Evangelii Gaudium: Pope Francis rebukes conservative Catholics (part 2)

Quotes from the papal teaching document “Evangelii Gaudium”, with my commentary.

“Works of love directed to one’s neighbor are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit” EG 37

When Pope Francis, earlier this year, commented on the role of good works in salvation, some people accused him of promoting salvation by exterior works. Here, he clarifies that exterior works of mercy and love toward one’s neighbor are an external expression of interior cooperation with grace. To be saved is to be in the state of grace, having the infused virtues of love, faith, hope. Good works are an expression of that interior acceptance of the offer of salvation.

“The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.” EG 38

Pope Francis is speaking about the hierarchy of truths in the Catholic Faith. He is correcting those Catholics, on both the right and the left, who have fallen into a disorder in this way. There are many Catholics who have made their faith revolve around lesser goods and lesser truths.

I see this all the time online in extended discussions among Catholics and in blog posts and the like. The rules of the Church, as understood or misunderstood by the individual, are treated as more important than love or mercy. If the proper order were given to each value, then rules would be flexible based on love and mercy. Instead, a real and full Pharisaism prevails among many Catholics, especially conservatives, in which the proper points of discipline, each point in the form of the Mass, and every rule is treated as an inflexible absolute. This is not in agreement with what Jesus taught.

{6:1} Now it happened that, on the second first Sabbath, as he passed through the grain field, his disciples were separating the ears of grain and eating them, by rubbing them in their hands.
{6:2} Then certain Pharisees said to them, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbaths?”
{6:3} And responding to them, Jesus said: “Have you not read this, what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him?
{6:4} How he entered into the house of God, and took the bread of the Presence, and ate it, and gave it to those who were with him, though it is not lawful for anyone to eat it, except the priests alone?”
{6:5} And he said to them, “For the Son of man is Lord, even of the Sabbath.”

Moreover, these modern-day Pharisees have decided that they are the final arbitrators of truth in the Church. If any rule or point of liturgical form is established by the Church, but contrary to their own views, contrary to the common view in the conservative Catholic subculture, they reject it. But if they like any rule or point of liturgical form, they berate and ridicule anyone with a different view, even a priest. This is the type of disorder that the Pope is referencing.

“Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others…. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options.” EG 39

This happens on both the right and the left today. Certain points of doctrine or discipline become all encompassing, as if the whole religion were about those points. Love of God and neighbor is seldom mentioned. I see this often on conservative and traditionalist blogs. It’s all about the form of the Mass, the use of Latin, the preservation of past exterior forms. Truly, this is one type of Pharisaism about which Jesus warned us. They say: “Save the liturgy, save the world.”

The Pope corrects this type of disordered ideology by pointing out the hierarchy of truths. It’s not that liturgical form is unimportant, but rather that the liturgy must be subservient to love and mercy. Yet if anyone proposes points of liturgical form, or flexibility in that form, apart from what the conservative Catholic subculture as approved, he is treated with contempt and ridicule — and this by priests and by laypersons who profess to be devout believers. At the same time, they rarely mention Jesus Christ or Sacred Scripture or the love of neighbor. Love of God and neighbor saves. The liturgy is good and holy. But adherence to exact points of liturgical form are not the salvation of the world.

“The Church…needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth. It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help ‘the judgment of the Church to mature’…. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.” EG 40

Here again the Pope is rebuking conservative Catholics. I agree with the Pope’s assessment and correction. The idea that everything should stay the same is a foundational assumption of the most conservative Catholics. But it is a false assumption. The development of doctrine in the Church is based on the progressive increase in understanding of Divine Revelation. Truths do not change, but our understanding of truth deepens and widens. This process necessarily includes the openness of the faithful to be corrected by the Pope and the Magisterium.

Already, I see in the reaction to this Apostolic Exhortation among conservatives a complete unwillingness to accept correction. Whenever any exegete or theologian proposes any understanding different from that of the conservative Catholic subculture, the conservative rejects that idea. If the Pope himself expresses any idea contrary to their own views, it is rejected immediately. The conservative Catholic subculture has decided that It is above the Pope, that It has the role to judge him and his words, to condemn anything and everything that he might say or do that displeases them or conflicts with their ideas. The grudgingly admit that the Pope is able to teach infallibly, rarely. But they speak and act as if all of their own ideas and assumptions are entirely infallible. For they accept correction from no one — not from an Ecumenical Council, and not from the Pope.

Pope Francis is within his right and duty as the Shepherd and Teacher of the universal Church to teach and correct all Christians. Being conservative and attending the Latin form of the Mass does not give you a role above the Pope to judge him, nor does it exempt you from the obligation to accept his teaching and correction.

“we will never be able to make the Church’s teachings easily understood or readily appreciated by everyone. Faith always remains something of a cross; it retains a certain obscurity which does not detract from the firmness of its assent. Some things are understood and appreciated only from the standpoint of this assent, which is a sister to love, beyond the level of clear reasons and arguments.” EG 42

I see the fault that the Pope is correcting frequently online among Catholics. In explaining their understanding of the Faith, they over-simplify everything. They present the entire Faith as if it is easily understood and explained, as if there can be no differences of opinion on open questions, and as if they themselves understand it all in an absolute and complete manner. I think they behave this way so that they can avoid the cross of the Faith, which includes adhering to truths that are taught by the Magisterium, without a complete understanding of those truths by their own reason. They wish to “own” and in some sense control the faith. And they wish to present themselves to others as teacher who know it all, rather than as seekers of truth who are on a pilgrim journey. The vast oversimplification of the Faith is a way for them to accomplish these selfish goals.

This attitude is found particularly among many (not all) conservative Catholics. They have over-simplified the Faith so that they can own and control it, so that they can present themselves as the rulers of their own religion — even to the extent that they speak about the Pope with great condescension, judging all that he says and does, and refusing to accept him as a Teacher or Shepherd over them. They are lost sheep. And when the shepherd seeks their return, they bite him and flee. They prefer to be lost, because being found means humbly accepting correction from the Church. They prefer a version of the Church that they design and control.

“In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives.” EG 43

Again, the Pope is correcting some errors commonly found among conservatives. Are you one of the persons the Pope is correcting? Here’s a simple thought experiment to find out. Suppose that the Pope decrees that the Latin Mass (TLM) is no longer to be said by any Catholic priest in the world. But this same Latin Mass continues to be said by a schismatic group. Would you attend Mass at your local parish, or join the schismatics? If the latter, then you are not a faithful Catholic. You are a Pharisee who values the exterior acts, such as the exterior form of the Mass, more than obedience to the Church and love of the true Faith.

Deep historical roots and inherent beauty of form and undeniable usefulness still cannot exalt exterior ritual above the higher truths of love and mercy. And yet this is exactly what many traditionalist or conservative Catholics are openly proposing. They speak frequently of exterior form, with absolute inflexible insistence on every point. They seldom mention the love of God and neighbor. They treat their neighbor, who disagrees with them on any point of exterior form or rule or matter of changeable discipline, with great contempt and ridicule.

“Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation ‘so as not to burden the lives of the faithful’ and make our religion a form of servitude, whereas ‘God’s mercy has willed that we should be free’.” EG 43

Pope Francis quotes St. Thomas, who himself cites St. Augustine, that the exterior precepts of the Church should be few, and they should not be insisted and imposed with inflexible excess, but with moderation and flexibility. But as I said, there is a growing group of traditionalists, fed by certain bloggers and commentators online, who have set themselves above correction by the Pope.

“There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself ‘the door’: baptism.” EG 47

The Pope has elsewhere suggested that baptism be made available to children whose parents are living in a way that is incompatible with Catholic teaching on grave matters of morality. Baptism is the ordinary door of salvation, the beginning of the path of salvation.

“More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe….” EG 49

This passage again corrects errors found among conservatives, who over-emphasize rules and exterior disciplines, and who judge harshly all who disagree with their over-simplified and distorted version of Catholicism. This harsh judgment reaches an apex in those conservatives who claim that most non-Catholics are going to Hell, who go so far as to claim that most Catholics or even most Catholic priests are going to Hell. They judge and condemn, in direct contradiction to the teaching of Jesus. The Lord’s teaching has been replaced in their hearts and minds with rules, exterior habits, and a rejection of all that is different from themselves.

Next, the Pope offers some observations and commentary on modern society:

“We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.” EG 52

I see the abuse of this power of anonymous communication, by Catholics, daily on the internet. Under cover of anonymity, they teach heresy and error, while claiming it is Church teaching or sound theology. Under cover of anonymity, they speak with open malice against all who disagree with them. Many sins against religion are being committed by Catholics online, while hiding behind a pseudonym.

“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” EG 54

It is absurd to speak as if the free market, unregulated by law or government, will solve all economic problems and treat all persons with respect and dignity. This view, which is not uncommon today among conservative commentators, is a form of idolatry; the free market and capitalism are treated as if they were the savior of humanity. To the contrary, capitalism and free markets can be helpful, if regulated by the compassion of the individual, by government oversight, and if complemented by non-profit and other altruistic endeavors.

“The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose…. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule…. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.” EG 55, 56, 58

How true!

“no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility” EG 59

The Pope subtly expresses his objection to the excesses of NSA surveillance.

“These religious movements, not without a certain shrewdness, come to fill, within a predominantly individualistic culture, a vacuum left by secularist rationalism.” EG 63

The Pope first criticizes “the proliferation of new religious movements, some of which tend to fundamentalism while others seem to propose a spirituality without God.” Then he notes that these movements fill the void left by a secular tendency toward rationalism without faith. Pope Francis is here criticizing non-Catholic and non-Christian religions, as well as belief systems that lack faith in God entirely. So it is not true that the Pope propose an equality of all religions or all belief systems. There may be some good in other belief systems, but the Catholic Christian faith is preeminent.

After criticizing the moral relativism of secular society and its influence on us all, the Pope says:

“In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.” EG 64

This lack of maturity in understanding and applying moral values is found among many Catholics. But it is particularly disturbing to me when I see Catholics online, teaching other Catholics grave errors on morality along with the claim that this is official Catholic teaching or at least sound theology. Very many ignorant and arrogant Catholics have decided to become online anonymous teachers, and they are harming many souls by rejecting critical thinking and mature moral values, and by teaching grave moral errors.

“Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will.” EG 66

Pope Francis is entirely orthodox in his teaching on faith and morals. So when he offers you correction for your own errors and misunderstandings, why don’t you accept it? How is it that so many Catholics online have been speaking about this Apostolic Exhortation as if it were a mere opinion, deserving of less respect than their own opinion? They speak as if the Pope himself has no authority over them, but as if they have the role to judge his every word and action.

“we cannot fail to acknowledge what the Holy Spirit is sowing. It would show a lack of trust in his free and unstinting activity to think that authentic Christian values are absent where great numbers of people have received baptism and express their faith and solidarity with others in a variety of ways.” EG 68

The Pope is acknowledging the good in non-Catholic Christian communities and the good influence that Christian values have had on even secular society.

“It is imperative to evangelize cultures in order to inculturate the Gospel.” EG 69

Today, it is evident that sinful secular culture is exerting more influence on Catholics than they are exerting on the culture. The holy Pontiff would like the opposite to be true. We must evangelize secular society, and not retreat into a separate enclave that complains bitterly about society and does nothing to change it.

“In the case of the popular cultures of Catholic peoples, we can see deficiencies which need to be healed by the Gospel: machismo, alcoholism, domestic violence, low Mass attendance, fatalistic or superstitious notions which lead to sorcery, and the like.” EG 69

In ancient times, some peoples practiced idolatry by worshipping literal idols of stone or wood. In modern times, a form of idolatry continues in which the idols are figurative; our idols are money, sex, fame, power, etc. Similarly, the literal sorcery condemned by the Old Testament has been replaced in modern times by a figurative sorcery. Some persons have developed various superstitions. They say “the Universe is trying to tell me something” or “the Universe will take care of that”, or they speak about “karma” meaning a type of automatic justice imposed, not by God or society, but by the world itself. These are modern superstitions. The modern forms of figurative sorcery include the rise of New Age beliefs and practices, crystals though to have powers, the rise of Wiccan beliefs and practices, and similar substitutions for true religion.

In addition, I would say that certain claimed private revelations, which teach heresy and attempt to draw Catholics away from the Church, offer a figurative type of sorcery. They institute new practices, rituals, and prayers with foolish wording. They claim to offer protection from evil by these means. And they present false signs and wonders, from fallen angels, in order to try to convince Catholics to adhere to the visionary and his or her messages, instead of the Church and Her teaching.

“It is also true that at times greater emphasis is placed on the outward expressions and traditions of some groups, or on alleged private revelations which would replace all else, than on the impulse of Christian piety. There is a kind of Christianity made up of devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life which does not in fact correspond to authentic ‘popular piety’. Some people promote these expressions while not being in the least concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity, and in certain cases they do so in order to obtain economic benefits or some power over others.” EG 70

It is likely that Pope Francis will soon issue specific condemnations of many different claimed private revelations. I myself have written many articles pointing out the heresies and other errors of various claimed private revelations. It is true that people gravitate toward false private revelations because they offer a simplistic and sentimental substitute for a true life of faith. And, yes, the promoters of these false private revelations benefit by obtaining much money as well as power over others.

“In their daily lives people must often struggle for survival and this struggle contains within it a profound understanding of life which often includes a deep religious sense. We must examine this more closely in order to enter into a dialogue like that of our Lord and the Samaritan woman at the well where she sought to quench her thirst (cf. Jn 4:1-15).” EG 72

Pope Francis is teaching us that we can find God at work in persons who are not Catholic, who do not agree with us on various important matters of faith and morals, just as Jesus found faith in the Samaritan woman.

I plan to continue this commentary on Evangelii Gaudium to a total of 8 parts. This post is part 2.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

The Catechism of Catholic Ethics
is now available in print (paperback, 752 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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2 Responses to Evangelii Gaudium: Pope Francis rebukes conservative Catholics (part 2)

  1. George says:

    In regards to different religions how does the Catholic faith regard 12 step programs which claim they can have any “god” for their higher power or even “rational” is god. and have a seem to have disdain for any teachings on morals that is not directly related to drinking or other addiction problem they may have. Some one discussed this with me and I told them it was a false religion. Was I wrong?

    • Ron Conte says:

      A 12 step program is not a religion. They are simply accommodating a wide range of religious beliefs in a program aimed at helping people with a particular problem.

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