By Lawrence J. Fedewa, May 12, 2018
Pope Francis I released his third papal letter on April 9, 2018. (dated March 19, 2018). Its cheerful title in English means “Rejoice and be glad”. American reactions have been mixed, more or less along predictable lines. That is, his conservative critics found his view of contemporary holiness too flexible and too elastic; and the “official” Catholics thought it was just great. This reader found it to be too long, too confusing, and, unfortunately, largely irrelevant.
This is unfortunate because religion in general and Christianity as an institution sorely needs an interpretation of its beliefs and its morality which demonstrates not only its relevance but its importance to modern life and to the unavoidable decisions we all must make.
During the early days of his papacy, Francis I appeared to many as the messenger sent from God to help us through these troubled times. His personal charisma, his humble demeanor and his wit and charm were much on display during his historic visit to the United States in 2015 and he gained a great following.
Luckily, few of those millions of admirers will read this 12,000-word exhortation, and the images he created during that visit will remain their view of him. Among the more curious followers of his papacy, however, he has become very controversial. The basis for these reactions tends to be his writings rather than his actions, such as his visits to Israel, Palestine, and many other lands. This document illustrates some of the common objections to his teachings.
An overview of Gaudete et Exultate prompts the first question: What in the world is he talking about? It is clear that much of his concern is with inter-church debates and movements, such as “Gnosticism” and “Pelagianism” and “Semi-Pelagianism”. He spends 1000 words or so discussing why these views are misguided. I don’t know about others, but I personally have never heard these ideas discussed at a Knights of Columbus meeting. To make matters worse, scholars dispute his definitions of the terms!
This is an example of the totally foreign world he must live in. “Today’s world” for Pope Francis is a universe far removed from that of most Americans. He uses terms which are familiar to any Catholic, such as, abundant references to the Bible and the saints. But the overall goal of holiness, as he describes it, is a confusing mixture of meekness, humility, courage, kindness, comradery, solitude, and gaiety. He holds that the grace of God is given before we are even conceived, and that therefore all the good that we do comes from this grace. (So, what happened to Original Sin?) But, how then is it possible for us to do evil? Oops, next topic. . . .
As a political commentator, I continue to find his ideas of Christian charity quite naïve. His concept of charity as a personal, individual activity is not unusual for a Catholic. Our Catholic tradition has tended to make us a little too self-satisfied. (Personally, I remember discovering the true complexity of sin and evil from Reinhold Niebuhr.) Nevertheless, the view of Christian charity as a personal matter in this age of rampant Socialism is a bit anachronistic, to say the least. Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked are clearly fine things to do. As is accepting other people in spite of their faults, sins and foreign accents. But today’s problems are too massive for individual remedy. The only solutions are inherently political.
At the top of that list is world peace. But there are now and always have been tribes who want to expand their power. As soon as they run up against resistance from their intended subjects, there is a war. So, what will stop wars? Victory. How can wars be prevented from starting? Fear. Fear of a stronger opponent. How does that fear arise? From the size of the opponent’s force and/or the opponent’s record of victories.
So, America has been the policeman of the world for two generations. We have fought almost constant “little” (regional) wars during that period to keep the world from starting another World War. The moral questions are whether we should continue? What should our policies be concerning whole populations seeking to escape from the war in their homeland? How do we decide to divide our finite resources between foreign and domestic needs? There is nothing in this long, long, treatise on how to make life decisions which even remotely approaches these questions.
The is an example of the “macro” moral decisions we face. As individuals in a democracy, the chief responsibility each of us has is our vote and our support for candidates who espouse one or another position on such issues.
On a “micro” level, another issue which arises from this view is the implicit dogma of Socialism that social status is necessarily static – the rich will always be rich and the poor always poor. America’s capitalist society is inherently dynamic. The poor may become wealthy and the rich may become poor. The factor which controls this social mobility is competition for ownership of private property, whether land, cash, liquid or illiquid. In this society, everyone is responsible for his/her own welfare and that of the family. Many of the traditional functions of charity are now preformed by government and other large organizations. Compassion for the needy neighbor of the Good Samaritan is no longer a gesture of noblesse oblige on the part of the wealthy. But neither is the taxpayer guilty of neglect if he/she does not give alms to every panhandler.
In a word, Pope Francis sends a more effective message to Americans through his example than through writings like this.
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