By PAUL LIKOUDIS
In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, released November 26, Pope Francis has outlined the mission for his pontificate, and the worldwide Catholic Church.
The 48,000-word letter exhorts all Catholics “to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization,” “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.”
Pastoral in tone, the Holy Father repeats many of the themes, and even the phrases, of the daily homilies he has given at Mass since his election to the papacy last spring, calling on Catholics to show a “preferential option for the poor,” buttressing his appeal with numerous references to the writings of his three Predecessors, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and also to the documents of Vatican II and various statements of episcopal conferences from around the world.
While the document gives pastoral direction for the Church, and includes a long section of papal tips for priests on how they can give better homilies, it also excoriates a neo-Darwinism in international capitalism in which “the powerful feed on the powerless,” and calls on politicians to hear the cries of the poor.
Francis’ first official exhortation furthermore makes it clear to the Church and the world that the Church cannot change its teaching on the sacredness of human life, beginning at conception, and its opposition to abortion; nor can it change its teaching on a male priesthood.
Nor can it ignore the fact that globalization is leading to the destruction of the family, cultures, and the environment and that a small international elite which controls the media and entertainment industry is causing despair and hopelessness on a global scale.
This document on evangelization, a reflection of the XIII Synod of Bishops’ meeting on evangelization, October 2012, focuses on the joy, and duty, of evangelization, which “arises from grateful remembrance: It is a grace which we constantly need to implore.”
Pope Francis mentions three fields for evangelization: those who attend Mass regularly, and those Catholics who do not; lapsed Catholics; and “those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him.”
“Many of these,” he writes, “are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’.”
“An evangelizing community,” he writes, “is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time. Faithful to the Lord’s gift, it also bears fruit. An evangelizing community is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds.
“The sower, when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain, does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear.”
Citing Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, Pope Francis highlights the need for the Church to become more missionary, to renew its own structures so they more faithfully reflect the “image of the Church as Christ envisaged her.”
“I dream of a ‘missionary option’,” the Pope writes, “that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”
The most important role of the Church at this moment of history, says Pope Francis, is to be a model of God’s mercy. While all of the Church’s revealed truths “are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel.
“In this basic core,” he adds, “what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, ‘in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.’ This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.”
He continues: “St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the Church’s moral teaching has its own ‘hierarchy,’ in the virtues and in the acts which proceed from them. What counts above all else is ‘faith working through love’ (Gal 5:6).
“Works of love directed to one’s neighbor are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: ‘The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love.’ Thomas thus explains that, as far as external works are concerned, mercy is the greatest of all the virtues: ‘In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree’. . . .
“Just as the organic unity existing among the virtues means that no one of them can be excluded from the Christian ideal, so no truth may be denied. The integrity of the Gospel message must not be deformed. What is more, each truth is better understood when related to the harmonious totality of the Christian message; in this context all of the truths are important and illumine one another. When preaching is faithful to the Gospel, the centrality of certain truths is evident and it becomes clear that Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults.
“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. Under no circumstance can this invitation be obscured! All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love. If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk.
“It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options. The message will run the risk of losing its freshness and will cease to have ‘the fragrance of the Gospel’.”
The Church’s Service
One of the most important tasks of the Church today is describing the “signs of the times,” one of which is a growing inequality and the precariousness of life for so many people.
“The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation,” Pope Francis writes, “even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.
“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.
“Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new,” Francis writes.
“Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised — they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’.”
In a passage that is likely to outrage the defenders of neo-liberal capitalism, the Holy Father writes:
“[S]ome 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 naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.
“Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
A Profound Crisis
“We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Exodus 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.
“The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.
“This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power.
“To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. 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.
“Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God,” Francis declares.
When the market is “absolutized,” the Pope writes, “God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement….With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: ‘Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.’
“A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule!”
“Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. . . . When a society — whether local, national, or global — is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.
“Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear….
“Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve,” the Pope writes.