one is, “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” (104) Thus there’s some idea of a sort of semi-erotic symbolism to be found in high church rituals which would be lost if they were to be served up androgynously. Interesting. But his more liberal olive branch to those with paired x-chromosomes is to say that “sacramental power” must not be “too closely identified with power in general.” Francis is acutely aware of the power of women in general in the Church; the power of Italian mothers in particular. Anyway…

One of the more surprising aspects of the letter overall is the level of faith the pope puts in “popular piety” with all of its local pilgrimage sites, syncretic traditions and superstitious rituals (such as kissing the toe of St. Peter’s statue in the Vatican). Quoting from one of the latest letters by John Paul II, Francis claims that “The history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression, but rather, ‘remaining completely true to itself, with unswerving fidelity to the proclamation of the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, it will also reflect the different faces of the cultures and peoples in which it is received and takes root’.” (116)

But beyond denying the swerves in fidelity we can easily see in any semi-objective analysis of church history, Francis takes this trust in the common folk a step further: “The people of God is holy thanks to [the power of the Holy Spirit], which makes it infallible in credendo. This means that it does not err in faith, even though it may not find words to explain that faith. […] As part of his mysterious love for humanity, God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith –– sensus fidei –– which helps them to discern what is truly of God.” (119)

The underlying intent of these statements, in context, is to reduce the dominance of a Eurocentric culture of piety within the Catholic Church –– a noble goal in itself. But to claim any form of infallibility for any folk spiritual tradition would have to make this the most absurdly over-optimistic section in the whole document.

Francis then goes on at some length about the proper way to deliver a homily, or sermon. In one of the funniest lines in the letter, he comments about the role of the homily in the religious experience of the people, “We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (135) He then reminds preachers to bear in mind the role of the homily as a lead-up to the Eucharist, so it should be kept brief, if for no other reason, as a matter of remembering its liturgical place in life. But the homily should still have something to say about the biblical text at hand, providing some form of useful synthesis between the scripture and the hearts of the preacher and the audience.

One part of this section has an odd reflective implication to it. Referring to the need for preachers to be aware of the original intent of the passage they are preaching about, Francis says, quite rightly, “If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be used to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions…” (147) But then of course we must ask, first of all, do “theological opinions” have any actual value –– any reason to exist to begin with –– if they do not enable greater clarity and deeper understanding in the process of “teaching about God”? And then, given that the text making these statements has officially been labeled as an “apostolic exhortation”, does that exclude the possibility of drawing doctrinal conclusions from it? Things which make us theologians go “hmmm…”

But then his practical advice about preaching brings back the honest and refreshing tone, as when he recommends against political editorializing from the pulpit: “Nor is it fitting to talk about the latest news in order to awaken people’s interest; we have television programs for that.” (155) Or then there is the practical advice that all us bloggers as well should take to heart: “Simplicity and clarity are two different things. Our language may be simple but our preaching not very clear. It can end up being incomprehensible because it is disorganized, lacks logical progression or tries to deal with too many things at one time.” (158) Ouch!

There is also a touching exhortation to stay on the via pulchritudinis –– to keep beauty as part of the Christian message, bringing my virtual friend Brian Zahnd to mind:

“Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.” (167)

Taken as a dogma, that last bit could be a bit problematic in both directions: If everything beautiful is co-opted as Gospel that could lead to some strange interpretations of art at times; and if “leading to an encounter” becomes the standard for “true beauty” (and stranger things have happened) that could seriously skew one’s aesthetic sense in many cases. But as this is merely an exhortation we probably shouldn’t worry about such doctrinal matters here too much.

But the core of this beautiful message always comes back to loving our neighbor. “The inseparable bond between our acceptance of the message of salvation and genuine fraternal love appears in several scriptural texts which we would do well to meditate upon, in order to fully appreciate all their consequences.” (179)

But as this is getting to be too long for a tasteful homily already, I should probably give Francis’ meditations here on how the Gospel of salvation and the charitable message of “good news to the poor” need to coincide –– together with his various personal disclaimers on the matter –– an entry unto themselves. So I’ll leave off here for now.

Let us pray…

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