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New papal document is more than a response to critics [News Analysis]

April 09, 2018

In his new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis offers a broad discussion of a general question applicable to all Christians: the personal call to holiness. However, the controversy surrounding his pontificate is evident in the secular media coverage, which has interpreted the papal document as the Pope’s reply to his critics.

One passage in the lengthy document, in which the Pope argues that care for the poor and for migrants is as important a duty as defense of the unborn, commanded headline attention in several major media outlets:

  • Pope Francis Puts Caring for Migrants and Opposing Abortion on Equal Footing (New York Times);
  • Fighting social injustice as important as fighting abortion: pope (Reuters);
  • Pope Says Fighting Poverty Is as Essential as Opposing Abortion (Wall Street Journal;
  • Pope Francis says helping the poor and migrants is as important as opposing abortion (CNN);

The New York Times sees Pope Francis “Pushing back against conservative critics within the church.” The Wall Street Journal remarks that the apostolic exhortation is “his latest effort to readjust the priorities of Catholic moral teaching from what he has characterized as an overemphasis on sexual and medical ethics.”

These analyses of the document are certainly not unreasonable. Pope Francis does include provocative passages, which seem clearly aimed at conservative Catholics who have objected to some of his public statements. In particular, two passages caught reporters’ attention:

Our defense 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.

… and…

We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian….

Here the Pope is advancing a line of thought akin to the familiar “seamless garment” theory, insisting that Catholics cannot restrict their concern for human dignity to a single issue. But—as pro-life advocates have argued for decades—the public issues are not commensurate, since the Church leaves ample room for differences of opinion on how to care for the poor, on which policies are most effective in providing help for the needy. The topic of legal abortion, involving a straightforward question of whether the unborn child should be spared from death, requires a different moral calculation. (It is not clear, by the way, why Pope Francis used quotation marks to suggest some question as to whether bioethical issues are rightly designated as “grave.”)

Readers of Gaudete and Exsultate also saw thinly veiled rebukes to the Pope’s critics in a section devoted to two errors of modern Christian thought: neo-gnosticism and neo-pelagianism. In his consideration of neo-gnosticism the Pope asserts: “Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence.” Is that sentence a jab at the cardinals who presented the dubia about Amoris Laetitia? And when he moves on to neo-pelagianism, the Pope takes a now-familiar line in condemning “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine, and prestige…“ That passage echoes his frequent denunciations of the “doctors of the law.” Similarly, when he laments the incivility of some online discussions, and says that “people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others,” it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is again speaking of his critics.

However, it would be a mistake to see Gaudete and Exsultate as solely a papal response to criticism. This lengthy document (well over 20,000 words, divided into 177 paragraphs) tackles the fundamental issue of how Christians can and should pursue holiness in their their lives. “My modest goal,” the Pope says at the beginning of his presentation, “is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.”

Holiness, the Holy Father insists, is not a goal only for priests and religious; it is a calling for all Christians. He stresses the importance of finding holiness in everyday life, and extols the “holiness found in our next-door neighbors,” which he terms “the middle class of holiness.”

“You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission,” the Pope exhorts his reader. He offers a lengthy section on the Beatitudes, explaining how they may be lived out in daily life. And he rounds out his analysis by insisting that holiness is evidenced in “joy and a sense of humor.”


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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Retired01 - Apr. 15, 2018 3:48 PM ET USA

    If Pope Francis wants to promote a seamless garment, I would add that equally sacred, however, are the lives of those poor Catholics constantly confused by Pope Francis' words and actions.

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Apr. 10, 2018 6:05 PM ET USA

    Instead of 'reproposing' the call to holiness Pope Francis could just spend more time to study writings of St. Josemaria Escriva and a path to holiness as practiced by Opus Dei. His 'improvements' of previously defined doctrines and good practices cause only indigestion ...

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Apr. 10, 2018 4:01 PM ET USA

    He condemns relativism at the very moment he practices it. False equivalency is a form of relativism. And the impoverishment of the willfully impoverished is not the moral equivalent of willful slaughter of an innocent life. To not understand this is real secularity and ideological arrogance. And to regard God's transcendence as implying God abandons us to death dealing moral confusion is beyond stupidity. It is profound and demonically evil.

  • Posted by: Elan - Apr. 10, 2018 2:46 PM ET USA

    Now that social justice is on equal footing with defending life, maybe we will see some actions and exhortations against abortion and the culture of death. As far as I can tell, the social justice issues have been more important than pro life, in practice. Politicians have been opposed by the hierarchy for their social justice positions more often than for being for abortion.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 10, 2018 12:24 AM ET USA

    In #57, in a sample of pelagian vices, Pope Francis had included the following three: "an obsession with the law... a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, [and concern for] doctrine." I do not see those three "sins" being committed anywhere, rather the exact opposite: a widespread disregard for the Canon Law, the Church’s Liturgy and the Catholic Doctrine. And I do not recall any past Popes or Saints agreeing that those concerns are "sinful" or "pelagian," quite the contrary.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Apr. 09, 2018 6:32 PM ET USA

    Well I see Pope Francis is at it again. In light of this document the reinterpretation of Humane Vita can't be far behind. So now murder is no more serious than ignoring a panhandler. Thank God the police and the courts don't follow the pope.