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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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So finally here it is – Pope Francis’ first major document since his election. Swooping from the role of the papacy to the detail of parish life, Evangelii Gaudium covers a broad horizon of points – some insights, some observations, some criticisms. The nature of the papacy needs to change, he says, adding, that he’s open to suggestions; Catholics need to cheer up and not become judgemental pessimists; and as for the global economy, which puts money above the human person …
The first thing that struck me as I read it, having read many of Benedict XVI’s encyclicals and documents, was its dramatically different tone. It is direct, simple, accessible, idiomatic, in parts witty. A profound and coherently crafted theological tome it is not. Its different subject areas – mission, spiritual renewal, reform of church structures, economic injustice, the quality of preaching and so on reveal Francis’ preoccupations and what he wants to focus on in his papacy. You could certainly describe it as his vision or manifesto for the Church.
Some phrases come from homilies we’ve already heard – the “smell of the sheep” as a description of life outside clerical circles, many mentions of mercy, and more than 70 uses of the word “joy”. When it comes to the Church, the Pope wants to encourage Catholics and focus on the positives. To argue for faith in public life he points to two of the most universally loved Catholic figures in history: “Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta?”
It’s refreshing to read a reminder that Christians carry a Gospel message of joy that they do not need to be ashamed of, and that the laity make up “the vast majority of the People of God”. But sometimes we need a goading reminder that we’re not on the losing side and that our message will not inevitably be rejected: Francis says evangelisation isn’t proselytism but extending to someone an invitation to a delicious banquet.
Some comments in the document sound promising but the implications have yet to be worked out. He says decentralisation is necessary so that the Pope doesn’t do what the bishops should be doing. But on which issues? Discipline?
And Francis says women need a “more incisive” role, but not that of priesthood. He has said that before – so when and by whom will these ideas be fleshed out? Is he leaving this for the C8, the Council of Cardinals?
I was struck by its omissions as much as what it contained: abuse carried out by priests – one line hints at the abuse scandal but doesn’t mention safeguarding or transparency: "The pain and the shame we feel at the sins of some members of the Church, and at our own, must never make us forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love." There is no mention of people who are gay, either those who have found a spiritual home in the Catholic Church or those who haven’t. Also, amid the fulsome criticism of the excesses of global capitalism, there’s no acknowledgement of the ways that wealth creation can benefit society, creating jobs and thus alleviating poverty on a large scale.
Lest I fall into the category of those believers who act, as Francis neatly puts it, “as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met”, I would like to say Evangelii Gaudium is an encouragement to the whole Church, written an a way that is attractive and accessible to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It doesn’t try to be heavyweight theology and much still needs to be worked out, but we’re still waiting for that.