Monday, December 9, 2013


   Pope Francis' recent Exhortation has certainly caught the attention of many people, both in and out of the Catholic church, and both positive and negative.  Here is my view of the document.

   The document is about evangelization, i.e., about spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the whole world.  In the past, impelled by the Reformation, evangelization focused on converting non-Catholics to our faith.  We did this mostly by telling non-Catholics that they were wrong and should convert or "come back" to Catholicism.  Vatican II tried to change this approach by stressing ecumenism.  But the ecumenical movement, after starting out very well, has faded.

   Francis now introduces his way of evangelization:

1.  His key word is, "Joy!"  First and foremost, let us Catholics rejoice that Jesus was born, that he rose from the dead and that his Spirit is now with us and within us and the entire world--making us and the entire world sacred and dignified in a new, resurrected way.  In Christ's Spirit, Francis says, we meet people--all people--on the sacred ground of our common, luminous human dignity.

2.  We base our relationships with all people on our personal experience of God and on our personal relationship with God.  We first discern God within ourselves and all others.  Our first view of others therefore is not physical, political, economic, academic, scientific, artistic, etc., but spiritual.  In every relationship, we are meeting with and relating to a person or persons who are children of God and images of God.

3.  The God whom we worship is not an abstract God, or a God distant from us, e.g., "up in heaven."  Our God became one of us and shared our humanity with us here on earth (while remaining God).  In living with us on earth, in the flesh, our God shared and shares in our politics, economics, academics, science, arts, etc., calling and empowering us to get involved in them in order to move them forward toward fulfillment and wholeness in love.  In the process, we use our best prudential judgment as we espouse the various views and use the various methods available to move them forward toward wholeness in love.

4.  True to the mind and heart of Jesus, Francis focused his exhortation on alleviating the distress of the poor.  Particularly, he focused on the economic policy called, "trickle-down economics," and pointed out the obvious fact that, as we know in the United States, it has not worked.  I say, "obvious fact," because in the last three decades or so, the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has grown to a very destructive degree.  To deny this fact is to deny reality.  This situation is clearly spiritual; in fact, it is a spiritual emergency.  If Francis did not pay attention to it, he would be derelict in his responsibility.

5.  For our part, therefore, the joyful message of Christ that we have to give to the world heavily presses us to get actively engaged in making our political-economic structure better so that it does not foster the sinful inequality that it now does.

    The response to Francis' exhortation has been met with joyful approval from some Catholics, anemic approval from many American bishops and some other Catholics, and viciously insulting attacks from the far right wing of American politics.  How do we account for this?

1.  The Catholics who approve of the document are those, in my view, who see that Francis is expressing the mind and heart of Jesus himself.  Jesus disapproved of the rich in his society, not because they were rich, but because they were using their wealth to oppress the poor.  His society suffered from the "structures of inequality" just as our society does today.

2.  Some American bishops are somewhat embarrassed by Francis' instruction not to spend so much time and energy pressing the doctrines of abortion, gay marriage and contraception.  He didn't say they should change these doctrines, but that they should expand their approach and embrace the entire Gospel message of Christ, with special emphasis on the excluded poor.  But our bishops are appointees of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both of whom, while clearly expressing the same insight as Francis' into political-economic structures,  stressed doctrinal rigidity preached within the church's centralized power structure.  Jesus was opposed to both rigidity and the power structure of his theocratic society.  So today's bishops need to do some prayerful discerning.

3.  Some Catholics are angry because Francis did not include the things they are interested in, e.g., clearing up the sex abuse tragedy, and giving true spiritual power to the laity.  True, these are essential challenges.  As a first step, Francis just created a commission to study anew how to handle the sex abuse tragedy.  And he is working on the basic problem of reforming the Curia--which is the closest thing I know to a truly immovable object.  So let's be fair; Francis' burden is extremely heavy.  For now, let's let Francis operate on his own time-line and not on ours.

4.  Reasonable disagreement with Francis is certainly acceptable.  But the vicious, insulting personal attacks on Francis coming from the far right of American politics deserve the harshest rebuttal.  This is a disgraceful outburst coming from people who are wedded to a destructive, self-serving ideology that favors the rich against the poor, and who are therefore stung by Francis' true discernment of Christ and the Gospel.  
     Also, some of these people are maliciously lying about what Francis said.  For example they are saying that Francis attacked capitalism and is a communist, when the truth is that he is rightly criticizing the misuse of capitalism that results in creating hopeless poor people.  Even worse, these critics are frightening and angering uninformed people to the point where such people agree with them, to their own serious harm, both economic and spiritual.  What is truly frightening is that these attackers are flourishing in some parts of our society.  It is our responsibility to counter these attacks with the truth of what Francis is saying, and with the truth of our faith.


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