The pope thinks you should get off Twitter.
Pope Francis has released a new papal document in which he criticizes everything from the toxicity of social media to Catholics’ single-minded focus on abortion, and encourages Catholics to better value the contributions of women to the spiritual life of the church.
The 22,000-word Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), a type of papal document known as an apostolic exhortation, represents a reiteration of Pope Francis’s core values as pontiff. Throughout the document, Francis repeatedly stresses the importance of mercy and everyday acts of holiness over a narrow focus on judgment and righteousness. He condemns those who “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.”
The document comes at a particularly sensitive time for the often-controversial pope. Just last month, the Vatican found itself embroiled in a “fake news” scandal after a senior Vatican communications official admitted to doctoring a photo of a letter from Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, in order to make the letter appear more positive about Francis’s papacy. A week later, Francis made headlines again after an Italian journalist claimed Francis had told him that hell did not exist (the Vatican denies the journalist’s claim). Last week in Rome, a summit of high-level Catholic officials who opposed Francis’s willingness to offer communion to divorced-and-remarried couples gathered to discuss their frustration with the pope.
This papal document, therefore, will be subject to particular scrutiny from many Catholics. While Gaudete et Exsultate is an apostolic exhortation — a nonbinding form of communication — its words nevertheless have significant symbolic weight for the Catholic community as a whole.
Gaudete thus had two jobs to fulfill. It needed to further the pope’s wider agenda of stressing the importance of social justice, and criticizing what he has previously called the “throwaway culture” of a capitalist, technology-obsessed world. But it also had to counter the claims of many of Francis’s critics, who often see him as a liberal modernizer too willing to compromise on core Catholic values in order to please the secular world.
Francis celebrated women’s contributions to the church
Among the most notable elements in Gaudete et Exsultate was Francis’s celebration of women’s contributions to Catholic spirituality. In a section discussing the myriad ways people might be called to serve God, Francis highlighted the degree to which female contributions have often been undervalued by the church.
“I would stress too that the ‘genius of woman’ is seen in feminine styles of holiness,” Francis wrote, “which are an essential means of reflecting God’s holiness in this world. Indeed, in times when women tended to be most ignored or overlooked, the Holy Spirit raised up saints whose attractiveness produced new spiritual vigour and important reforms in the Church.”
Citing such famous saints as Hildegard of Bingen and Teresa of Avila, Francis also argued the importance of commemorating “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”
His celebration of women tied into a wider point: the idea that everyone — rich or poor, priest or layperson — has something to contribute to the spiritual life.
“Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy,” Francis wrote. “Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church.”
Francis also condemned “single issue” Catholicism
Francis also argued that while opposition to abortion is an important hallmark of the Catholic faith, it shouldn’t be used as a wedge issue, or replace a wider concern for Catholic social justice. Critiquing those for whom “the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend,” Francis wrote:
Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.
While these views aren’t new for Francis — he’s long been a particularly fierce advocate for social justice, for refugees, and for the poor — it’s nevertheless significant that he’s using his pulpit to advocate for a less narrow focus on abortion, long a crucial issue for Catholics.
Francis also had harsh words for Twitter
Among the more striking passages in the exhortation dealt with the dangers of social media and the way it polarizes human discourse. Early in the exhortation, Francis warns Christians to be wary of the way social media can provide a temporary distraction — a Band-Aid for spiritual emptiness.
“The presence of constantly new gadgets,” he writes, “the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard.”
Later, he zeroes in on social media debate in particular, writing:
Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped … and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others. … Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze.
The most important part of the document may be hiding in plain sight
While Francis zeroed in on a number of hot-button issues, perhaps the most important part of the document lay in a seemingly academic section on heresy, in which he tacitly criticized his detractors.
To understand Francis’s writing here, it’s important to understand the context of his conservative opposition. Much of that opposition, as I have written previously, centers on Francis’s tacit acceptance of the practice of granting communion to couples in second marriages, because the Catholic Church forbids divorce. Francis’s approach — separating out the church’s teachings from its pastoral care — has been lauded by his supporters as an act of Christian mercy but decried by his detractors as intellectual and moral laxity. For Francis’s critics, any change in Catholic teaching is a suspicious concession to modernity.
Francis does not directly reference divorce — or the surrounding controversy over remarried people and the Eucharist — in the document. However, in his section on modern heresies, he directly rebukes those who claim theological certainty on moral issues, saying “when somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road.”
Francis bases his critique on two fourth-century heresies — Gnosticism and Pelagianism — that were significant in the early church. To put it very simply, Gnostics tended to stress the idea that God could be “known” by those with special and privileged information, and tended to see the human body (as opposed to the spirit) as sinful and evil. Pelagians, meanwhile, believed that human beings had the capacity to not sin, and thus that human beings were totally responsible for their own sinfulness. (The church as we know it today rejected both positions.)
In writing about these heresies, Francis cautions his readers to avoid their present-day manifestations. His descriptions of Gnostics and Pelagians, however, sound a lot like his conservative critics.
“Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible,” he writes. “They absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking.”
He condemns those who seek to judge those whose lives appear to be at odds with church teaching, writing: “God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there.”
Likewise, Francis argues that it is fundamentally un-Catholic to expect someone to live up to the ideals of church teaching at all times, saying: “When some … tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will … to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that … in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. In every case, as Saint Augustine taught, God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot.”
This is significant. Pope Francis’s conservative opposition has frequently used the language of heresy to condemn his positions. Last year, for example, a conservative Catholic coalition of senior Vatican officials released an open letter to the pope in which they directly accused him of supporting “heretical positions” on “marriage, the moral life and the Eucharist.” Within Catholic tradition, the charge of heresy is far more serious than simply saying someone is “wrong.” Rather, it’s a theological wrongness so absolute it cuts off the heretic from the spiritual life of the church. By responding by linking his condemnations of his critics to two infamous heresies in church tradition, Francis is not only defending his views on orthodox theological grounds but also displaying a willingness to fight rhetorical fire with fire.
Toward the end of the section, Pope Francis gets particularly pointed. Answering the criticism made by many in his conservative opposition that there is only one undivided, unchanging tradition in Catholicism, Francis argues that it’s borderline heretical to make that claim: “In the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life … some currents of gnosticism scorned the concrete simplicity of the Gospel and attempted to replace the trinitarian and incarnate God with a superior Unity, wherein the rich diversity of our history disappeared.”
To a casual reader, these remarks might seem relatively anodyne. But in the context of the infighting in the Vatican, they’re downright incendiary.
Ultimately, Francis’s exhortation is a subtle, successful rejoinder to his critics
The skill of Gaudete et Exsultate lies in the way Francis is able to balance his response to his critics with a wider, thoroughly orthodox, Christian approach to what it means to lead a good and holy life. Francis never addresses his critics, or the controversies of his papacy, directly. Rather, he uses the language of Christian orthodoxy and theology to defend his position. The kind of mercy he advocates in Amoris Laetitia (the apostolic exhortation in which he hinted remarried couples should receive communion) is here given an explicitly theological framework.
Paraphrasing the 20th-century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Francis highlights the way human imperfection, and even sin, should be weighed against the totality of a human life: “We do not need to get caught up in detail. … Not everything a saint says … [or] does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life. … You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission.”
In other words — to counter the claims of his detractors — the pope is, in fact, thoroughly Catholic.
via Vox http://bit.ly/2FF4XI0
April 11, 2018 at 06:08AM