Among the many sad consequences of the divisions Pope Francis has exacerbated within the Church, we’re now forced to live with an undeniable reality: even when he says good things – and there are many such in his new Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World”)  – they inevitably get drawn into the trench warfare he helped create.
His supporters often argue that opposition to the kind of changes he made in a document like Amoris laetitia stems from something like Franciphobia, an irrational dislike. It’s true that some Catholics now show a kind of blind fury at what they believe he is doing. But for many more, as Ross Douthat explains in his must-read book To Change the Church , it didn’t have to be this way.
That’s quite evident in how Rejoice and Be Glad invokes many traditional elements of Catholic spirituality and shapes them for current use. The pope states early on that he hasn’t written a comprehensive treatise on holiness, though in his meandering and sometimes self-contradictory way, he touches – helpfully – on almost everything.
The overall aim is exactly right: “The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.”
And most of the pages that follow show ways we can all –whatever our state in life – walk that path. Pope Francis even warns near the end:
We will not admit the existence of the devil if we insist on regarding life by empirical standards alone, without a supernatural understanding. It is precisely the conviction that this malign power is present in our midst that enables us to understand how evil can at times have so much destructive force. . . .Hence, we should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable. . . .When we let down our guard, he takes advantage of it to destroy our lives, our families and our communities.
Still, despite such robust warnings, many Catholics now are wary about where such papal sentiments “cash out.” And there are particular problems, some stemming from Francis’s inattention to consistency.
For example: “It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness.”
Quite true, of course. But this might equally describe a problem that doesn’t much exist in the modern world – overly “spiritual” Catholics – or refer to contemplative religious orders. The Church admits of many vocations, including contemplative lives, which elsewhere in the document receive praise.
I, for one, wish the pope had put greater emphasis on the Catholic contemplative tradition, which is on a par with anything Westerners – especially young people – are seeking in Buddhism or Hinduism.
Instead, he spends pages denouncing contemporary forms of Gnostic and Pelagian heresies, which do exist. But it’s rather obvious that we should be neither too otherworldly nor worldly.
Every reader will have to judge for himself. But for me, amidst the good insights, the pope seems to be wrestling with a world that perhaps once existed, but not very much anymore. His constant pressure here and elsewhere to turn people away from “abstract” theological knowledge or an excessively individual spirituality, towards an otherwise commendable love of God and neighbor, addresses, exactly, who these days?
It would be one thing if Catholic universities, seminaries, chanceries, charities, hospitals, relief agencies, religious orders, lay groups, etc. were bursting with people rigidly and reductively clinging to bare theological formulas – as Francis often seems to suggest. The reality, as even secular commenters recognize, is that we’re living in a post-truth, profoundly chaotic world, and Church. To seek stable principles in order not to be swept away by the tsunami of secularism and heterodoxy is not “rigidity,” but sanity.
I’ve said it before, but in our circumstances, Francis’ famous “field hospital” needs doctors who have studied real medicine. Otherwise, they may have a good bedside manner, but they can’t really cure anything.
There’s more. Pro-lifers were stung early in the pontificate by his harsh language about Catholics “obsessing” and “insisting” about abortion. They will be once again upset about his own insisting: that social questions such as poverty and immigration are life issues “equally sacred” compared with violent death in the womb and at the end of life.
This version of the “seamless garment ” contradicts what the Church has taught since legalized abortion became common. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course, but if – say – American border agents were killing 3000 people daily trying to enter the country (roughly the number of children killed daily in America in the womb) the whole world would be outraged.
Refugees, for example, should be of deep concern to Christians, but how to deal with them is a question of prudential judgments, not an absolute like the prohibition against killing innocent life.
The peoples of the world know that this is more than an argument about welcoming the stranger. All over Europe – from Britain to Poland, Scandinavia to Hungary – there is a populist backlash against easy admission of hard-to-assimilate immigrants, often not refugees fleeing war and oppression, but economic migrants seeking a better life. The United States and even Mexico police borders, like Australia, New Zealand, and every sane nation.
In spite of such questions, Catholics will benefit from reading this text. There’s much here in the tradition that it’s good to have presented anew. Besides, perhaps the greatest spiritual challenge for Catholics in the modern world is how to practice an authentic spirituality even amid division – and to find the deep spiritual resources that may help us overcome it.