After praying about it for a while, triggered by a surprising amount of cajoling from various readers that I should not abstain from commenting on this papacy, I have decided that I will add my two+ cents to some of the latest from Pope Francis. (Lest I sound boastful, I did not receive a ton of cajoling to keep up my “discernment” of Pope Francis, but it was more than the zero I had anticipated.) I no longer feel that looking into the abyss, as it were, is a spiritual risk for me, as it was a few weeks ago–but as soon as it does start to divert my attention from God and sap my joy, I shall focus on something else until the room stops spinning again.
Saturday afternoon whilst driving I was trying to think like a “soft ultramontanist” about Evangelii Gaudium. (I’ll have more to say about the Everything Exhortation in the near future.) I think a fan of Evangelii Gaudium would promote it like this:
“We live in a radically secularized and pluralistic world. Christendom is dead. All the old bywords are defunct, and to repeat them to a religiously illiterate world would be to alienate the world and only further marginalize the Church. We need to get back to the roots, the radical kerygma, the Good News simpliciter. This is Pope Francis’s masterstroke: he is breaking with the usual rhetoric and routines in order to get people to listen, and he’s feeding the world basic spiritual milk before expecting it to be able to digest the highest fare. This approach also works for Catholics in our day. The vast majority of Catholics are far more catechetically illiterate and spiritually shallow than most of us ever imagined, although Francis is painfully aware of the fact. As such, EG is a sustained effort to show Catholics across the spectrum the simple, underlying unity of joy that binds the whole Catholic life together. Even for Catholics, EG shows us, all the old terms and concepts must be bracketed in order to plant seeds of profound Christian commitment beneath the barren soil of ideological fatigue and cultural conditioning.”
How did I do?
My problem with this hypothetical defense is twofold. First, honestly, no one is going to read EG, at least not on the scale which my little apologia requires. (I am aware of at least one case where somebody’s lifelong agnostic aunt is “impressed” by Pope Francis and was “intrigued” by the hoopla surrounding EG, so she actually read the whole thing, but that might just be the exception that proves the rule.) Only eggheads in committed parish fellowships and Catholic reading groups will bother digesting the whole thing, but they’re precisely the people who least need a “joyful” kick in the pants. Meanwhile, conservative pundits are obliged to perform that ole-time Auto-Tune Pope magic on the weak parts, while liberals will make endless hay over those same parts in order to drown out the sustainably orthodox passages.
The second problem with the “transvaluation” defense of Pope Francis and his Magic 8-Ball exhortation–viz. that it succeeds by “dumbing down” the Faith to a more effective “common core” (!) of basic slogans–is that it’s simply not what the Church did to achieve its greatest evangelistic successes in the past. In the early middle ages the Church was trapped and immersed in a bog of religious illiteracy and disarray, but it was by pitching high, doctrinally, and proceeding like a phalanx tightly woven around the center–the monarchical and supreme Holy See–that half the world was converted and a barbarian morass became a powerhouse of worldwide evangelism for centuries. It certainly wasn’t by flitting about at the “periphery” and mumbling the lyrics to Burt Bacharach’s greatest hit. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: In a generation we’ve gone from Church Militant to Church Amoeboid and now to Church Sponge. Give me the axe of St. Boniface over the resurrexifix of Pope Francis any day–and tomorrow wouldn’t be too shabby a day to start.
As I’ll discuss in an upcoming post, one of the key motifs in EG is “newness” and “change”, presumably because the Church needs to get with the times and constantly be ready to meet the “needs” of “the people.” Specifically, the discrete word “new” appears 121 times in the exhortation, and “renew” appears 41 times, whereas the old word “repent” appears only twice, in one line, in a single scriptural quotation–in a 50,000-word document devoted to missions and evangelism (cf. comment #5 in this thread). Despite being released “on 24 November, the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and the conclusion of the Year of Faith,” EG only mentions the word “king” twice (and, like “repent,” it’s only in a single scriptural quotation), while “kingdom” appears 21 times. In his first major address to “the Christian faithful” as a whole, the words “Church Militant,” “purgatory,” and “hell” show up a grand total of zero times. Then again, “sin/sinful/sinner” does appear twelve times in EG (and once even in the same sentence as “repent”!), so at least we’ve got something traditional to feed into the Catholic Auto-Tuner 6000.
“But, but,” some will object, “he was speaking about jooooyyy, not all that heavy, dark stuff!” Fair enough–or not, since “joy/joyful” shows up only about 75 times in EG–but, lest we get too carried away with visionary tinkering on a Church-wide scale, consider how quickly things can go wrong in dogs when a few desirable traits become a Procrustean bed for otherwise healthy, time-tested development. The Church is not a mere assemblage of negotiable themes and customs, not a bunch of spiritual Lego blocks to be constantly adjusted in order to meet consumer demand, and for anyone to presume that he can reshape the Church in a “programmatic” way is as grotesque as it is short-sighted. As a commenter named Dumb_ox noted at Louie Verrecchio’s blog, while Pope Francis makes hay about the evolutionary flexibility of the Church qua living organism, he neglects to mention how his putative source for that idea, St. Vincent Lerins, even more vehemently rejects novel tinkering and changes. It was precisely along those lines that Verrecchio had quoted Pius X in Pascendi Dominici Gregis (#55), thus:
“[The Church must] combat novelties of words remembering the admonitions of Leo XIII. (Instruct. S.C. NN. EE. EE., 27 Jan., 1902): ‘It is impossible to approve in Catholic publications of a style inspired by unsound novelty which seems to deride the piety of the faithful and dwells on the introduction of a new order of Christian life, on new directions of the Church, on new aspirations of the modern soul, on a new vocation of the clergy, on a new Christian civilisation.'”
No doubt it’s a joy to throw open the lid of the Church, dump out the gifts given to us by Father, and let our friends from outside play with them till kingdom comes, but it’s hell to pick up the mess once it’s been made.