Opinionista Russell Pollitt 12 December 2013

Pope Francis: ‘recalculating’ Catholicism

If you own a Garmin or have ever driven with someone who does, you know that when you head off course it intervenes saying “recalculating!” repetitively. As I read through Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) the word “recalculating” came to mind several times.

In September Pope Francis gave a wide ranging interview that rocked the Catholic World. In his latest document the Pope talks about the joy of proclaiming the Gospel, something which seems pretty focused and “churchy”. Don’t make that mistake! He goes well beyond the Church and its need of reform, weaving in many other concerns from the poor to corruption, the environment and how he sees the relationship between faith and science. Now he has been voted Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” – a recognition that something is really “recalculating” perhaps?

The 224-page document is inspiring and lays out the vision of the “Person of the Year”. It is the fastest that I have ever read a papal document. It is easily accessible and, in Francis’ uncomplicated style, it invites Catholics (and all readers) to see things from a new perspective. One chuckles (in no way negating its seriousness) with some of his humorous expressions. He says, for example, that a Christian should “…never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” Speaking of preaching, he says that both people and priest suffer because the people have “to listen and the clergy from having to preach them!”  I am sure many people in the pews will agree with that sentiment. A little over 50 years ago another great Pope, John XVIII, initiated the Second Vatican Council. He said that it was time to “throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through.” Time magazine too, significantly, acknowledges new winds are blowing in Rome by naming the Pope, a religious figure, “Person of the Year”. The windows are being opened again and it’s exciting to live at this moment in the history of the Catholic Church.

The Exhortation articulates Francis’ dream for the Church but also for the world. First and foremost he calls all to conversion: individually, communally and institutionally. From this conversion will flow the Church he envisions: more missionary, more merciful, more inclusive and more open to change. Pope Francis begins the document by reminding Christians that the joy of the Gospel comes from a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. He sets the tone right from the beginning by saying, “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.” This is not a doctrinal treatise. The lens through which it needs to be read is our personal encounter, our own relationship, with Jesus Christ and the conversion that relationship brings about. He says that being Christian “…is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty ideal, but an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Christians are to share the joy of this relationship with others in a missionary spirit. This encounter, he says, liberates us from narrowness and self-absorption. Quoting Benedict XVI he says: “It is not by proselytising that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’.”

The task of renewal in the Church never stops, it is ongoing. There are, however, some moments when the need for renewal seems more urgent, more palpable, and more real. He admits that the papacy and central structures of the Catholic Church need conversion and also states that structures in the Church could hamper such renewal. He says that he is conscious that he needs to promote a sound “decentralisation”. Many theologians have been unhappy with the growing tendency to centralise church authority in the last two papacies. He wants local bishops to take more responsibility for issues in their territories. (This seems to be a reversal of a 1998 Vatican ruling under John Paul II which says that only bishops with the Pope have authority) This could be a risky move as not all bishops might be able to do this. Francis seems to recognise this and so is pretty frank about the role of the bishop – as he was in his September interview.

He describes the bishop in three presences; in front of the people pointing the way, in the midst of the people as a merciful presence and walking behind them helping those who lag behind and, “…above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths.” He does not suggest what these paths are but, I think, this is a significant new way of thinking – for people and bishops. By saying this, the Pope suggests that, in some circumstances, the people in the pews know the way forward better than the bishops. Some bishops might feel threatened by this and many lay-Catholics feel apprehensive because for so long the bishop has simply given us direction or, at worst, told us what to think. This will be a revolutionary way of thinking and acting for many Catholics. He tells bishops to listen to everyone, not just those who will tell them what they want to hear.

The real test of this will be how widely the world’s bishops consult in preparation for a Synod on the Family that Pope Francis has called in October 2014. Will the voices of people who have differing opinions be heard in Rome at that Synod? Will local bishops accurately present the voice of ordinary Catholics?

The Pope also addresses the quality of preaching in the Catholic Church. He says that many concerns have been raised about this which simply cannot be ignored. “The homily [sermon] is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to speak to his people.” He warns against beating the same drum week after week and says that balance is necessary. He suggests that if a preacher speaks “about temperance ten times but only mentions justice and charity two or three times, an imbalance results… The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.”

This advice is prudent in a milieu where one often hears sermons about sexual morality. Francis puts clergy under pressure (at least I feel under pressure!) not only to prepare and preach better but also to be succinct: “…the words of the preacher must be measured” He wants clergy to abandon a complacent attitude which says “we have always done it so” and he condemns “excessive clericalism”. He critiques ostentatious preoccupation with liturgy and doctrine as opposed to a real impact on people and engaging with the issues of our time. He wants clergy to be hope-filled, not condemning or gloomy, but joyful as they share the Gospel inviting others into the same joy and freedom. The Pope upholds Church teaching on ordination saying that women cannot be priests. He admits that a more incisive female presence is needed in decision making processes within the Catholic Church but does not suggest how this would be implemented.

Central to Evangelii Guadium is the Pope’s call for the Catholic Church to have a special concern for the poor. His call for solidarity with the poor and a more just world have had impact far beyond the Catholic Church. He reminds the Church that it should have a “preferential option” for the poor. In this regard he has ruffled the feathers of some economists by strongly criticising an “economy of exclusion” saying that “it kills”. An American broadcaster, in reaction, has labelled Pope Francis “a Marxist”.

Pope Francis asks: “How can it be that it is not news 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 some people are starving?” He says that, in our economy, human beings have become consumer goods; no longer exploited and oppressed but “something new” – excluded. He says those who defend “trickle-down” economics “express a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power”. Critical of a culture of prosperity he says that we are thrilled at what markets offer us to purchase. However, while we purchase, the same markets stunt many lives offering no opportunities for countless people and therefore make them, in their excluded state, mere spectacles which fail to move us.

“Money must serve, not rule!” The Pope suggests that the current financial crisis is rooted in one profound human crisis: “the denial of the primacy of the human person.” “A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”

Pope Francis condemns corruption and wide-spread tax evasion. He goes on to say that the thirst for power and possessions have no limits, the system devours everything which stands in the way of profit, and that whatever is fragile (including the environment) is defenceless before the interests of a deified market. In one of the most provocative and uncomfortable lines to read he says: “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”. Pope Francis says he loves everyone but has the obligation to ask the rich to help, respect and promote the poor. His vision is broad, not only structural change for the Church but also, he suggests, structural change in economic systems that keep people poor.

The poor are not just the materially poor. Pope Francis shows concern for many people who are on the margins of the Church for one reason or another. He says that the Church “has to go forward to everyone without exception.” He says that the Church is not a “tollhouse” but “the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” He warns that the doors of the Church’s sacraments should not “be closed for simply any reason.”

He says that the sacraments are “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” He calls for “prudence and boldness” and warns that we are not arbiters of God’s grace but its facilitators. He does not discuss specifics but, in broad brush strokes, opens the doors for us to reconsider much of the exclusionary pastoral practice that people have experienced. I think here most especially of many divorced and re-married Catholics who have been excluded and single mothers who, sadly, have had their children denied baptism. It’s important to note that the Pope is not changing traditional teaching or doctrines. Is it a rupture with the Papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as some claim? No. Is there a new emphasis? Most certainly. Francis asks that we change the way things have been done. This will take courage. This may lead to new pastoral praxis. Pope Francis is also quite clear on some issues that have made conservatives Catholics feel nervous. He says that abortion will never be accepted as it is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right – this teaching remains firm.

Evangelii Gaudium is a far reaching document. Pope Francis covers extensive issues in the Church and the world. He salutes the “marvellous progress of science” but warns against ideologies that block “the path to authentic, serene and productive dialogue” between faith and reason. He also says that Catholics can learn from non-Catholics, particularly Anglicans and Orthodox. He asks us to become more aware of our environmental impact.

There will be many people who receive this document with enthusiasm and renewed hope. There will be others who feel that the Pope has gone too far, seemingly close to breaking with tradition, and will criticise him. Some traditionalists may even become more defensive and feel fearful of what is to come. Some hierarchy will not be comfortable and find it difficult to march to the new tune. More liberal minded Catholics will think he has not gone far enough. Women might be disappointed with his upholding of traditional teaching on priestly ordination. Change, or the seeming lack thereof, is never easy. Still other might be suspicious or even cynical at the choice made by Time Magazine. Like any CEO or new president the real test for Pope Francis will be his ability to get his collaborators (bishops and clergy) on board to share and work for the vision he offers. It might be easier for him to be Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” than to face the colossal task that overshadows him now: the movement from vision/theory to buy-in and praxis.

“Recalculating!” Where will it all go? DM


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