The plan that Pope Francis wants the Catholic Church to follow has been emerging piece by piece since his election in March, but now he has set it out in detail. He wants a change of the Church’s culture and character, a change of its priorities and a change of its structures. He wants a Church that is neither sleepwalking nor marching in step, but that goes forth into the world, getting the mud of the streets on its shoes, to deliver the message of God’s infinite care for every bit of it.
In what is not so much a reversion to the papal “we” of tradition as an exclamation of joy on behalf of the whole Church, he declares: “We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us … ” It is an example of the infectious exuberance through which, by numerous eloquent gestures, he has already touched the hearts of millions all over the world.
Technically called an apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium is literally that too: the Pope joyfully exhorting his flock to rethink almost everything it does in pursuit of its one key aim, evangelisation. But in so doing, he redefines this not as a “churchifying” process but as almost the opposite. Old certainties and familiar ways all fall under the lash of his sometimes withering prose. “Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.”
Church of compassion and mercy
Contrary to those who equate evangelisation simply with encouraging church-going, he embraces “those members of the faithful who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways but seldom taking part in worship”. Reminding priests that the confessional must not become a “torture chamber”, he hails anyone who takes “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations”, which can be more pleasing to God “than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”. This is a pastoral style that refuses to let the best stand as the enemy of the good. “The Eucharist,” he says, “although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Pope Francis has started a great debate throughout the Church about the way it treats those who are divorced and remarried – whether they should continue to be excluded, as the rules say they should be, from receiving Holy Communion. With such remarks as that it is not hard to see which side he is on. But it is also clear that this issue stands for much else besides: how the Church regards its members who do not obey every last detail of all aspects of its moral teaching – which must mean the majority of them; gay, straight, single, married, divorced, celibate, cohabiting, contraceptive-using, and so on.
The Church must show them compassion and mercy. That is how it evangelises them. But by insisting that the new evangelising style he wants to see is about inclusion not exclusion, Pope Francis is opening up issues he may not be ready for. Mercy may be a good pastoral policy but does not amount to a new sexual ethic. What if, for example, the 1968 encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, was just plain wrong? That is what the great majority of Catholics who have taken part in the current lineamenta consultation – closing date today, 30 November – seem to be saying.
Far-reaching implications of prioritising the poor
If there is anger in the soul of Pope Francis, he does not reserve it for those whose private lives do not conform to some Catholic ideal, but towards those who exploit the poor and increase their poverty. In a document that would have been more accessible had it been much shorter, this is the one area where he needed to say more. Neither neoconservatives nor neoliberals – sometimes the same people – will like his fierce attack on the ravages brought about by the free market, but he does not say enough to defend himself against obvious ripostes.
“The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits,” he declares. “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.” This has the virtue of plain speaking, but lacks the political savvy and economic nuance of Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate of 2009. Even more than the rich, the poor need the wealth creation that market economies can supply, though global businesses clearly must serve the common good as well as make a profit.
Nevertheless, the greater significance of what Pope Francis says about social and economic matters lies in the way he dissolves the boundaries between evangelisation and work for social justice, so that they become two aspects of the same thing. And this is driven by his passion for the poor.
“This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor,” he says. “They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelised by them.” This privileging of the poor in the scheme of salvation is distinctively Francis’ own insight. It suggests that Christian faith which is not wedded to the needs of the poor, and committed to accompanying them on their way to liberation both personally and by the fundamental reform of economic structure, is hollow. This has far-reaching implications for the way ordinary Catholics live their faith, and for every layer of Church administration from local parishes to the Vatican itself.
Christ at the centre
The Pope admits he has not set out to tick every box, and he specifically invites outside help – even for reforming the papacy – in moving the Church forward. His model of the Church is more participative and open, more decentralised and fluid, more willing to take risks, less bothered about doctrinal conformity, less clerical. But above all, Christ-centred.
Francis is a true evangelical in the emphasis he puts on a personal relationship with Christ; and a true Catholic in the role he sees for popular devotion, especially for the Virgin whom he calls “the Mother of Evangelisation”. Whenever we look to Mary, Francis declares, we come to believe once again “in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness”. Those last few words encapsulate, in word and deed, what this papacy has come to stand for.