As I said in my previous CWR essay on this topic, 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. Gaudete et exsultate is an often challenging and complex document, written by an often challenging and complex man. Neither is beyond criticism, but both deserve our careful attention before we begin that work. Everyone reading the Exhortation will also do well to keep in mind that different readers will hear and receive it differently.
One of the persons available for comment following the official presentation of the Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, at the Press Office of the Holy See on Monday, was Mohammad Jawad Haidari, a Muslim refugee from Afghanistan who lives in Rome and since arriving has earned a Master’s degree in Religion and Cultural Mediation from the city’s storied La Sapienza university. The New York Times quoted Haidari as saying, “It was a surprise, and a revolutionary text with respect of the vision I had before of the Christian world.”
That is a welcome response. Though it ought not foreclose discussion of Pope Francis’ approach to evangelization generally or to the issues he raises in his Exhortation more particularly, it is a response that ought to be encouraging to Christians, whose creed is fundamentally missionary.
Whenever the Church says anything, in fact, she speaks both to her members (ad intra), and to the whole world (ad extra). An official encouragement from God’s vicar on earth is one mode of the Church’s speaking in which one might reasonably expect to find rather more attention to the former subject of address than the latter. Pope Francis does things his way, though.
Often he addresses his remarks to the faithful directly, even as he speaks or writes deliberately “within earshot” of the world, intending his message at least as much for people who are just “listening in” as he does for Catholics or even the worldwide body of the Christian faithful. This means that anyone attempting to hear his message needs to be aware that, despite appearances, the Pope may in fact be speaking with someone else in mind.
Nota bene. It cuts both ways. Catholics and Christians more generally need to be prepared to hear Pope Francis talking “past” them. People outside the fold — people not (yet) baptized and Christians who have fallen away from the practice of the faith and perhaps embraced the prevailing cultural ethos — need to be aware that the Pope — whoever he is, but especially this Pope — is speaking from a place and in a register, neither of which is at home in the world.
Crafting a message so it will be received well — i.e. understood in the way the sender intends it to be received — by all intended recipients, when the set of intended recipients is pretty much everyone, requires a keen sense of economy — I mean messaging economy — and a fine sensitivity to social, cultural, and political climates, as well as knowledge of recent cultural, social, and political weather patterns.
Even an experienced communicator with all the requisite gifts honed and practiced, who was an immensely gifted writer of disciplined power, to boot, would have great difficulty sustaining the kind of balancing act that writing simultaneously to diverse, overlapping, admixed and interwoven audiences is. Writing to such a conglomeration of audiences in a global theatre is not only exponentially more difficult owing to the size and composition of them, but genuinely dangerous owing to the global scope of the forum.
That any communicator should avoid spectacular failure on making any such attempt is commendable. That anyone should find qualifiable success at the end of any such enterprise cannot be too far short of miraculous.
Francis’ essay is, by any candid view and fair measure, a qualified success. In an upcoming piece, I intend to consider where it has succeeded and where it has not. Broadly and generally, its success owes itself to Francis’ ability to articulate something of Christianity’s adventure, and especially to the alacrity with which he alerts readers to the opportunities for the practice of holiness, which are lurking in what I called the suburbs and niches of everyday life — places crackling with danger and permeated by the Divine. In “The American Scholar”, Emerson wrote:
I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body;—show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plow, and the ledger referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing;—and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order: there is no trifle, there is no puzzle, but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.
Emerson was a great writer, and a philosopher. Pope Francis is neither. While it would be wrong to judge his writing as though it were the work of a philosopher and a great writer, he is a pastor engaged in an undertaking that is eo ipso literary, and in the original sense of the word, philosophical. It would be equally irresponsible, therefore, to pass over those moments in which his pastoral ambitions outstripped his literary powers. Though they are few, those moments have wrought real hurt in readers, who understand that being chided is part of being exhorted, and are willing to receive chastisement, but who nevertheless did not perceive the encouragement they expected.
That encouragement is there, in the text, waiting to be found and sometimes hiding in plain sight.
The remarks here and to follow are offered in the hope that they might help readers struggling with this document (often because they are struggling with this pontificate) to discover the good there is in it. If you are one of these readers, these essays are for you. Readers who discover that encouragement more readily and easily than others (often because they are very enthusiastic about Pope Francis and his leadership) sometimes struggle to understand what all the fuss is about, and sometimes even adopt a more-or-less conscious attitude of suspicion toward anyone struggling with this document or this pontificate. If you are one of these readers, these essays are for you, too.
Certain passages were not only susceptible of partisan interpretation, but genuinely lent themselves to tendentious appropriation. Two in particular, with which Monday’s considerations dealt briefly and in slightly different context, have garnered significant attention from both the Catholic and the secular press. In sections 101 and 102 of the Exhortation, Pope Francis explains — rightly and trenchantly — that the duty to welcome the stranger comes from God and cannot be shirked except on peril of one’s soul, and that care for the weakest and most vulnerable of mankind is not only a duty with which Our Lord charged His Church, but the criterion against which the immortal soul of each and every one of us shall finally be judged:
The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, 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. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.
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”. (pars 101-102)
The writer of the Reuters headline announced, “Fighting social injustice as important as fighting abortion: pope”, which is transparently wrong and egregiously silly. Abortion is a grave social injustice — indeed the gravest, insofar as its violent destructiveness is always deliberately deadly, and its victims the absolute weakest and most vulnerable of our fellows in nature. This was, in fact, the point Pope Francis was trying to make, while also calling attention to the equally ineluctable fact that the lives of other weak and vulnerable persons are not less sacred than those in the womb. Instead of simply saying so, the Pope couched the point in terms of crass political opposition, which made the allure of controversy too strong for ignorant headline writers and the temptation to capitalize too great for partisans.
He then glossed over a point that, when he introduced politics to the discussion, became crucial.
There can be no question of supporting a legal right to abortion, which is not only prohibited by the faith, but contrary to reason and the essential ends of law and government, hence illegitimate. On the other hand, it is not only perfectly legitimate but necessary (and in fact one of the essential ends of government) to secure borders and regulate immigration. Christians, however, are called to welcome the stranger. So, the question becomes how to do so in a manner consistent with the natural ends of government and the good of society.
(I tend to favor borders as wide open as possible for my own country, the United States, but I do not think everyone who disagrees with me is a racist or a xenophobe. I also readily admit I do not think it easy or even always possible to know just how open “as wide open as possible” really is. I do know it is wider than they are now in the US, especially with regard to our southern neighbors and to the Mediterranean refugee crisis. In that last regard, we have all but completely lost a chance we will not get again to exercise real moral leadership in the world, and I think it is shameful.)
Too much of the initial reporting also missed the mark. The Reuters piece framed the story as one in which Pope Francis told Catholics, “[They] should not give ‘excessive importance’ to certain Church rules while disregarding others, urging opponents of abortion to show equal passion for the lives of the poor and oppressed.” One might quibble with the implicit reduction of the abortion prohibition to a mere rule. One ought to object to the elision of the Pope’s equally central point, which is that it works the other way, too. Pope Francis could not be expected to have made such use of his words impossible. He did not have to make it so easy.
Catholics tempted to use the Holy Father’s words ripped out of context — whether they are thrilled by the hurt of them, or by the sense of confirmation they elicit — need to pause, read carefully, and ask themselves whether they have really heard all he has to say. The desire to be right is powerful, but it requires discipline, which today can begin with the acknowledgment that, right or wrong, some of the brethren are genuinely hurt, even if they have not been wronged. The desire to be wronged is at least equally powerful as the desire to be right, and more dangerous to the soul, since it is a perversion of a perversion, one that takes root in a perversion of the desire to be right.
Catholics frustrated with Pope Francis’ style and record of leadership ought not allow partial accounts to poison them against the Holy Father. He is not beyond criticism. Sometimes he deserves it. When he is at his best, he acknowledges it. He and his supporters would do well to recognize that not every expression of hurt, frustration, or even indignation will be perfectly temperate or even civil. All of us need to remember that patient mindfulness of our fellows’ sentiments is a mark of charity. In any case, though Pope Francis may deserve no more, he certainly deserves no less in the way of respect or consideration than any other man. Whatever else this means, it means he deserves to be criticized for what he said or did. Catholics of every stripe can take comfort in the knowledge that the Pope — for all his flaws — is Catholic, too.