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The temptation and the challenge of reading “Gaudete et exsultate”

Whatever else there is to say about the document and regardless of one’s personal, spiritual, or intellectual disposition toward Pope Francis, it is fair to say the Holy Father has touched a nerve.

Pope Francis greets visually impaired people, accompanied by their dogs, during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 18, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As often happens in situations like this one, in which a prominent figure with some legitimate pretense to moral leadership makes a lengthy, complex, and articulate statement, people in the commentariat seize on a particularly quotable few lines and run with them.

In the facti species, the prominent figure this time is the Roman Pontiff, and the source document from which the quotable sentences have been pulled is his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, on the call to holiness in today’s world. Whatever else there is to say about the document — there is much, much more to say (in other words, stay tuned) — and regardless of one’s personal, spiritual, or intellectual disposition toward Pope Francis — it is fair to say the Holy Father has touched a nerve. The lines are:

We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ”, with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude”. (§102)

The New York Times proclaimed, “Pope Francis Puts Caring for Migrants and Opposing Abortion on Equal Footing”, which is not quite right, but fair enough for headline writing. The story by Jason Horowitz is better than the headline, though it suffers from a lack of real understanding of both Christian spiritual dynamics and ecclesiastical politics. All that is beside the point, however, which is that there is a need to unpack the Pope’s point in order to see what he is and is not saying in the quoted lines.

It is possible to receive the Holy Father’s Exhortation in a spirit of docility, and then to hear it saying things needful of our hearing, with a view to serious self-critical reflection and practical application. Any such exercise will require patient listening to what Pope Francis says — to his ipsissima verba — and careful attention to what he does not say.

The purport of the Holy Father’s remarks in the quoted lines is that Christians are called by the faith they received in their Baptism and compelled by the promise of eschatological judgment to care for the least of their brothers and sisters. That is true, and that is terrifying — or ought to be — for Our Lord shall determine whether we shall be eternally happy or eternally wretched according to our discharge of our duty to the smallest and the weakest.

Nor can Pope Francis be accused of down-playing or soft-peddling the importance of opposing abortion, which is always deliberate and deadly violence against the very weakest and most vulnerable of mankind. “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate,” he writes in the section immediately preceding the lines quoted above, “for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.”

That is true, as well, and something that people in the Church, whose energies are dedicated to advocacy and work in other areas, forget at their peril.

The plain, painful fact of the matter is that each of us can only do so much. Some of us will be committed to one cause or a few, others of us to another, or others. Where and when we can support each other, we ought to do so. Where and when we cannot, we must be out of each other’s way. We cannot allow our dedication to one cause under the impetus of charity and in true service of the Gospel to lead us to despise another, still less into denigration of our fellows, who are in the service of that other cause or causes. We shall disagree from time to time over how best to serve the Gospel. We cannot build the kingdom by destroying and devouring one another.

About Christopher R. Altieri 35 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is co-Founder and general manager of Vocaris Media and the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

24 Comments

  1. There is an immense moral and salvific difference between, the right to life, to be born, and the right to quality of life after one is born. Abortion is a demonic evil to the most innocent and helpless and their sacred right to life, for all those all in the other issues, the right to life has been given, so morally, this is a lesser evil from this sacred reality going forward, as they have not lost the greatest and primary right to life. The greatest mistreatment or disregard, indifference, for those who have life but are not being murder, is not an equal moral evil, ever. Equal sacred dignity of each person does not mean all evils are morally equal. There always remains difference in kind and in degree. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, send us the Holy Spirit and true love for the Eternal Father’s Life and Love! Alleluia, Amen!

    From another author: Pope Saint John Paul II wrote similarly in his 1988 apostolic exhortation, The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World (Christifideles Laici). “The inviolability of the person, which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination . . . “

  2. Will read the entire document, but that paragraph is an absolute howler. I will have to review if Benedict XVI said anything comparable re: migration. But the pope has made the patriarchate of Rome irrelevant to the future of Europe.

      • Yes, and? The point is whether Benedict XVI (or John Paul II) said anything comparable to Pope Francis with respect to migration, or whether Francis stands out among recent popes in this regard.

  3. “The purport of the Holy Father’s remarks in the quoted lines is that Christians are called by the faith they received in their Baptism and compelled by the promise of eschatological judgment to care for the least of their brothers and sisters.”

    We cannot know if Muslim migrants are our brothers and sisters IN CHRIST as we can only judge by their words and behavior, and not their souls. Caring for migrants does not require that they be allowed entry into a state, much less be given citizeship.

  4. Imbibe from a pool proved toxic?
    Why?
    For what purpose?
    For sixties slop?
    We are five years by this landfill. Let us wake up and stop the pretense. We endure a Roman Catholic brand of Stockholm Syndrome. It is unfaithful to offer credence, deference, to a pontificate which has abused the authority of the Chair of St. Peter hawking fraudulence. The broken clock is on target twice a day. It is useless to regard it. Fix it or replace it. The clock won’t do it by itself.

  5. It’s true that the dignity of the human person is implicated whenever we address the status of the unborn or the immigrant or the refugee. And the Christian certainly must not neglect either. But as a matter of law, and as a matter of politics that shapes the law, the two issues are very different and equating them only leads to confusion.

    With abortion, many nations and states permit the killing of the unborn. I’m not aware of any nations or states that permit the killing of immigrants. Rather, if discovered, immigrants may be deported back to where they came.

    It is part of the Church’s mission to boldly and prophetically state moral principles, such as “Thou shalt not kill.” Sometimes, as with abortion, this necessarily entails an overlap into the realm of politics, since the present law violates this inviolable commandment. But this is not the norm. More often. the practice of politics does not involve the application of clear moral principles, but the prudential application of those principles to particular circumstances. With immigration policy, the Church can offer no principle as to how many immigrants a particular country should admit. This requires prudence, and is rightly left to the laity to apply these moral principles through politics. The Church should, of course, help to shape the moral framework underlying the political debate about immigration, but equating the Church’s role in opposing unjust abortion laws with the Church’s much different role regarding immigration policy is false, and appears designed to confuse, or even to provide cover to those who would support unjust abortion laws but take a lenient view of immigration policy.

  6. “It is possible to receive the Holy Father’s Exhortation in a spirit of docility, and then to hear it saying things needful of our hearing, with a view to serious self-critical reflection and practical application.”

    Well then. I take it that when it comes to “immigrants”, the Holy Father actually means legal immigrants. For the word “immigrants” strictly means legal. And “undocumented” ones really are “illegal aliens.”

    So then. Be kind to immigrants, the legal ones. They follow our laws, file their papers, pay the fees, are vetted strenuously by authorities, prove that they will not be a social or economic burden to society, that they are healthy and have no criminal records, that they are willing to assimilate into the wider culture, learn to speak English, and respect the host country. And they are made to wait up to 20 years for the permission to enter.

    Whereas illegal aliens should stop sneaking through the back door and stealing citizens’ rights, privileges, and benefits that don’t belong to them. Illegal invasion is a sin against the Seventh Commandment.

    Got it.

  7. One need not reaD very far into GAUDETE ET EXSULTATE to see that it is more of the same from Francis. In paragraph four we read a quote from Revelation 6:10 which reads: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘O sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge?” Omitted from verse 10 was: “…and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” Why?

  8. There is much to consider in this quotation of Pope Francis about migrants and it must be considered in the context of the words of Jesus to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. Here, the Pope appears to mean only those who are fleeing for their lives. However, it is simply unfortunate that a Pope starts a sentence with, “we often hear it said that…” Such a statement smacks of gossip and factionalism and there is the assumption that those who say it are automatically uncaring about migrants (in this case). If Pope Francis and his counselors did not have such a difficult time with fairness (and intrinsic truths) they might understand that the very pro-life Catholic also shows up quite a bit at food pantries etc.; yet the “pro-lifer” knows that for the one Catholic that will pray outside an abortion clinic there are twenty Catholics that will ladle-out chicken noodle at a soup line.

  9. The problem that Francis ignores is with so many ‘migrants’ being young, military aged young men. With Islam’s goal of a world caliphate, this seems more like an invasion than a refugee.

  10. “The plain, painful fact of the matter is that each of us can only do so much. Some of us will be committed to one cause or a few, others of us to another, or others. Where and when we can support each other, we ought to do so. Where and when we cannot, we must be out of each other’s way. We cannot allow our dedication to one cause under the impetus of charity and in true service of the Gospel to lead us to despise another, still less into denigration of our fellows, who are in the service of that other cause or causes. We shall disagree from time to time over how best to serve the Gospel. We cannot build the kingdom by destroying and devouring one another.” YES!

  11. I appreciated this piece very much. I’ve read the document and found it to be—for me—thought-provoking and a cause for introspection. But I was feeling overwhelmed. I felt it was indicating that we must actively care for each of these groups. But I knew that a) that’s physically impossible, and b) the importance of discerning how God wants you to specifically serve Him was omitted. I know from experience that if you start doing what you assume God wants you to do without praying for guidance to discern God’s will, then you can get overextended and lose energy and motivation because you’re not in God’s will. I appreciate this article’s message affirming my reaction and confirming that some of us are called to serve in certain areas, while others are called to serve in others, that we should help each other where we can and not tear apart those called to serve other causes (so long as those causes are in line with Church teaching; if not, then such a call can not be from God). Thank you to the author for taking a worry off my mind! I’m thankful I was lead to this article!

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  1. The temptation and the challenge of reading “Gaudete et exsultate” -
  2. Reading Pope Francis with both respectful docility and critical charity – Catholic World Report
  3. “Gaudete et exsultate” is beautiful for its simplicity, frustrating for its failures – Catholic World Report

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