Pope Francis apostolic exhortation has much in it that should give cheer to tradition minded Catholics, and there are a few things in the document which while we may not at first glance want to cheer, we probably need to think about. To the extent it is a criticism of those who are on our side in the intra- Catholic debates, it is a constructive one. We can characterize these elements as the “Good” of the exhortation. Later we will deal with the “Bad” and the “Ugly”, but as we have just begun the season of Advent, let us begin on a positive note.
The first 20 plus pages of the exhortation can be read as being the central point, and in fact the take home message. The Christian has a duty to evangelize, that is, he has the duty to proclaim the gospel. As I have mentioned earlier, here , the Pope often will contrast evangelization (which he endorses) with proselytization which he appears to see as overly controlling, or dominating, and which he rejects. I am not sure that I agree with the distinction. The meaning of the word proselytize is “to attempt to convince others to convert”. If Catholicism is true, then proselytization is no more offensive than attempting to convince someone of other “truths” like for example to attempt to convince someone of the truth of quantum mechanics, the benefits of vaccines in preventing serious infections, or the merits of the “cover two zone defense” in football. It should be no more offensive than any attempt at persuasion, and since the truth of Catholicism is substantially more important, as it is concerned with eternal things, like the fate of one’s immortal soul, as opposed to being concerned with useful, but temporal and therefore relatively trivial things like physics the truths of faith are more important. As such I think proselytization is a good thing. But let’s not nitpick, the Pope clearly wants us all to preach the Gospel and he is clearly advocating a particular style. Some of us in the traditionalist camp are not crazy about the style, and only time will tell of it will work, but the fact is he seems to be having some initial success with it. So we need to at least give it a fair chance. There are several aspects to this “style” of evangelization that the Pope touches on. One undeniably useful element of this style and a major focus of the exhortation is its emphasis on “joy”. The Christian should be joyful, we are preaching the good news, and as a few recent posts on this blog have discussed, the moral message of Christianity is not about following rules, but rather about how best to seek our beatitude, our ultimate happiness. I think a weakness of the point that the Pope is trying to make however is that nowhere in the 224 page encyclical is it made clear what precisely we are to be “joyful” about. Very early in the encyclical the Pope makes the point “The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that “he has loved us first” I guess one could ask how he did so? Of course the answer is that since we are guilty of sin we would be destined to eternal separation from God without a redeemer and Christ suffered and died for us. I think a weakness in the message is the fact that the modern world, even perhaps more than the pre-Christian pagan world does not have a sense of sin. If you have done nothing wrong, well then Christ’s death would seem to have no clear point, and thus hard to see what the Christian it to be joyful about. We will discuss this issue more in a future post. That said however the idea the Christian should be joyful and that even the teaching about morals are not the arbitrary rules of a joyless puritan, but rather an instruction guide for how best to seek human fulfillment is not a new idea. It is a very venerable idea that many folks including Pope Francis’s predecessors have been trying to breathe new life into. It was the central teaching regarding morals of St Thomas.
The Pope makes a further point that the Parish is the normal home of the Christian and evangelization begins here, but more importantly that the pastors and the rest of us, need to be involved in the life of those we seek to evangelize. This too dates back to a great tradition that particularly resonates with Pope Francis. It is the tradition of Pope Francis’s favorite Peter Faber who he intends to canonize. Fr Faber as we have mentioned previously was less concerned with theological debates in the reformation, than reform of the Church itself, personal holiness, and direct spiritual direction one on one, converting people by direct interaction and by demonstrating Christian love directly. It is rather interesting this foe of the Protestant reformation in Germany who note in his writing his prayers for Martin Luther himself, is emblematic of a religious style that one sees most commonly not in Catholic Churches but rather in the churches of our Evangelical Protestant brethren.
A brief digression can illustrate the importance of this. I think anyone who knows former Catholics who leave the Church for evangelical churches will rarely hear a story that someone left because they did not like this doctrine or that doctrine, but rather because they did not get the feeling that the Catholic Church was on fire, or passionate for the Lord. In fact it often comes down to the sense of community that is generated in these Churches and the lack of community that is often perceived in the Catholic Church. One story that I have personally encountered involved a young woman who had recently experienced the loss of her unborn child through a miscarriage. The woman was a Catholic. Her Parish priest when hearing of the miscarriage seemed unconcerned and told this distraught individual, “well you can always try again”. Being irritated at what was likely an unintended insensitivity, she began attending an evangelical Church, and immediately upon hearing that the woman had lost a child, people were visiting her, bringing her and her husband dinner, promises of prayer, and so forth. She felt much more embraced by the community and observed for a Church that claims to see unborn children as people we were not acting like we believed what we claimed. Alas she has a point.
I think this sort of living out the Gospel by demonstrating it is a demand of Pope Francis that we need to take more seriously. Some folks are convinced by the force of an argument, but most people will really be more impacted by acts of love. In reality you need both. Good deeds can be merely manipulative if not in service to the truth, while mere doctrine and argument without charity can be hollow and pharisaical. I think Pope Francis is calling to mind a balance that we would do well to remember, and perhaps particularly those of us on the “right”.
More on the “Good” in the recent exhortation in our next post.