Thursday, December 19, 2013

Taking Francis seriously (pargraphs 11-13): Whose renewal?

I was talking to two liberal I know Catholics about Envangelii Gaudium and both surprised me. The first, an old-schood "new lefty" from the 1960s did so by saying he thought it a very badly written and poorly thought out piece of work.

Well, he's right. I was taken aback at first because I had found lots to like in it myself. But now that I read it more carefully, I can see his point. As an example of what he and I mean, consider the following quotes from paragraphs #10 and #11.
  1. When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization, she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfillment.
  2. Consequently, an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!
  3. A renewal of preaching can offer believers, as well as the lukewarm and the non-practising, new joy in the faith and fruitfulness in the work of evangelization.
If this was a term paper submitted by an undergraduate, I'd mark it F. In the margin beside these paragraphs, I'd write, "You don't really believe what you have written here." Back in the days before I left the academic world and had to mark undergraduate papers, I'd write that a lot.

To grasp the problem compare these phrases from quotes 1 and 3.
  • "... the source of authentic personal fulfillment."
  • "A renewal of preaching can offer believers joy in the faith"

If evangelizing is THE source of authentic personal fulfillment then it WILL offer believers new joy in the faith.

Part of the problem, as I indicated in an earlier post, is that Francis is making a psychological rather than a moral or a factual argument. But there is a more fundamental issue and that is that he doesn't really believe it himself.

But maybe that is okay. He's a pastoral pope not a groundbreaker like John Paul or a deep and perceptive thinker like Benedict. His task may be to be a bit of a cheerleader who exhorts us to do better while he does his real job of fixing church governance away from the spotlight, a task suited to a tough man like him. The church is full of parish priests who are mediocre preachers but really good administrators who can pay down the debts and clean out the deadwood and thank God for them; perhaps we need a pope who can do what they do for individual parishes for the whole church.

Which brings me to my second liberal Catholic friend, a gay man who hopes the church will one day stop condemning homosexual acts. We were talking about just this aspect and he said he thinks the liberalizing Francis is getting credit for is really the work of John Paul and Benedict.

For me, that was one of those moments when we suddenly realize we've missed something really important. Because my friend is right. Read John Paul and Benedict correctly and you can see a path for renewing not so much the church as the faith. Liberal Catholics see nothing but roadblocks because they are rigidly committed to only one kind of renewal but there is another, and better path, open to those who are willing to see it.

Is Francis one of these? Well, in a sense it doesn't matter because, quite frankly, he doesn't have the intellectual or the moral stature to do anything else but follow what they have set out. He can do the job really well, really badly or just muddle through doing the best he can but nothing he does is going to fundamentally alter the course his predecessors have set.

As we will see next week, he makes a real muddle of "new evangelization". Such a muddle, in fact, that this particular exhortation is, for all intents and purposes, stillborn. But, so what? We can survive this and, at the very least, accomplishing little means we can be certain of accomplishing little harm; boldly launching the church in a new direction doesn't necessarily guarantee that direction will be a good way to go.

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