14 March 2014

An Observation on Evangelii Gaudium

One of the greatest challenges facing Catholics in the modern world is to communicate with that world in a language it understands. When Jorge Bergoglio became Pope, then, the world's media provided Catholic pundits everywhere with an extraordinary teaching opportunity. Among the questions that came up time and time again were 'why do popes take papal names?' and 'why did Jorge Bergoglio taken the name "Francis"?'

Papal names, it was explained, are something like mission statements – they give a sign as to the direction or flavour the new pope hopes his papacy will have. In calling himself ‘Francis’, then, Jorge Bergoglio harked back to St Francis of Assisi and seemed to be saying that his would be a papacy of simplicity, renewal, and outreach; he wanted a Church that was ‘fit for mission’.

Evangelii Gaudium, then, should be regarded as a general programme for how that mission should be conducted, with simplicity, renewal, and outreach being central to the programme. For Francis, missionary outreach is ‘paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity’, and we are called on to go beyond ‘a pastoral ministry of mere conservation’ to ‘a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry’.

The first chapter of Evangelii Gaudium is devoted to what Francis terms ‘The Church’s Missionary Transformation’, and section three of this chapter, entitled ‘From the Heart of the Gospel’ could almost be subtitled ‘Context is King’.  

Francis begins by saying that in today’s world of globalised rolling media and social communications, what we say runs a great risk of being distorted and reduced to its secondary aspects; it is hard to read this without thinking of how his September 2013 interview for America and other Jesuit periodicals had been reported. 12,000 words long, it was reduced for many in the world’s media to a small number of soundbites, some of which, especially in a section America headed ‘The Church as Field Hospital’, are echoed word for word in this part of Evangelii Gaudium.

Perhaps the most famous of these soundbites, other than ‘I am no one to judge,’ is: ‘We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.’

It was hard, in September, to find a newspaper that didn’t feature this line alongside some comment to the effect that the Church was about to put aside or rethink its antiquated moral teaching. But was Francis really saying that priests shouldn’t talk about these things? Clearly not, given that the interview had hardly been published before Pope Francis addressed a gathering of Catholic doctors, saying, ‘Each child that is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the Lord.’ Indeed, it seems Pope Francis has made at least ten public statements in defence of the unborn since becoming Pope, including in Evangelii Gaudium itself.

So what’s going on? The key, as Pope Francis explained in his September interview, is context; ‘when we speak about these issues,’ he said, ‘we have to do so in a context’.

When we speak about emotional or controversial issues, old and new media alike are prone to leap on them, tearing them from the context in which they should be expressed, and making it seem as though our message is primarily – even exclusively – about these issues. This makes it all the more important, then, for Christians to show how these issues, even though not themselves central to Christ’s message, nonetheless are clear and unavoidable applications of Christ’s message. We’re called upon to show how our teaching on what we might call ‘neuralgic’ issues – those issues that strike a nerve – comes straight from the heart of the Gospel, and how the truths we hold form a single coherent whole, rather than a disjointed and unstable multitude of doctrine.

We have to be realistic, says Pope Francis. We can’t assume that our audience – and here he does not merely mean the relatively captive audience in the pews, although he certainly does mean them, but rather all those to whom we are called to reach, including our workmates, our families, and our friends – understands the unity, the sense, and the love that lies at the heart of our faith.

Time is short, and so when engaging in missionary pastoral ministry we have to prioritise, focusing on the ‘most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary’ essentials of Christian teaching. If people can encounter the love of Christ, then they can be led to understand what that love means… which among other things entails seeing each of us, however vulnerable, as unique fellow human beings, bearing the Image of God.

Prioritising in this way shouldn’t be seen as an impossible task, let alone a betrayal of the Gospel; ours is a unified faith, but it is also a hierarchical one. Francis cites the Second Vatican Council’s decree on Ecumenism, which reminds theologians that when discussing doctrines with our separated brethren, ‘they should remember that in Catholic teaching there exists an order or “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith.’

Francis also devotes a paragraph to St Thomas’s explanation of the hierarchy of virtues, noting that for Thomas mercy was the greatest of the virtues. ‘Mercy,’ it’s worth noting, was identified by veteran Vaticanista John Allen last August as likely to be the watchword of this papacy: it is a word Francis returns to time and again, his motto meaning ‘by having mercy, by choosing him’, saying in his first homily at St Ann’s that the Lord’s strongest message is one of mercy, and in his inflight press conference after World Youth Day calling the present day a ‘kairos ' – a divinely appointed moment – 'of mercy’.

It is important for draw out the pastoral consequences of the Church’s teaching, says Francis, and in this light ‘mercy’ must not be confused with leniency. In his September interview, for instance, he spoke of mercy as being at the heart of the Gospel, with confession being the sacrament of mercy and confessors being ‘ministers of mercy’, explaining the need for confessors to take responsibility for their penitents as people. Neither excessive rigour nor excessive laxity does this, he said, and as such both are lacking in true mercy.

‘The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, “This is not a sin” or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.’

The crucial point to understand, then, is that our faith is a unified whole, in which no truth can be denied, and in which all truths must be expressed in proportion to their proximity to the heart of the Gospel, that being the saving mercy and love of Christ. Context is, if you like, not just king, but King of Kings.

We should speak of law, but we should speak even more of grace; we should speak of the Church, but we should speak even more of Christ; we should indeed speak about the Pope, but we should speak much, much more of the word of God. Above all, the Gospel should encourage us to respond to God, seeing God in others and reaching out to seek the good of others.

If we forget this, then we risk presenting the moral teaching of the Church not as the natural application of the heart of the Gospel and God’s saving love, but as a disjointed multitude of pet doctrines, emphasised differently from priest to priest. If we do this, we undermine the Church’s teaching, and drive others either to reject it as something stale or else to follow suit and pick from it themselves as though from an ideological buffet. We have a duty, then, to prevent people from thinking the Church's moral teaching as no more structurally sound than a house of cards, and can do this if only we present the Church's teaching in its entirety, showing it to be a well-built house founded on solid rock.

GD, Cork, 28 January.

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