Evangelii Gaudium: Pope Francis rebukes conservative Catholics (part 5)

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

Pope Francis teaches that we should have a “holy fear” when attempting to interpret or preach from Sacred Scripture, “lest we distort it.” EG 146

The Pope instructs preachers at Mass (Bishops, priests, deacons) to focus the homily on the Scripture reading, and, moreover, to emphasize the “central message” of that passage. “The central message is what the author primarily wanted to communicate….” EG 147

He also says “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 employed to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions….” EG 147

However, he is speaking in the context of a homily during Mass. This instruction is not a prohibition on Biblical exegetes and theologians, preventing them from using certain Bible passage to correct errors, teach doctrine, or expound a theological opinion. His words apply to the homily at Mass, not to all efforts to interpret the Bible at all times.

[2 Timothy]
{3:16} All Scripture, having been divinely inspired, is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in justice….

“Jesus was angered by those supposed teachers who demanded much of others, teaching God’s word but without being enlightened by it: ‘They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves will not lift a finger to move them’ (Mt 23:4).” EG 150

This assertion is a rebuke of certain conservative Catholics, who claim that only a very specific version of the Mass is most pleasing to God, and who interpret every doctrine of faith and morals in such a severe manner as to claim that everyone but themselves is a heretic on the path to Hell. They see themselves as an enlightened minority, and elite Church within the Church, who alone have preserved the true faith against the distortions and corrupt disciplines supposedly introduced since Vatican II. Are you one such person? If you see yourself as judge over Pope Francis and all his words, then perhaps you are. If you see yourself as a disciple and student of Pope Francis, then perhaps you are not.

I have noticed a certain reaction to this document by some conservative Catholics. They treat its contents as mere opinion, and an opinion that is of lesser value and insight than their own ideas. When the Pope expresses any idea that conflicts with their own thoughts, they first look for a way to distort the meaning to agree with their own point of view. They look for a way to re-translate the text. They look for a way to radically re-interpret the text. And if this fails, then they simply state that the Pope is wrong. He must be wrong, they think to themselves. For when his teaching does not agree with their own understanding, what other possibility is there? These arrogant persons have so exalted their own thoughts that if any Pope or Council dares to disagree, they do not think for even one moment that they themselves might be wrong.

The assert that a Conciliar or Papal teaching contradicts Tradition or Scripture or past magisterial teachings. And since Tradition and Scripture cannot err, and some of these past magisterial teachings are dogmas, they can’t figure out any other possibility than that Vatican II, or a Pope, as erred. Is it not possible that what they think to be the teaching of Tradition or Scripture or the Magisterium is simply their own misunderstanding? Perhaps because the conservative Catholic subculture agrees with and reinforces their own views, they reject the idea that they might have misunderstood. In this way, they replace Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium with the conservative Catholic subculture and with their own thinking.

Is not the Magisterium, including that of the current Pope, the authoritative interpreter of Tradition and Scripture and past magisterial teachings? But they don’t accept the authority of the Pope and the Magisterium. They have replaced that authority to interpret Divine Revelation and past teachings of the Church with their own pretended authority, based on their self-identification as traditionalists or conservatives, whose self-appointed role is to preserve the true faith.

As for myself: I have never found any errors in the documents of Vatican II. When I read those documents, I perceive the subtle yet profound wisdom of the Holy Spirit. I do not consider those documents to be vague, or ambiguous, or poorly-written. I regard each Pope, including those since the opening of Vatican II, as my Teacher and my Guide, as the true Vicar of Christ, appointed by God. I am a conservative CATHOLIC, not a CONSERVATIVE catholic. Some of the teachings of Jesus Christ are liberal, some are moderate, some are conservative. I accept all teachings of Jesus and His Church regardless of whether they are liberal, moderate, or conservative. Can you say the same?

“The Holy Spirit, who inspired the word, ‘today, just as at the beginning of the Church, acts in every evangelizer who allows himself to be possessed and led by him. The Holy Spirit places on his lips the words which he could not find by himself ‘ “. EG 151

So it is also with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the teachings of all the Popes since that time (and beforehand, of course). The teachings of the Magisterium are guided by the Holy Spirit. The non-infallible teachings are guided by the Holy Spirit and protected from any grave error that would lead us away from the path of salvation. The infallible teachings are guided by the Holy Spirit and protected from all error. And that guidance and protection did not cease with Vatican II, and it is just as effective with liberal Popes as with conservative Popes.

“Otherwise we can easily make the text say what we think is convenient, useful for confirming us in our previous decisions, suited to our own patterns of thought. Ultimately this would be tantamount to using something sacred for our own benefit and then passing on this confusion to God’s people.” EG 152

Pope Francis is criticizing a certain approach to the text of Sacred Scripture. But his words apply precisely and profoundly to the reaction of conservative Catholics to this very document (EG). I see this again and again on different conservative Catholic blogs and forums. Numerous persons are attempting to radically re-interpret and even re-translate the text, so that they can confirm their own previous decisions on every topic, and can make the text agree with their own thoughts. In this way, they reject Pope Francis as their Teacher and Guide. In this way, they reject the Church and the Magisterium. For they only allow themselves to be guided by their own minds and by the conservative Catholic subculture.

“When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make.” EG 153

There it is again. What the Pope describes as common temptation when reacting to Scripture also applies as common temptation when reacting to a teaching of the Pope. And this is particularly true if you see yourself as a liberal and the current Pope is a conservative, or vice versa. Conservatives are reacting to the teaching of Pope Francis by feeling troubled, turning away, applying the text only to others (liberals), and avoiding applying its corrections to themselves and to the conservative Catholic subculture with which they identify.

In n. 145 to 159, Pope Francis gives his advice on how to prepare and delivers a homily. He sets a high standard, toward which all preachers should strive.

“Evangelization aims at a process of growth which entails taking seriously each person and God’s plan for his or her life. All of us need to grow in Christ.” EG 160

There is an explicit acknowledgement in this document of the failings often found in the clergy and their need for constant change and growth. The resistance to self-examination, self-criticism and change for the better is contrary to the customary attitudes of liberals and conservatives alike. Sinful secular society has taught us to exalt our own opinions and ideas above all else, and to argue incessantly on our own behalf, as well as to never admit weakness or the need for correction and improvement. But we cannot be faithful Catholics, nor effective evangelizers without this correction and change.

“the priest – like every other member of the Church – ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized” EG 164

What is said here of priests is true of all us fallen sinners, we Catholics are each continually in need of evangelization. But so often I see a different attitude among conservative and traditionalist Catholics. They never admit even the possibility that the conservative Catholic subculture has misunderstood a point of doctrine, or that they themselves may be in need of correction, of a broader and more profound understanding of Catholic teaching. The see the traditionalist version of Catholicism, such as it exists in their own minds and in the minds of persons like themselves, as the absolute measuring stick by which all others should be judged and even condemned. Anyone who disagrees with the traditionalist answer to any question is assumed to be in the wrong — even a Pope or Council. They are entirely unaware of their own failings, misunderstandings, and need for evangelization.

“it [proclaiming the good news] has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical. All this demands on the part of the evangelizer certain attitudes which foster openness to the message: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental.” EG 165

Pope Francis is criticizing faults that are often found among conservatives: their emphasis on doctrine as a philosophical formulation, rather than as an expression of the love of God which transforms us; their closed attitude toward correction and development of doctrine; their lack of approachability and tendency to replace dialogue with a presentation of every idea as if it were a dogma; their impatient and negative judgment toward all who disagree.

“a renewed appreciation of the liturgical signs of Christian initiation. Many manuals and programmes have not yet taken sufficiently into account the need for a mystagogical renewal, one which would assume very different forms based on each educational community’s discernment.” EG 166

The term mystagogic refers to a person entering a mystery. Pope Francis is proposing a renewal of the liturgy, especially the Mass, which would allow for many different liturgical forms, based on each community’s discernment. He is suggesting, again, that the Latin Mass is often ineffective at reaching many individuals because it imposes on them one form only for expression of religious devotion and the worship of God.

I perceive that this document of Pope Francis is not merely a teaching document; it is a roadmap. It is an explanation to the whole Church of the reasons for the changes that he will next bring to the Church: changes to the form of the Mass, a multiplicity of approved liturgical forms, the ability of Bishops and perhaps individual pastors and celebrants to vary the form ad libitum. When these changes are approved by the Pope, he can point to this document as the explanation.

Pope Francis is right to reject the traditionalist proposal for liturgical form, which speaks as if there should be one form only, inflexible in every detail, so that all who are present at Mass, from priest and deacon to the humblest child should be entirely controlled in their exterior expression of devotion to God.

I see this Pharisaical attitude expressed again and again in online blogs and forums. The traditionalist is adamant that everyone must adhere to the proper form of the Mass. But he or she never allows the Church to determine that form. If any Bishop, or Bishops’ Conference, or Pope, or Ecumenical Council contradicts the conservative Catholic subculture in its pseudo-dogmatic proclamation of what is supposedly proper liturgical form, on any point whatsoever, then the Church is considered to have gone astray.

The Pharisees of ancient times exalted exterior form above love and mercy, just as the traditionalist do today. The Pharisees of ancient times distorted doctrine, making it seem as if they were an elite and privileged few, and all others had gone astray, just as the traditionalists do today. And yet none of these modern-day Pharisees perceives that Jesus was speaking about them when He rebuked the errors of the Pharisees.

I think that Pope Francis is going to greatly restrict the use of the Latin Mass, and at the same time permit many changes to the Mass. There will be a multiplicity of liturgical forms, and individual priests will be allowed to make changes to the prayers and to the form of the Mass, as they see fit. The most conservative Catholics, who promote the Latin Mass (Vetus Ordo) and disdain the Novus Ordo will be outraged. They long ago ceased to consider the Pope to be their Teacher and Guide.

Then Pope Francis will approve of the ordination of women deacons, and perhaps also appoint women Cardinals. He might also teach that non-Christian believers and non-believers can be saved without converting to belief in God, to Christianity, to Catholicism.

Then many conservative Catholics, who have spent many years developing their unfaithfulness and self-exaltation, will formally depart from the Church. This event is the start of the great apostasy. Conservative Catholics have long imagined that the great apostasy would involve only liberal Catholics departing from the Church. For they are ever unwilling to see their own faults and accept correction.

“We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others.” EG 167

I’ve lost count now of the number of times that Pope Francis present to us a principle, a concern, or a value, which supports flexibility in liturgical form, a multiplicity of approved forms, and perhaps the ability of the celebrant to vary the form ad hoc and ad libitum. I’m convinced that EG is going to become the cornerstone of a set of changes that the Pope will bring to the Church, including changes to the Mass. Traditionalists who exalt every point of exterior ritual from the Latin Mass as above all else will be dismayed and outraged.

“Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.” EG 168

The phrasing “dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation” seems more applicable to the conservative approach to the Faith, which sees every minor deviation from any ancient formula or discipline as a threat. The Pope does not agree. We must emphasize the beauty of moral goodness and the joy of a moral life.

“Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom…. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father.” EG 170

Pope Francis is here criticizing one of the errors found among some Catholics on the left. They lose the perspective of the scale of values. The value of the other person becomes distorted, so that grave sins are ignored or justified, in the name of compassion and understanding. EG offers many corrections to the faithful, on the left and the right. But neither side is willing to accept correction.

{23:37} Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who have been sent to you. How often I have wanted to gather your children together, in the way that a hen gathers her young under her wings. But you were not willing!
{23:38} Behold, your house shall be abandoned to you, having been deserted.

Yes, the great apostasy will empty the churches; only a small percentage of Catholic faithful will still attend Mass and remain with the true Church. First, conservative Catholics will depart — once Pope Francis puts into effect the recipe for Church reform in EG. Second, liberal Catholics will depart — once the conservative successor of Pope Francis comes to office and rebukes liberal errors. The unwillingness of both sides to accept the Church as a Mother and Teacher, and their willingness to figuratively stone any Church leader who is sent by God to correct them, is the cause of this abandonment of the house of God.

“Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders.” EG 171

This assertion can be applied to liturgical form, thereby justifying a multiplicity of forms and a flexibility whereby the celebrant can vary the form, ad hoc and ad libitum.

“The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).” EG 172

Well said. We judge the action, not the person.

“Consequently, we need to be constantly trained in hearing the word. The Church does not evangelize unless she constantly lets herself be evangelized. It is indispensable that the word of God ‘be ever more fully at the heart of every ecclesial activity’.” EG 174

From my point of view, many of the most conservative Catholics no longer allow themselves to be taught by Sacred Scripture, nor to be evangelized by the Pope or the Magisterium or the Church. They have accepted an over-simplified and distorted version of Catholicism, in which every understanding and misunderstanding is set in stone. Anyone who disagrees is rejected out of hand. They accept no teaching unless it merely repeats and acknowledges what they already know (or think that they know).

“To evangelize is to make the kingdom of God present in our world. Yet ‘any partial or fragmentary definition which attempts to render the reality of evangelization in all its richness, complexity and dynamism does so only at the risk of impoverishing it and even of distorting it’. I would now like to share my concerns about the social dimension of evangelization, precisely because if this dimension is not properly brought out, there is a constant risk of distorting the authentic and integral meaning of the mission of evangelization.” EG 176

I see this error innumerable times in online expressions of the Catholic Faith. In order to promote a particular point of view, or to seem to know the Faith very well, or to refute someone else’s point of view, the individual believer presents an over-simplification of doctrine, or morals, or discipline, or prudential judgment. The richness, complexity, and dynamism of the Faith is rejected for various selfish reasons. It seems to me that the most common reason is that the individual wishes to present himself or herself as understanding the whole Faith and being able to answer all questions.

This self-exaltation by means of religion has always been a danger. But it reaches new heights of absurdity with online commentators who are anonymous, and yet who present themselves as pseudo-authoritative teachers of the entire Catholic Faith. And if anyone disagrees, they respond with anger, malice, and personal attacks — all while claiming to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So when Pope Francis uses words like partial, fragmentary, impoverishing, and distorting, he is speaking with mildness and restraint. Much harm is being done to evangelization by anonymous online teacher who lead the weak away from the true Faith, by teaching grave doctrinal error, while claiming that these errors are Church teaching or sound theology.

“we cannot achieve fulfillment or salvation purely by our own efforts.” EG 178

Again, Pope Francis makes a clear and unequivocal statement that refutes a false accusation made against him in the recent past (that he believes in salvation by works). We absolutely cannot be saved merely by our own works, our own efforts. However, as all faithful Catholics should already know, the unmerited and undeserved offer of salvation from Christ requires us to become like Him, and therefore to love our neighbor in word and deed.

“the first proclamation, which invites us to receive God’s love and to love him in return with the very love which is his gift” EG 178

Similarly, this assertion shows that the Pope also rejects any form of pelagianism, in which our good works could stand on their own apart from grace and still have eternal value. Our possession and exercise of virtue are themselves the gift of God’s grace.

“Reading the Scriptures also makes it clear that the Gospel is not merely about our personal relationship with God. Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of ‘charity à la carte’, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world.” EG 180

I plan to continue this commentary on Evangelii Gaudium to a total of 8 parts. This post is part 5.

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

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