Francis’ Inclusive Apostolic Exhortation: “Rejoice in the Gospel”

To mark the feast of Christ the King, and concluding the Year of Faith that Benedict XVII launched a year ago, Pope Francis has released a major Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelium Gaudium – “The Joy of the Gospel”. This important document, described at National Catholic Reporter as a tour de force, deserves careful study and attention to its many themes and layers of meaning.

The full text is long – something like 50 000 words, and I have not yet come close to digesting them all, so will not yet attempt anything like a full response. However, after even a cursory reading, I am convinced that this represents what some reports are already describing as a papal blueprint for Church reform. This is obviously a momentous development, of great importance to all Catholics, and even more so for gay men and lesbians.

Pope Francis, Holy Spirit

If the 16 page papal interview in July caused waves and many raised eyebrows among the Catholic faithful (and alarmed many Catholic traditionalists), this will do so, even more. (It’s far longer, it represents Francis’ own priorities, not his reaction to an interviewer’s questions, and as a formal Vatican document, has far greater status than any magazine interview).  As I see it as important to draw attention to it as quickly and widely as possible, I offer now some first impressions on its significance. There will be a series of more focussed posts to follow, covering specific elements in greater depth, after closer reading. (The first of these, on why this document could be seen as spelling out the writing on the wall for current sexual doctrines, will publish immediately after this post. Read it here).

In no particular order (for now), these are the points that most forcibly strike me in this:

The title itself is of major importance: “The Joy of the Gospel – Evangelium Gaudium”. Along with the announcement of the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict introduced what he described as the “New Evangelisation”. Under his papacy, there was always a danger that this “evangelisation” of the West would be seen as an opportunity to bang on about Catholic doctrines (especially on sex and the sacraments), and to chastise those perceived to be out of line. For Francis, the need for evangelisation is continuing and permanent, but with a very different emphasis. “Evangelium”, included in his Latin title, is the word for “Gospel” – and so the focus of any evangelisation must be, as the Latin root indicates, the Gospels, with their lessons on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ – not on doctrinal formulations. The second word in the title, moreover, is “Gaudium” – Joy. This too, is entirely appropriate. The root of the English word is “Godspell”, or “Good News”. So it is, and so Francis exhorts us to “rejoice” in the Gospel.

This “Good News” applies to all – and that most certainly include sexual and gender minorities, along with the poor and all other previously marginalised groups. Historically, we have so often been subjected to different forms of textual abuse, based on a mere handful of verses (appropriately described as “clobber texts”, or “texts of terror”) that many gay men and lesbians look with deep suspicion on any references to “Bible”, or even to religion in general. But we need to remember that none of these verses are found in the Gospels, which displays many elements reflective of queer values, rather the “traditional family values” claimed by the Christianist right.  And so, fully in keeping with the relative importance of sexual considerations in the Gospel, Francis says on the subject – absolutely nothing. In the entire text of some 50 000 words, there is  not a single one to “sex” (let alone homosexuality), and only one in the footnotes, referencing a 2006 document of the US bishops).

For Francis, as for Christ, there can be no doubt that a major priority is the preferential option for the poor. In the Gospels, Christ has much to say about the dangers of wealth, and the importance of caring for the needy. Accordingly, this takes up a major portion of Francis’ text, in which he castigates political policies that advantage the rich at the expense of the poor, condemns the celebration of wealth and materialistic consumption so characteristic of modern life. and laments the social marginalization and exclusion of the poverty -stricken which results. Instead, he insists, we should be learning from these people who live in poverty: they are frequently in far greater harmony with the authentic Gospel message, and so we who are relatively rich, should be evangelised by them.

It is no exaggeration to describe this document as “a blueprint for church reform”. No details are spelled out, but there are important indicators of a substantially greater role for women (but not as ordained priests), for radical decentralization from the Vatican to local bishops, and for greater emphasis on a church of all the people – specifically including respect for lay voices. One of the most intriguing phrases he uses, is in a criticism of the “culture of clericalism”, which sees priesthood and episcopal office as seats of power, and of greater moral worth that the lay state. This is significant, because this “culture of clericalism” has been blamed by many as a contributing factor in the scandal of clerical sexual abuse and its cover – up, and was identified by several reform initiatives of recent years (such as the German “theologians’ revolt”, and the later global “Jubilee declaration”) as a priority and precondition for the extensive more specific reforms that are needed. Also notable, is his reference to “infallibility” as applying to those issues that are accepted by the Church as a whole, which have the sensus fideii – a far cry from the creeping papal infallibility claimed by John Paul II, Benedict XVII, and their acolytes.

One feature that is sure to alarm what I think of the orthotoxic, rule – book Catholics, is a clear rejection of the idea that authentic Catholicism is a matter of enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy, in absolute conformity with Catechism decrees. Instead, he points to the existence of different levels of teaching (not all of which require absolute assent), to the acceptance of diversity within the church, and stresses that the Eucharist should not be used as a weapon to exclude those who are deemed not worthy – again, this is in absolute accord with the clear words of Jesus Christ, who urged us that “He who is without sin, should cast the first stone”, and warned us ” Do not judge, that you be not judged”.

In keeping with all his previous statements indicating the need for serious church reform, the issues he raises now are matters of style and pastoral practice, not of core doctrine. It would be a mistake, though, to see this important document as being relevant only to pastoral practice, and ruling out the possibility of doctrinal reform. In fact, the reverse is true. There is no change of doctrine indicated in the text, but much of the proposed changes in praxis make doctrinal change in the longer term, simply inevitable. Why this is so for sexual theology in particular, I discuss in a parallel post, published along with this one, as Francis: The Writing on the Wall for Catholic Sexual Dogma



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