How to Think About Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation: Two Views
|Press Conference to Introduce
Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium
Just a day after the release of Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of Faith), there have been many critics: conservatives who fear the theme of change which permeates the document, liberals who fret that he has ruled out the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood, those who worry about the Holy Father’s view of capitalism, and more.
As with interviews of months past, reactions vary to Pope Francis’ first teaching document, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), as you’ve no doubt noticed. It’s over 40,000 words in length, and we who comment — whether on op-ed pages or on Facebook or at the dinner table — each focus on different aspects. As with the America interview that appeared earlier this fall — and as with so many of his messages of God’s mercy, our responsibilities, a loving Father’s radical call for us to live selfless lives in transformative surrender to Him — we can too easily miss the heart of the matter amid a flurry of headlines that affirm or inflame our ideological comfort zones. When we do, we also miss much of the point of the Gospel — the joy, the exhortation, the call, the Christian difference. The point is that we must be challenged. The point is that we must encounter Christ, and daily, and if we do, we must be changed.
In Evangelii Gaudium, in fact, Pope Francis writes:
The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth”. Abraham received the call to set out for a new land (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” (Ex 3:10) and led the people towards the promised land (cf. Ex 3:17). To Jeremiah, God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go” (Jer 1:7). In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth”. Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.
This was so much of the focus of our encuentro in Mexico City, to use a word favored by our three most recent popes. During sessions, we talked about the work of making disciples, communicating with love beyond the audiences — and congregations — bishops, priests, religious, and lay people at the sessions might have most ready access to. In front of the image of herself the Blessed Mother left a Mexican layman, we prayed that we might truly be disciples of her Son, bringing her son to those in pain, in desperation, stuck in routines — that we might be truly apostolic in all our words and works. That we might let Christ be seen through the instruments of our lives.
Back home, in light of exhortations, we jump to clarify and highlight, helping people to feel comfortable or be challenged politically and economically, often overly depending on our political persuasions. Politics is crucial. As Pope Francis points out in the exhortation and elsewhere, it’s noble work, it’s necessary work. Christians may not opt out from politics. We must bring real wisdom to it. We must discern our contributions. We must live examined lives that inform policy debates and keep justice, mercy, and charity all in deliberations.
(In his long texts and interviews, this Jesuit pope keeps dropping practical Ignatian guidance about the inevitable spiritual warfare, about how to let the Satan be conquered. That’s something else to be thankful for — the cornucopia of concrete spiritual guides and witnesses we have as Catholics.)
God is “unpredictable,” our current Holy Father writes in Evangelii Gaudium.
“The Church has to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking,” he continues. We must humble ourselves because God’s will may not be ours and His ways tend not to be as well. We are called to follow and to “patience and disregard for constraints of time” as we evangelize.
Make no mistake about faith, he warns us — it’s not just a safe harbor in a storm, a harmless prayer before a holiday meal. “The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed,” Pope Francis writes.
Pope Francis is clear on life and marriage. He is challenging on politics and economics without fighting against Republicans or Democrats specifically. His position is more transcendent and fundamental. His ardent opposition is to a disposable culture that poisons all debates and is an assault on human dignity, piercing the very heart of God. It’s a culture of death and dismissal, of denial and destruction. It’s beneath us. It’s poisoning us.
The Good News is not only the Good News but that there are laborers; we must labor in prayer, sanctified by sacramental lives of union with the Trinity. As Pope Francis points out early on in Evangelii Gaudium — this fruit of last year’s synod on the New Evangelization in Rome — he means for this to offer guidance and encouragement as Catholics seek to live lives in Divine surrender, drawing the world to His mercy.
In Mexico City, pilgrims are gearing up for the December 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They were doing this even as we met in conference there, weeks before the feast. They show up at the shrine with foot-high (and sometimes two-foot high and larger) statues of Our Blessed Mother. They carry their St. Jude medals and flowers. They leave an offering. They bring home blessed trinkets of remembrance. Some of them, frequently older women (many joined by a son who watches out for them), approach the Blessed Virgin’s image on their knees. Our Lady of Guadalupe roots them to Divine Mercy, to Christian hope, to the salvation and redemption that has been won for us.
She who said “yes” to God’s will helps us say “yes” in our lives. She brings us to her Son. Do we go to her as did the poor of Mexico City or as Catholic leaders — cardinals, bishops, a mother superior, university presidents, journalists, businessmen, the faithful — discussing the New Evangelization? Do we begin and end in prayer and thanksgiving for her intercession? We did there — given the geographic realities of conferencing among pilgrims, as the bishops of the Caribbean and Latin America did when preparing the Aparecida document in which the former Cardinal Bergoglio took a leading role. Do we do this every day?
In his exhortation, Pope Francis offers a brutally cold image in his alerting us to the scandal of our lives, our routinized “discipleship,” our practical atheism. He writes of many pastoral challenges, including “obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.”
He warns of dangers that creep into our Christian and supposedly apostolic lives:
…the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness”. A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions”. Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate. For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization!
Evangelii Gaudium is in many ways a beautiful document. The emphasis upon the Trinity’s most neglected member — the Holy Spirit — in the Church’s life is especially inspiring. Then there are the practical insights about how to breathe life into aspects of the Church’s evangelical outreach that have long been moribund (as in the content-free homilies routinely endured by many Catholics in Western countries). Also helpful for theological reflection, as well as an outline for an agenda of internal reform, are Francis’s comments on how to develop greater collegiality between Rome and what Catholics call the local churches.
For all that, however, important sections of Evangelii Gaudium will strike many Catholics as less than convincing. To be very frank (which Francis himself is always encouraging us to be), a number of claims made by this document and some of the assumptions underlying those statements are rather questionable.
My purpose, however, is to focus upon some of the many economic reflections that loom large throughout Evangelii Gaudium and which are, I’m afraid, very hard to defend. In some cases, they reflect the straw-man arguments about the economy that one encounters far too often in some Catholic circles, especially in Western Europe but also in Latin America.
Prominent among these is the pope’s condemnation of the “absolute autonomy of markets” (202). This, he firmly believes, is at the root of many of our contemporary problems, not least because it helps rationalize an unwillingness to assist those in need.
If, however, we follow Evangelii Gaudium’s injunction (231–233) to look at the realities of the world today, we will soon discover that there is literally no country in which markets operate with “absolute autonomy.”
…as Francis himself writes, “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism” (232). And attention to particular realities about economic life is precisely what’s missing from parts of Evangelii Gaudium’s analysis of wealth and poverty. If we want “the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good” to be more than what the pope calls a “mere addendum” to the pursuit of “true and integral development” (203), then engaging more seriously the economic part of the truth that sets us free would be a good start.
There’s much more. Here are Dr. Gregg’s full reflections on Pope Francis and poverty.