The project of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, is beautiful for its simplicity: Pope Francis wants us to be better Christians. He is using the platform his office affords him to illustrate how we might go about growing in holiness. There’s everything right with that.
Nevertheless, there are some serious problems with his execution, which tend to make some of the great good in it accessible to many readers only after a great deal of difficulty, if at all. The purpose of this third and final essay [see first essay and second essay] in a series exploring the strengths and weaknesses of this Exhortation is to acknowledge those problems of execution frankly in a general way, and to offer a few concrete examples of both the good and the problematic, in that spirit of parrhesia — that spirit of frankness and forthrightness — for which Pope Francis has called.
The practical advice Francis offers and the insights he shares into our part of the work of becoming holy are in the main very good, and broadly applicable. Some of us will find some things he has to say more helpful than we will find others, while some things some readers will come to see really don’t apply to them (though I would not recommend haste in making that determination). That is fine, and that is also how he meant it to be.
Growing in holiness will always involve death to self. It ought not to come as a surprise, therefore, when we find the things we most need to hear are the ones, the hearing of which is most difficult for us.
A list of all the things I found challenging and convicting would run to great length. One in particular was Pope Francis’ call for an attitude of prompt responsiveness. “Let us ask the Lord for the grace not to hesitate when the Spirit calls us to take a step forward,” he says in §139. “Let us ask for the apostolic courage to share the Gospel with others and to stop trying to make our Christian life a museum of memories,” Francis continues. We have heard that from Francis before. When I have heard that line before, I have been inclined to receive it as a trope, a slight against anyone drawn to traditional modes of spirituality and orders of worship. This time, however, I hear it as a general warning against sentimental nostalgia and — in my case, at least — the twin pitfalls of complacency and of practicing cowardice and calling it prudence.
Another starkly convicting passage was right in the middle of the Exhortation (§90), and fairly leapt from the page. “Jesus himself warns us that the path he proposes goes against the flow,” Pope Francis writes, “even making us challenge society by the way we live and, as a result, becoming a nuisance.” Here I thought of the people giving prayerful witness outside the abortion mill in Ealing, or protesting at Alder Hey, where Alfie Evans is on trial for his life on charges of being very small and very ill. I also thought of my Anglican friend, who recently suffered an indignity (happily minor) here in Rome while participating in an ecumenical meal program serving the poor, the homeless, and “clandestine” immigrants as they are called here. I’d told him I was interested in helping, but couldn’t get my act together in time to be there the night it happened.
My friend is fine. I am not.
“[Jesus] reminds us how many people have been, and still are, persecuted simply because they struggle for justice, because they take seriously their commitment to God and to others,” Pope Francis continues. “Unless we wish to sink into an obscure mediocrity, let us not long for an easy life, for ‘whoever would save his life will lose it.’ (Mt 16:25)” Consciously or not, there Pope Francis was channeling Benedict, who, in one of the most convicting utterances of his pontificate, said (of Our Lady, in 2005 on the Solemnity of her Immaculate Conception), “Looking at Mary, how can we, her children, fail to let the aspiration to beauty, goodness and purity of heart be aroused in us? Her heavenly candor draws us to God, helping us to overcome the temptation to live a mediocre life composed of compromises with evil, and directs us decisively towards the authentic good that is the source of joy.” Benedict might have been speaking directly to me. Indeed, he was.
Next, I thought of one of my heroes, Cardinal Nguyên, about whom Pope Francis also writes. “When Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên van Thuân was imprisoned,” Pope Francis says in §17, “he refused to waste time waiting for the day he would be set free. Instead, he chose ‘to live the present moment, filling it to the brim with love.’ He decided: ‘I will seize the occasions that present themselves every day; I will accomplish ordinary actions in an extraordinary way.’” That’s when I thought of me, and was ashamed. Pope Francis is right as well, when he writes about humility, and says humiliation is that quintessential virtue’s price in sinful flesh:
Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. Without them, there is no humility or holiness. If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness. The holiness that God bestows on his Church comes through the humiliation of his Son. He is the way. Humiliation makes you resemble Jesus; it is an unavoidable aspect of the imitation of Christ. For “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). In turn, he reveals the humility of the Father, who condescends to journey with his people, enduring their infidelities and complaints (cf. Ex 34:6-9; Wis 11:23-12:2; Lk 6:36). For this reason, the Apostles, after suffering humiliation, rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for [Jesus’] name” (Acts 5:41).
Here I am not speaking only about stark situations of martyrdom, but about the daily humiliations of those who keep silent to save their families, who prefer to praise others rather than boast about themselves, or who choose the less welcome tasks, at times even choosing to bear an injustice so as to offer it to the Lord. “If when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval” (1 Pet 2:20). This does not mean walking around with eyes lowered, not saying a word and fleeing the company of others. At times, precisely because someone is free of selfishness, he or she can dare to disagree gently, to demand justice or to defend the weak before the powerful, even if it may harm his or her reputation. (§118-19)
I am tempted at this point to soften the blow, or assuage the sting of those lines on my skin and the crush of their force, which I feel in my bones, perhaps by noting how our public discourse in the Church and in the worlds of our societies should be improved if all of us would strive to practice humility in the ways Pope Francis indicates in the lines above. It is most certainly so. God help me, let it begin with this sinner.
There is much more of great worth in the Exhortation, some of which we shall visit at the end of this essay. During the course of his official encouragement, however, there are things Pope Francis says, which do little in the way of good, and make the great good there is in the essay more difficult than it need be to discover.
One example is in §70, where Pope Francis writes, “Luke does not speak of poverty ‘of spirit’ but simply of those who are ‘poor’ (cf. Lk 6:20). In this way, he too invites us to live a plain and austere life. He calls us to share in the life of those most in need, the life lived by the Apostles, and ultimately to configure ourselves to Jesus who, though rich, ‘made himself poor’ (2 Cor 8:9).” I do not take kindly to clerics lecturing laity about austerity, who have never had to choose between fixing the roof or fixing the car, let alone between making rent or buying shoes and school supplies for their children, or which utility bill to pay on time, or between a full course of medicine and a full week of groceries.
I think of when Francis decided to forego the usual bonus to employees, in favor of a gift to charity from the Papal purse. The thing was not a wrong, not precisely. It was an indignity, and for the lay persons on the payroll — especially the men and women in the lower pay grades, some of whom might not see much more than €1300 per month, if they see that — the thing was hard.
“The hours are going to be long in the coming weeks, darling,” a typical conversation might have gone, “but, with the overtime and the bonus (when it comes) we might just be able to [get Maria those braces / replace the boiler / air conditioner / take that vacation / send Mario to Paris for the summer, after all].” I will not speculate on how the conversation went, after news came of the Holy Father’s religious economy AND exemplary generosity with other people’s money.
I very much doubt he considered how those conversations might go, either. His appreciation for domesticity generally suggests rather a lack of moral imagination. Listen to him imagine a day in the life of a homemaker (obviously a woman):
[A] woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbor and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: “No, I will not speak badly of anyone.” This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.
Leave aside the impression he gives of conviction in the inveterate proclivity toward and nearly boundless capacity for gossip that possesses everyone around him, especially housewives. I do not know of any parent who, faced with a child desirous of discussing future hopes and dreams, would not drop everything to listen and participate in their elaboration. It would certainly be worth a ruined pot. It is perhaps the only thing as could make this too busy father-of-a-teenager miss a deadline. Usually, children (including adolescent children) want to talk about “When is dinner ready?!?!?” every three minutes for two straight hours before dinner time, so they can disappear right before you serve the meal.
He might have run that passage past a parent or two, before sending it to the printer. He did not have to put it in at all. He’d made his point already. There are other instances of superfluous exemplarism and gratuitous cajoling and even sniping, which, though it were gossip to adduce them, are already amply cited by partisans on both sides of the ecclesial divide. I shall not rehearse them here, but only give one particularly egregious example, found in §49, part of the Holy Father’s treatment of “Contemporary Pelagianism”:
Those who yield to this Pelagian or semi-Pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, “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.” When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. In every case, as Saint Augustine taught, God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot, and indeed to pray to him humbly: “Grant what you command, and command what you will.”
The sense of superiority Pope Francis impugns is there to be found, and often plain to see, though it is not confined to “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian” circles, so-called. To be frank, it strikes me as increasingly transversal and at times systemic. Indeed, it often seems likely the most dangerous heresy plaguing the Body of Christ in these days is Donatism: factions loyal to one disposition or dispensation warring with another over the claim to be the native and rightful heirs of Christ’s promise. It makes us weak, silly, incredible. All of us.
In any case, I cannot recall ever meeting anyone, layman or cleric (high or low), who believes that all things — or even anything — is possible by the human will. Friends I respect and admire, and upon whose judgment I have come to rely in forming my own, tell me they have discovered it in themselves. In my experience, there can be found a sort of default belief that people seeking the help of the Church must be made to prove their earnest by “making an effort”, sometimes in the form of frankly unreasonable sacrifice, uncharitably required, in order, e.g., to meet parish- (or parish secretary-) imposed “requirements” that really are no such thing, and are often contrary to the letter and the spirit of pertinent Church law. It is hardly a sin exclusively the province of “conservative” or “traditional” Catholics, though both supporters of Pope Francis and his implacable critics often receive it as a sort of dog whistle blown against those of a more conservative or traditional bent. If Pope Francis is aware of the effect his mode of speech has, he shows no sign of it. If he speaks thus for effect, it is ill-chosen and ill-met.
I suspect I would not mind Pope Francis’ rather peculiar — not to say, “quirky” — concern with this particular straw man, were it not for the boldness it engenders is certain partisans, who use it as a cudgel. Most galling, however, is the turn-of-phrase, “deep down”, which suggests a mind-reading or soul-seeing power that, did he have it, would best be kept tightly under wraps.
All of this to say that I understand how hard it is for people who are sore with Francis to hear him. So, too, are persons drawn to the beauty and precision of traditional liturgy, or confused and consternated by his approach to doctrine and discipline, sore with him.
Readers already disappointed with his leadership and discouraged by his governance will find in this and other similar passages confirmation of the Pope’s disdain for them. Perhaps they ought not discover such disdain, but it is easy to understand why they do. Francis does not help when he hectors and cajoles. In Gaudete et exsultate, he gives ample evidence of his extraordinary ability to speak hard and needful truths with charity. This makes his failures to do so the more evident, and the more frustrating.
When other readers better disposed to the Holy Father because they see him as the standard bearer of their kind of Christianity take up the call, they appear to their fellows and brethren to be too keen to lay it on thick, or even kick their fellows when they are down. That impression will often be false. It is nevertheless something of which persons well disposed to Francis and enthused by his style and record of leadership do well to be mindful in both charity and justice when they engage their fellows who see things differently. Persons less enthusiastic with Pope Francis — or even discouraged by him — ought neither be so quick nor so willing to seek confirmation of their worst fears and deepest misgivings in his or his supporters’ every utterance.
Sometimes Pope Francis says bad things. Sometimes he says good things badly. If he is not exempt from criticism of his conduct in office — he is not — neither ought we exempt ourselves from criticism, but be willing to hear hard things from any quarter that protests to mean us well. Even if Pope Francis were wicked — he is not — his wickedness would not prove that of his supporters, nor would it be any proof of his opponents’ virtue.
“The Christian life is a constant battle,” Pope Francis starkly reminds us in the opening lines of Chapter 5. So it is. He also tells us in §114, “We need to recognize and combat our aggressive and selfish inclinations, and not let them take root. ‘Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger (Eph 4:26).’ When we feel overwhelmed, we can always cling to the anchor of prayer, which puts us back in God’s hands and the source of our peace.” All of us need to hear that, and pay it heed. Too many suns have set on our anger with each other.
Pope Francis is a sinner, whose life has been profoundly touched and moved by God’s grace. He desires, as a true son of Saint Ignatius, to help souls. That he should do so badly from time to time is inevitable, and may require mention. When it does, however, the mention of it imposes a duty on the mentioners in justice to think and to say all the good they can of him. If justice does not require it, then charity nevertheless impels the critic to praise as well as criticize.
In this series of essays, I have sought to illustrate only a few specific instances in which I see that the Holy Father has succeeded in his project of encouragement, and where he has not.
I began with praise. Let me conclude as I began.
In §113, Pope Francis tells us, “Saint Paul bade the Romans not to repay evil for evil (cf. Rom 12:17), not to seek revenge (v. 19), and not to be overcome by evil, but instead to ‘overcome evil with good.’ (v. 21)” It is hard to hear that when we feel we have been wronged, or slighted, or slandered — whichever side we are on — but that is when we need to hear it most, and Francis — whatever his faults — does us a service in saying it now. “This attitude,” Pope Francis goes on to tell us, “is not a sign of weakness but of true strength, because God himself ‘is slow to anger but great in power. (Nah 1:3)’ The word of God exhorts us to ‘put away all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. (Eph 4:31)’” So it does.
Frankly, the Pope could stand to take a bit of his own advice in these regards. He should be more careful, for he tends to overstate matters and to attack weak sisters even when he does not set up straw men. There will be no satisfying his implacable critics, no reaching his detractors, who are determined to take offense. Nevertheless, Francis does give them reason, though he need not. Thus, he loses readers who would be inclined to hear him if his criticism were more kind.
“The saints,” Pope Francis tells us in §116, “do not waste energy complaining about the failings of others; they can hold their tongue before the faults of their brothers and sisters, and avoid the verbal violence that demeans and mistreats others. Saints hesitate to treat others harshly; they consider others better than themselves. (cf. Phil 2:3)” Pope Francis is right.
(Postscript: All throughout this project, I have received encouragement from several friends. In particular, I am grateful to David Mills, who not only gave moral support, but generously read a draft and offered many helpful suggestions, which I have tried to take. To the extent I have succeeded in applying them, I am sure this last essay is better for it. Any failures or infelicities are entirely my own.)
Related at CWR:
• “The temptation and the challenge of reading “Gaudete et exsultate'” (April 9, 2018) by Christopher Altieri
• “Reading Pope Francis with both respectful docility and critical charity” (April 11, 2018) by Christopher Altieri