Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why I Like "Evangelii Gaudium": Part Three

Here is part three of my continuing series on Pope Francis's Evangelii Gaudium.  Most of this series covers material from the document that I did not discuss in my Religion News Service piece, "10 Reasons Why Evangelicals Should Read Pope Francis."  (By the way, I am thrilled that this piece has been picked up by The Washington Post, The Salt Lake City Tribute, and Sojourners).

Evangelii Gaudium helps me understand why Pope Francis does not make a big deal about the kinds of issues that were important to his predecessors and which many conservative Catholics hold dear--abortion and gay marriage. (You may recall that I did a post on this earlier in the month).  He writes:

...In today's world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a great risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects.  In this way certain issues which are part of the Church's moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning.  The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ's message...

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed.  When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is more beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary...

All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel.  In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose again from the dead.  In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, "in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a 'hierarchy' of truths, since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith.  This holds true as much for the dogmas of the faith as for the whole corpus of the Church's teaching, including her moral teaching.

Francis then goes on to say that "What counts above all else is 'faith working through love'.'"  He calls for a balanced message that treats all Catholic moral and social concerns equally. For example, "if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catechesis are overlooked."  I wonder if Francis could be more specific.  In other words, would this sentence hold true: "If in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about abortion or gay marriage ten times but only mentions justice or charity two times...."  There is no mention in this apostolic exhortation about abortion or gay marriage, but if you read between the lines there is a lot in this document about these hot-button topics.

He concludes this section (34-39):

Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.  Under no circumstance can this invitation be obscured!  All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love.  If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church's moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk.  It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral based on specific ideological options.

In other words, abortion, gay marriage, etc... are important, but if they are preached outside the context of the saving love of God radiating in the lives of Christians the church's teachings on these topics lose their moral power.  As I wrote in the Religion News Service piece, this reminds me of the way Billy Graham tried (not always successfully, I might add) to subordinate theological or ecclesiastical issues and social and moral problems to his primary Gospel message.

Francis is not trying to undermine the social and moral issues that conservative Catholics hold dear, but he is trying to challenge his church to get their priorities straight.