Francis's Letter of Intent

As most people are aware (it is, after all, currently the front page story on the New York Times website), Pope Francis issued yesterday an "apostolic exhortation" entitled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).  You can read the whole thing here--it is quite lengthy and I have only read portions in depth and skimmed the rest of it.  Here, however, are my initial thoughts:

1.  I agree with most commentators that this document reads like a mission statement or outline of the Pope's reform agenda--and it is clearly a reform agenda that is more wide-ranging and substantive than shuffling around some folks in the Vatican.

2.  Before getting to what he wants to do, it is worthwhile to mention the two hot-button issues that the document explicitly states are not up for debate--women priests (para. 104) and opposition to abortion (para. 213).  Not only does he single them out for specific discussion, but these mentions come in the context of a document that again and again highlights the need for the Church to be open to new ways of thinking and acting around problems.  Lots of things are on the table, the Pope seems to say, but these two are not.

3.  The single biggest revolution Francis has initiated, in my view, is the completely unexpected resurrection of Liberation Theology from the dustbin of Catholicism to a central place in the conversation.  It is true, as conservative-oriented commentators will no doubt point out, that JPII and Benedict have had critical things to say about capitalism.  But neither of them said things that were both this forceful and this specific.  Here are a couple of examples:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.  (para. 53).

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and na├»ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.  (para. 54).

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.  (para. 204).

These quotes, and many others, seem to draw a clear line in the sand--Pope Francis is opposed to modern globalized laissez-faire capitalism as it is currently practiced, particularly in the United States, and wants to see substantial reform.  Period.  Moreover, this opposition is discussed in moral terms--not, as George Weigel would suggest, "prudential opinion."  This is radical stuff.  Other popes have opposed extravagant capitalism--only Francis has said it might be as immoral as murder.

4.  Francis seems to be telegraphing extensive and structural reform of not just the Vatican, but the Catholic Church as a whole.  The money quote is paragraph 32:

The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”.  Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.

In other words, decentralization is on its way.  If each national bishops' conference has more specific authority, then the need for an all-powerful Vatican bureaucracy diminishes, and Francis would be free to slash-and-burn the dysfunctional Roman apparatus.  It certainly seems like what he has in mind. 

Also, immediately before the quoted material above, he quotes JPII talking about how the ministry of the Pope could be exercised in a different, less all-encompassing manner.  That quote was made in reference to how the Catholic Church might find common ground with the Orthodox Churches, and Francis seems to be sending a signal that he is serious about finding this common ground.  In particular, the document as a whole suggests what might be a more productive way to conduct this dialogue.  Instead of saying to the Orthodox Churches "let's negotiate a model of the Papacy you can live with," it seems the idea might be "we've made changes to our model of what the Papacy means and operates; now, let's talk about reunification."  I will be curious to see the reaction from the Orthodox world.


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