Chapter two of Evangelii Gaudium is about the context within which the Church carries out its evangelizing mission. This is a difficult topic, because the context will be different depending on location on the globe, so almost by definition, the accuracy of the Pope’s analysis will vary depending on where you’re reading it. But he has surely put his finger on several sore wounds that fester in American society. The accuracy of his diagnosis is revealed most tellingly in the great discomfort with which many American Catholics have received it. Actually, almost everyone in the Church is sure to find something in chapter two to make them uncomfortable.
If there’s an overall theme of the chapter, a core at the center of the many dangers it brings to our attention, it’s individualism and self-centeredness. Francis is right to emphasize it, because it’s unquestionably an -ism for which both sides of the “culture wars,” both inside and outside the Church, bear much guilt for embracing. It made me think this would be a helpful focus of even more attention going forward. In all kinds of ways, individualism (as the Pope says) “favors a lifestyle which weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds.” In that short description, we can find reference to consumerism, unfettered capitalism, abortion, contraception, and much more.
The Pope’s comments about our “economy of exclusion and inequality” are striking. He notes bluntly that it “kills.” Just so we’re clear on the kind of economy he’s talking about, he calls out the “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.” These theories, a hallmark of the “Reagan revolution,” have been defended ferociously by many Americans, including some American Catholics, for decades. Of them the Pope says: “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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
Many commentators have objected to papal teaching like this in the past — no, it’s not new at all; what’s new is the plain-spoken clarity with which he presents it — by saying that the Pope is not an economist and not qualified to teach with authority about economic matters. It’s the conservatives who are doing this today, vociferously and repeatedly, as they encounter this document. That’s no different than objecting to the Church’s teaching on abortion or contraception by pointing out that the Pope is not a doctor and not qualified to teach with authority about biological matters. In both cases, the objection misses the point, or perhaps better, intentionally obscures it. There are profound moral implications to the economic choices we make — just as there are to some bodily/medical choices that we make — and about these, the Pope is indeed (as Catholics understand it) qualified to speak.
I read the Pope’s observations about pastoral workers with some ambivalence. At times, I wasn’t sure he was talking about the priests, parish ministers, and religious sisters and brothers I have known for decades. For example, when he talked about the “inordinate concern” of some pastoral workers “including consecrated men and women,” “for their personal freedom and relaxation” and “priests who are obsessed with protecting their free time,” I thought this surely describes some, of course, but not most. Most of the priests and sisters I know work very hard at the ministries they perform, often giving little thought to their “personal time” and how they would like to spend it.
On the other hand, there are probably many who serve the Church today who would benefit from some careful reflection upon the Pope’s (perhaps too verbose) words of criticism of
the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others…. In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. (n. 94-95)
I noticed the other day that one conservative blogger is actually making fun of the Pope for his word choice here (“self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism”), a sure sign that the Pope has hit close to home. It takes wisdom, prudence, and maturity to be able to see the difference between attentiveness to “soundness of doctrine or discipline” and exercise of “a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism” wrapped up in “inspecting and verifying.” Some — like the blogger I just mentioned — have failed in that.
The Pope also raises the topic of women in the Church. Again here, I admit to being ambivalent. I was a young man when Pope John Paul II published his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone. It seemed (and seems) like a pretty definitive conclusion to the question of women priests. At the conclusion of that very brief document (just over 1000 words), the Pope wrote, in very formal and solemn verbiage: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
Pope Francis has now reaffirmed this teaching several times since his election, as he does in n. 104 of Evangelii Gaudium, much to the disappointment of many within the Church who otherwise are thrilled with his teaching and ministry. “Conservatives” have pointed out on several occasions that Pope Francis, though he is saying things in ways we’re unaccustomed to hearing them from a pope, has not changed any church teaching and, they are quick to add, he can’t.
The thing that gnaws at me these days when questions like women’s ordination and gay marriage come up is this: there are doctrines that had been considered closed questions before that subsequently were changed (though the preferred word is “developed”). Yes, I know there is a significant difference theologically between a teaching “changing” or being “developed” by the magisterium. But the thing is, I’m talking about instances in which the development that happened would have been considered, before its endorsement by the Church, as a change, even a reversal. The one that’s foremost in my mind at the moment, mostly because of the work I’ve been doing recently on John Courtney Murray, is the Church’s teaching on religious freedom. Call Vatican II’s teaching on religious freedom a development if you want, but the Church’s highest doctrinal authorities who opposed Murray in the two decades prior to the Council flatly rejected his theology because they understood it as opposed to Church doctrine. One could say in somewhat cynical terms that it went from being a subversion of Church teaching to a development in Church teaching when the Church finally accepted it.
Many conservatives who are uncomfortable with what the Pope says in Evangelii Gaudium have been quick, over the past couple of weeks, to point out that an apostolic exhortation is not an encyclical, which is more authoritative. It is not an infallible pronouncement. (The conclusion that they leave mostly implicit — because it’s unseemly for “conservatives” to say it, perhasp — is that it’s therefore not so bad to doubt the truth of its contents.) For example, here’s Father Robert Sirico (president of the neo-conservative Acton Institute), assuring his listeners: “One of the first things you need to know about an apostolic exhortation is that in Catholic theology it does not accupy the highest place of magisterial teaching, but is nonetheless worthy of our consideration and real rich and deep and honest discussion.” And another traditionalist blogger was quick to point out, “It is not an encyclical. It is not an apostolic letter. It is only an apostolic exhortation.” But why is this any different than someone else pointing out that Ordinatio Sacredotalis is “only” an apostolic letter?
Another thing that is different about my own perspective now than it was twenty years ago is that I have daughters now — five of them. It’s one thing to think in theoretical terms that there is something men can do that women can’t, that there’s a sacrament of the Church that men can receive that women can’t (but no corresponding sacrament available to women but not men); it’s another thing to say it to your young daughters, and to have to try to explain it when the statement catches their attention and they ask deeper questions about it. (And yes, I know the arguments that support the teaching quite well — those who heard me offer them with conviction at the time Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was released will attest to it.)
Am I saying I think women should be priests? No, I’m saying my Church, whose authority to interpret and teach God’s revelation I accept, teaches pretty clearly that they should not. That teaching has been repeated pretty emphatically and very recently by some remarkably holy and wise popes. But I’m also aware of several very compelling reasons that otherwise good Catholics might think otherwise, and also of some pretty clear examples of instances when doctrine has changed/developed. So I can’t know for certain that no change is ahead. Some will say that’s a wimpy way to approach it. Maybe they’re right. Maybe if the change could happen, I need to decide if I think it should happen, and if I do, should say so. But I guess I’m not ready to take that step; it’s where I am these days.
More on Evangelii Gaudium soon.