Evangelii Gaudium: Pope Francis rebukes conservative Catholics (part 6)

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

“This is the principle of universality intrinsic to the Gospel, for the Father desires the salvation of every man and woman, and his saving plan consists in ‘gathering up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ (Eph 1:10).” EG 181

Pope Francis states the long-standing universal salvific will of God, who desires the salvation of all. But he also applies its universality such that the Gospel should be directed at the whole person, the totality of his life experiences, and society as well. For when we accept and live the Gospel, our whole lives are affected, in every aspect.

“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven.” EG 182

The universality of the Gospel contradicts the common view in secular society that religion should be private and should remain separate from politics, work, and social interaction within a pluralistic society.

“At the same time, it [the Church’s social thought] unites ‘its own commitment to that made in the social field by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, whether at the level of doctrinal reflection or at the practical level’ ” EG 183

The Pope’s respect for other Christian and non-Christian religions is evident here. We must stand united with other believers, as much as possible given our differences of doctrine.

“With due respect for the autonomy and culture of every nation, we must never forget that the planet belongs to all mankind and is meant for all mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.” EG 190

Pope Francis speaks at length about our obligation to help the poor and needy of the world. His perspective is very broad, in contrast to many conservatives, who seem to think only of preserving the old and rebuffing the new, within the Church. Instead, Pope Francis invites us to show concern for all mankind, and to direct our prayers and concrete efforts toward those in greatest need, even in distant lands, including non-Christians an non-Catholics.

I perceive in this concern for all humanity an inkling of the salvation theology of Pope Francis: not only that the Gospel is to be preached to the whole world, but also that non-Christians and unbelievers can possibly be saved without converting.

“We incarnate the duty of hearing the cry of the poor when we are deeply moved by the suffering of others. Let us listen to what God’s word teaches us about mercy, and allow that word to resound in the life of the Church.” EG 193

Outreach to those in need is an expression of mercy and love of neighbor. Showing mercy to others also atones for sin. Works of love of neighbor are a very effective type of penance that remits temporal punishment due for our sins.

“We should not be concerned simply about falling into doctrinal error, but about remaining faithful to this light-filled path of life and wisdom. For ‘defenders of orthodoxy are sometimes accused of passivity, indulgence, or culpable complicity regarding the intolerable situations of injustice and the political regimes which prolong them’.” EG 194

Here again, Pope Francis is speaking about the most conservative Catholics. He chides them for being concerned about doctrinal error to the exclusion of love and mercy toward those in need. He calls conservative Catholics “defenders of orthodoxy” — at best, we conservative Catholics are foot soldiers in defense of orthodox doctrine. But at worst, many conservatives distort doctrine and teach grave errors, under the guise of defense of orthodoxy. And some conservatives go so far as to cast aside even the attempt to defend orthodoxy. Instead, all they defend is exterior points of discipline, old versions of liturgical form, and ancient dogmatic formulas without the understanding that is born of love.

“Sometimes we prove hard of heart and mind; we are forgetful, distracted and carried away by the limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society.” EG 196

Sinful secular society makes it difficult to present the Gospel to those most in need of its loving message.

“This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.” EG 198

Pope Francis intends to reform the Church. He wants the Church to become poor, and to serve the poor, and to learn from the poor. And his view of the new evangelization is for those who consider themselves to be the leaders of the Church, or who consider themselves to be defending orthodoxy (or fending off change), or who consider that Catholicism is identical to their own personal limited understanding, the Pope’s view is for them to learn from the poor.

Too often — I see this all the time online — each Catholic presents himself or herself as understanding the Faith perfectly and as teaching it dogmatically. There is no desire to learn, must less to accept correction from other Catholics. And this self-centered version of Catholicism, which is thriving in the social media of the internet (a form of media that both connects us to others and separates us from them), does not wish to learn from the poor. Some of the online teachers of Catholicism are even unwilling to learn from the Pope, or from a Council or from the Magisterium. They have become a Magisterium unto themselves and a Church unto themselves. Outwardly, they profess to serve Jesus Christ, but inwardly, they only worship themselves.

Right now, such persons have responded to the words of Pope Francis in a few different ways. They repeat his words triumphantly, whenever he says something that agrees with their own views. They ignore much of what he says that constitutes a correction to them. And they re-translate and radically re-interpret his words, so that they can claim to have already understood and accepted what they claim he is saying.

Some conservatives have responded to this papal document with condescension. They note that the Pope’s opinion is different from their own, and then they explain, in a matter of fact manner, why the Pope is wrong. They do not consider for even a moment that they might be the ones who are mistaken.

But I see this papal document as a roadmap for the future of Pope Francis’ pontificate. He will begin to make changes to the Church, and those conservatives who ignore him, or radically re-interpret his meaning, will no longer be able to do so. Pope Francis says: ” I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us.” But this approach is not favored by a certain type of conservative Catholic, such as is described and criticized by the Pope in different sections of this document. When his words become actions, they will depart from the Church. For they did not accept the correction that Jesus Christ offered them, through the Pope, in this document.

“This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, and in their ways of living the faith.” EG 199

And it entails appreciating all the truth and goodness found in non-Catholic Christianity, in non-Christian religions, in non-theistic belief systems, and in the lives of agnostics and atheists. Pope Francis’ teaching on salvation theology is going to be one of the points of major conflict between the Pope and the conservative Catholic subculture (which has slowly usurped the Magisterium).

“Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation. Only this will ensure that ‘in every Christian community the poor feel at home. Would not this approach be the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the kingdom?’ ” EG 199

Pope Francis does not have an attitude of utter condemnation toward all liberation theology. In these concise words, he suggests that a formulation of liberation theology is possible which would be a theological expression of the Church’s preferential option for the poor — with all of the teachings of the Church on faith and morals retained in their proper place in the scale of values. Liberation theology is criticized sharply by conservatives, and with good reason. However, we cannot say that no version of liberation theology is possible that would be orthodox and firmly based on Tradition and Scripture and magisterial teaching.

“Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbour, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required of everyone.” EG 201

“Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.” EG 202

Pope Francis criticizes political and economic liberals, by saying that social safety net programs (“welfare projects”) should be seen as temporary measures. Liberal tend to see these programs as fundamental building blocks in society and the economy.

The Pope Francis criticizes political and economic conservatives, by saying that we must reject the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation. Conservatives speak as if the free market and a capitalist system with as few restraints as possible, will automatically help the poor.

Strangely, some conservative Catholics — religious conservatives — so thoroughly self-identify as conservatives in every way that they have taken offense at Pope Francis’ criticism of economic conservatism. Some have tried to radically re-interpret the Pope’s remarks, so as to arrive at the opposite meaning. Others simply proclaim that the Pope is obviously wrong.

But from my point of view, Pope Francis is offering an obviously correct criticism of both the liberal and the conservative versions of economics. Social safety net programs should be present to help anyone who falls into misfortune. But we should always be striving to remedy that situation. A family should not be on welfare for one generation after another, as sometimes happens. On the other hand, the idea is deserving of ridicule which suggests that unthinking economic forces, such as free markets or capitalism, will behave with compassion and sensitivity toward the poor. An unrestrained free market will often operate on the basis of the economically strong taking advantage of the economically weak. We see this all the time in business, when a large corporation uses its vast resources to out-compete small family businesses.

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” EG 203

The Gospel must transform the whole world, the whole individual as well as every aspect of society, including business.

“We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth….” EG 204

Pope Francis is not rejecting the thesis of the right that economic growth is necessary to help the poor receive justice. However, he rightly rejects the idea that economic grown by itself and the soulless forces of a free market will somehow correct every economic and societal injustice.

How does the concept of justice apply to poverty and economics? Every human person has a right to participate and share in the goods possessed by the society in which he lives, including the goods of work, education, health care, technological resources and more. When a group of persons in society are impoverished, they usually will have a greatly restricted ability to participate in society and share in its goods. Modern society is heavily based on money and economics. When you lack work and money, you will likely lack many other goods. And so we must give due consideration to economics and money when putting our concern for the poor into action.

{16:9} And so I say to you, make friends for yourself using iniquitous mammon, so that, when you will have passed away, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.

“If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.” EG 208

I plan to continue this commentary on Evangelii Gaudium to a total of 8 parts. This post is part 6.

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

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