Monday, December 9, 2013

Taking Francis seriously: Filling hearts and lives

Crazy projects are me. If I have done this right, there are 288 numbered "paragraphs" in the five chapters of Evangelii Gaudium.  At one a day, it ought to be possible to get through it in a year.
1. The joy of The gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.
 "Those who accept his offer are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness". That's a very strong claim. It's not new to make this sort of claim. Saint Paul did it. But he was Saint Paul. And even he dialed that back a little because, it would appear, he was not pleased with followers who took this as antinomianism and  saw themselves free to behave in ways Paul found repulsive*.
It is actually reported that here is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among the pagans, for a man is living is living with his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1 Corinthians 5: 1)
Not a lot of joy there! And what, in this light, does "set free from sin" mean? Perhaps you think I am being obtuse? Am I too stupid to see that "being free from sin" so obviously does not mean "free to do repulsive things". Perhaps! But what does it mean then? Let's see, as we go on, what sort of flesh Francis puts on those bones.

This is an exhortation. That means more or less what you would guess based on the common use of "exhortation", admittedly not a word with a lot of common use. Pope Francis wants to exhort us to evangelize. It doesn't define church doctrine. That is interesting because most of the criticism, both positive and negative, has praised or attacked for what it says about church doctrine. As near as I can tell, there isn't a single doctrinal claim in this exhortation that hasn't been said hundreds of times before by dozens of different popes.

That doesn't mean that we might not end up wondering about some of the doctrine we find here. What it does mean is that we can't blame Francis for it. He is relying on well-established principles throughout.

The real questions, it seems to me, should be something like the following:
  • Does this make me want to go out and evangelize?
  • Does it give us a good idea of what evangelizing means?
  • Related to the previous, do we leave this document with a real practical sense of things we can actually do?
  • Also related, does Francis open up real possibilities for ordinary Catholics, as opposed to clergy, to go forth and actually evangelize, again, assuming we know what that means?
That's all uncertain because I am uncertain. But aren't we all?

* As the footnote in my Bible observes, the man who has so offended Paul by living with his "father's wife" was presumably in a sexual relationship with his father's second wife;  if Paul had meant mother he would have said "mother". Is she widowed? Or is the father still alive? I don't think we can assume that Paul was so deeply shocked that he said "father's wife" simply because he couldn't bring himself to say "mother". His intent, after all, is to shock and "mother" would pack that punch but good.

I mention all this because the ick factor seems to be what motivates Saint Paul. One might ask why, if it is okay for a man to marry his brother's widow, it is so mind-boggling odious for a man to have a sexual relationship with his father's second wife? Other than the ick factor? 

Of course, the man is not married to but living with his father's ex-wife or widow, but, again, if sex outside of marriage was what offended Paul, he would presumably have just said so. In addition, if the real problem is sex outside marriage, we could hardly be expected to believe that that type of sexual immorality was not even found among the pagans. No, what deeply disturbs Paul is a sort Oedipus aspect of a man having sex with a woman who once had sex with his father. And one can see the ick factor easily enough but what is fundamentally wrong about it?


  1. He does not necessity address Catholics in that paragraph (exclusively). He says, Christians, not Friends, Romans, Countrymen, and when he says paths for the church, he also may not be speaking of The Roman church, or even the West, but of a more mystical body. This is important if the concern for Catholic readers is about RC doctrines. (Thought it was worth piping up about anyway.)

    1. One of the really challenging things about the Catholic Church is that it really believes that it is catholic. That is why popes speak to "the city and the world" (urbi et orbi). For Francis, indeed, for any pope, his flock includes every last Anglican and Muslim whether or not they see it that way or not. We describe our church as "the mystical body of Christ" because we think it already includes you :-)