What is one to think of the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG)? In a document of 50,000 words spanning 223 typeset pages—straining the hortatory genre beyond all reasonable limits—one would naturally expect to find a good deal of orthodox Catholicism; and that is there. Francis is, after all, the Pope, even if he doesn’t like to call himself that and refuses to add the traditional pontifical “P.P.” to his signature on this or any other document.
Then again, in a document of this length one would also expect to find a good deal of what has made this Pope so beloved by the worldwide mass media: radical-sounding bombshells about how wrong the Church is and how much Francis must do to make it right, in all humility. That too is there—in spades. And no, I am not referring to EG’s emphasis on love of neighbor and concern for the poor, or its biting commentary on globalist capitalism and the idolatry of money. Such things may be pleasing to liberals of a socialist bent, but they are also entirely consistent with the social teaching of a long line of Popes before and after Vatican II. And please spare me the dudgeon of fat and happy faux conservatives who are just liberals of the bourgeois variety. They “have no problem with gays” or even abortion so long as it is legalized according to “states’ rights,” but utter a peep against capitalism and they begin barking like trained seals about capitalist abundance and Third World poverty, failing to notice that capitalist abundance depends upon Third World wage slaves, so that Third World poverty actually proves the Church’s point about the moral deficiencies of capitalist social order. To decry those deficiencies, as the Popes have always done, is not to advocate socialism.
A word about EG’s forthright condemnation of abortion (EG 213). While quite admirable as far as it goes, Francis immediately undermines it by indulging his crowd-pleasing penchant for reckless and unfounded accusations against the Church: “On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” (EG 214).
Perhaps Francis should speak for himself. No one has done more to assist women tempted by abortion than the members of the worldwide Catholic pro-life movement. As President and Chief Counsel of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, I represent in state and federal court many pro-life advocates who devote their lives to “accompanying women in very difficult situations” and have saved thousands of babies from death in the womb. Here Francis provides yet another opening to the Church’s enemies: “See, the Church condemns abortion but does little to help women in very difficult situations, as Pope Francis admits! No wonder they choose abortion. Shame on the Church for condemning but not helping those in need!”
A Progressivist Dream on Paper
From our perspective, however, the most serious problem with EG lies in what we suspected was coming: a cocksure presentation of an outmoded ecclesial progressivism, long since shown to be a total failure, as a bold new prescription for the Church. And, of course, the mass media are ecstatic. Rave reviews in The New York Times (“Francis Sets Down Goals for an inclusive Church”), USA Today (“Francis Calls for Big Changes in the Roman Catholic Church”), The Los Angeles Times (“Pope Francis Calls for Decentralized Church in Manifesto”) and Fox News (“How Pope Francis is reenergizing the Catholic church: New pontiff celebrated by liberal Catholics”) are typical of the latest eruption of liberal rapture over Francis the Wonderful. The liberal media love EG even more than Francis’s scattered utterances in other forums, including the infamous Scalfari interview, finally removed from the Vatican website after it became too hot to handle, but without the Pope retracting a single word of it. Small wonder: EG develops the same themes Francis related to Scalfari.
The media love EG for another reason: it leaves no wiggle room for the indefatigable explainers of What The Pope Really Meant To Say, Or What He Would Have Said If He Had Said What He Meant Rather Than What He Said, Which Was Misinterpreted And Taken Out Of Context.The New York Times notes that while during the first nine months of his pontificate Francis only “parceled out glimpses of his vision for remaking the church,” with EG he has “announced his agenda in his own unfiltered words, reaffirming the impression that he intends to jolt the church out of complacency and enlist all Catholics in his ambitious project of renewing the church [sic] by confronting the real needs of people in need….”
Like the liberal media, both modernists and their neo-Catholic enablers are over the moon about EG. Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter exults: “At times, the text is lyrical, like an aria. At other times, it has all the accessibility of a recitative. Either way, it is a song.” Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying. Comments like these are a sure indication that EG has little to do with concrete Catholic teaching and very much to do with a new papal personality cult.
Francis sings his progressive song with voluptuous abandon: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” Haven’t we already been there and done that? It was called something like “the renewal of Vatican II.” Does the Pope seriously propose a massive do-over of this disaster?
In the same vein Francis declares: “certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them.” Excuse me, but after fifty years of a liturgical revolution that has leveled the entire structure of Catholic worship, along with unprecedented “reforms” in virtually every other aspect of the practice of our religion, exactly which customs are left to “re-examine”? Moreover, how can a beautiful custom, deeply rooted in Church history, not be a means of communicating the Gospel? What on earth is Francis talking about?
The lyrics of the Song of Francis resonate with the platitudinous cant of the reformist avant-garde of forty years ago. Francis’s dream is precisely what—in EG—he criticizes in the thought of others: “empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real (EG 231)…” Apparently, we are not supposed to notice that during Cardinal Bergoglio’s tenure as Archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998-2013) there was no Catholic renewal but rather a drastic decline in every index of ecclesial well-being, especially the number of priests and religious. The Bergoglio legacy is in keeping with the overall decline of Brazilian Catholicism, with millions of Catholics, following a “renewal” that replaced bread with stones, defecting into Protestant sects. “I wasn’t being fed” is practically the mantra of ex-Catholics turned Protestants.
For all its talk of a more open-minded conception of the Church’s mission, EG is a narrow-minded document, rooted in parochial, seventies era Latin American prejudices against the Church universal. Francis writes from the blinkered perspective of a reformist mentality that refuses to concede the indispensability of what the post-Vatican II “reforms” insanely suppressed: the Church’s Latin liturgical tradition, her intrinsically militant opposition to error as a sign of contradiction in the world, her essentially monarchical constitution as a reflection of the kingship of her divine Founder, and her very existence as a fortress against the Adversary.
Instead of leaving his prejudices behind in Buenos Aires along with his Pinocchio Mass and his lighting of the Menorah—a symbol of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem—Francis would like to impose his outmoded parochial progressivism on the entire Church. CNN’s story on EG puts it most succinctly: “Pope Francis: No more business as usual....” The article reports that EG calls “for big changes in the Roman Catholic Church—including at the very top—saying the church needs to rethink rules and customs that are no longer widely understood or effective for evangelizing.” And that is exactly what EG does say.
Deconstructing the Papacy
Francis’s “dream Church” involves nothing less than a deconstruction of the papacy in favor of a synodal model governed—God help us!—by the national bishops’ conferences:
… I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”…. Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy [to]… help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization…. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion….
[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. (EG 16, 32)
One must be frank: Francis’s opinion that the traditional exercise of the papacy is unfaithful to “the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it” is a dangerous delusion. The ecclesial crisis represents precisely a practical breakdown in the papacy as established by Christ: the rock on which the Church is founded, the principle of ecclesial unity, the authority that binds in heaven and on earth. The erosion of papal authority since the Council has meant a collapse of faith and discipline like no other in Church history. Incredibly, Francis proposes to finalize the collapse by giving juridical reality to autocephalous national churches à la the schismatic Orthodox. EG specifically cites “the dialogue with our Orthodox brothers and sisters” through which “we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and their experience of synodality.” (EG 246)
If Francis were to succeed in implementing his “dream,” it would be the final triumph of the ruinous novelty of “collegiality.” And if it happens, we can be certain that the neo-Catholic papalators will continue to perform their paradoxical role of undermining the papacy by “blindly and indiscriminately defend[ing] every decision of the Supreme Pontiff,” to quote Melchior Cano, theologian of the Council of Trent. They will defend even the Pope’s decision to attack his own authority. Catholics of this mentality, to quote Cano, “are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See—they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations.” (Quoted in Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 15).
The “New Evangelization”—Again?
EG also calls for more of a “new evangelization” that amounts to no evangelization beyond an amorphous proclamation of joy over salvation. According to Francis, the New Evangelizers—or should we say the New New evangelizers?—“[i]nstead of seeming to impose new obligations… should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction.’” (EG 15) The world’s response to a sharing of joy without “proselytization” or any talk of obligations has been a collective yawn. After all, one can always share this joy, whatever it is, in the next life, if there is a next life, especially if no “new obligations” are involved in obtaining it. And, to the modern mind, there are “delicious banquets” aplenty in the here and now.
Of course the Church grows by attraction, but this attraction is aided, not impeded, by what Francis derides as “proselytism.” From the first moment of her existence, when Peter preached baptism and repentance to the three thousand who converted on the spot through his “proselytism,” down through all the Christian centuries, the Church has grown through the simple preaching of her missionaries on the divine imperative of conversion. But one will search the sprawling text of EG in vain for a clear indication that anyone is in danger of damnation for rejecting Christ, His Church and the sacraments by which one achieves and maintains the state of grace. Rather, EG persists in the false antithesis Francis earlier expressed in the Civiltà Catolica interview: between a supposed “obsession” with doctrines and “rules” and an attractive proclamation of the Gospel:
Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed…. [T]he message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary…. (EG 35).
If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards… [I]t is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options. The message will run the risk of losing its freshness and will cease to have “the fragrance of the Gospel.” (EG 40)
… [M]y hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges… (EG 49)
What does Francis mean by “fragrance of the Gospel”? What is the Gospel if not the teachings of Christ and the Apostles, which are not an incessant “sharing of joy” but rather are replete with “hard sayings,” condemnations of sin, and admonitions concerning damnation as the consequence of sin (which Christ mentions far more often than heaven). And yet, with this, there is also the sure hope of eternal happiness for those who respond to grace, believe, are baptized, and persevere to the end in obedience to Christ’s commandments.
There is nothing particularly “fragrant” about Our Lord’s warning: “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; he who believes not shall be condemned (Mk. 16:16).” It is simply the Gospel truth. Nor could one consider sweet-smelling Our Lord’s warning that on the Last Day “he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41).” In post-conciliar preaching, including Francis’s, we hear endlessly that God loves us, but why do we never hear that we must love Him in return and show our love by following His teaching? “If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him. (Jn.14:23-24).”
Which doctrines would Francis propose as the “essentials” of a “beautiful,” “grand” and “appealing” pastoral ministry? Which are to be omitted? Mortal sin? Hell? Purgatory? The necessity of baptism? The papal primacy? The status of the Catholic Church as the only ark of salvation? Mary as Mediatrix? The Church’s “hard sayings” on marriage and procreation? The impossibility of remaining for very long in the state of grace without the sacraments? And what does Francis mean by his posited opposition between the “fragrance of the Gospel” and “certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options”? What ideological options? Does not this remark expose all of Catholic moral theology to dismissal as mere ideology, compared with “fragrant” Gospel preaching?
This “fragrant” Gospel is the same half-truth the overwhelming majority of the Church’s pastors have been preaching timidly since the Council: mercy without judgment, salvation without the threat of eternal punishment. Francis even goes so far as to assert: “To understand this reality we need to approach it with the gaze of the Good Shepherd, whoseeks not to judge but to love…” (EG 125). The Catholic Church, even in her new catechism, begs to differ: “From thence he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” (Apostles’ Creed; CCC, I.II.2, Art. 7). And it is none other than the Good Shepherd who warns us, in one of the most “fragrant” passages of the Gospel, that “when the Son of man shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit upon the seat of his majesty. And all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats.” (Matt. 25:31-32). We all know the fate of the goats, but Francis does not seem interested in letting the world in on the story, as if Our Lord’s most dire warnings were bluffs finally called at Vatican II.
And where in the Church today does one see an “obsession” with doctrine and rules? One sees instead an obsession, clearly shared by Francis, with proclaiming joy and mercy to the exclusion of all “hard sayings.” The word joy appears 109 times in EG and mercy 32 times, but there is not one word about how God’s mercy is bound up with His justice or how the joy He promises comes only with obedience to His law. It is not merely facetious to ask whether there is any material difference between the “new evangelization” and this popular sentiment:
The sun is shinin’ c’mon get happy,
the Lord is waitin’ to take your hand.
Shout Hallejulah c’mon get happy,
we’re going to the Promised Land.
“Get Happy,”© Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler
I have barely addressed the problematical content that has the world exulting yet again over Francis’s “headline-grabbing papacy.” EG’s unprecedented suggestion that Judaism and essentially all other religions are ways to salvation would require an article in itself. (Cf. EG 247-53). But there is only so much one can say without unpardonably burdening the reader. I will have to conclude by noting another persistent theme of Francis’s developed in EG: his loathing of traditionalists.
More Insults for Traditionalists
As the always brilliantly witty Hilary White has observed: “[O]ne of the reasons the libs love this pope so much is that he enjoys insulting the same people they do, namely the Catholics who believe everything the Church teaches—and has ever taught—and try to live by it.” In EG Francis perversely heaps still more vitriol on his loyal subjects, thus belying his public persona as the merciful, non-judgmental father the Church has been longing for:
“the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”
“[a] supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying….
“insidious worldliness…. an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few.”
As we can see, it is Francis who “analyzes and classifies others,” deriding traditionalists—but only them—as neopelagian, self-absorbed, superior to others, intransigent, insidiously worldly, ostentatious, elitist, narcissistic and authoritarian. That’s nine pejorative classificationsapplied to one unlucky group of faithful Catholics!
Moreover, it is Francis who is “intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past”—a seventies progressivism that today looks like the ecclesial equivalent of a lava lamp. Now, if everything Catholics held in common in their practice of the Faith before Vatican II can be tossed aside as a “Catholic style from the past,” if the concept of fashion is now operative in the Church, why is it not the case that the “reforms” of the 1970s have also fallen out of fashion and should be abandoned? Further, if it is merely a matter of Catholic “styles,” why not bring back the old style in the manner of “retro” trends in secular fashion? Many Catholics are attracted to the old “style” of the traditional Latin liturgy. Who is Francis to judge?
Of course, ecclesiastical tradition is not a matter of style but rather part of what the Church hands down through the centuries. That is why Pope Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum: to liberate the Church’s sacred liturgy from the ecclesiastical equivalent of fashion police. Francis seems to lack an appreciation of the incommutability of ecclesiastical traditions as the living embodiment of doctrine. He does not seem to understand the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi. In a Pope this is cause for grave concern.
With the laughably wordy prejorative “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism,” Francis likewise accuses others of what he is guilty of. Prometheus is the Greek deity whose intellectual pride leads to his theft of fire, which he gives to man, and his eternal punishment by Zeus, while Pelagius is the heretic who taught that men are saved not by grace but by their own efforts. Nothing examples “promethean neopelagianism” better than Francis’s “dream” about “transforming everything,” or the hubristic, brutally imposed post-conciliar program of man-made “renewal” in a vainglorious attempt to please a hostile “modern world,” including a fabricated liturgy whose fruits are declining Mass attendance, widespread boredom, growing apostasy, sacrilege and banality. Traditionalists, on the other hand, trusting the Church rather than men, simply hold fast to precious traditions preserved for centuries by the Holy Ghost, which the promethean neopelagians of “renewal”—including Francis—insist on substituting with their clumsy and vulgar human contrivances.
Tellingly, Francishas nothing to say about the plague of neo-modernism that has spread throughout the Church since the Council, undermining Church teaching, making a mockery of the liturgy, and animating radical dissent in every nation. Rather, he continues to condemn as cold and faithless ideologues traditional Catholics who, in the midst of the ruins, have taken refuge in the few edifices still standing after fifty years of a “renewal” even he admits has never happened. This is unheard-of behavior for a Pope. And Francis behaves this way knowing full well that the various traditional societies and orders are practically the only places where the Church is experiencing robust health.
What is to account for this obsessive antipathy toward Catholics who practice the faith of their fathers, have large families, and follow the teachings of the Church on faith and morals? Perhaps the aging progressivist from Argentina fears what even The London Economist can see: that young Catholics are forming a worldwide “traditionalist avant-garde” dissatisfied with “the trendy liberalism” of the Vatican II generation. Perhaps he fears, as The Economist observes, that “traditional Catholicism is attracting people who were not even born when the Second Vatican Council tried to rejuvenate the church” and that—oh, the horror!—“[i]t’s trendy to be a traditionalist...” Thus, irony of ironies, it would be the mentality EG represents that is standing in the way of true reform and renewal in the midst of a “spiritual desertification” of the Christian world even Francis (EG 86) is forced to acknowledge.
Our readers know how hard The Remnant has tried to put the best face on Francis’s seemingly endless torrent of crowd-pleasing utterances. The Editor has even counseled against “piling on” the Pope. But this circus has gone far enough. I hereby exercise my God-given right to protest the Pope’s abuse of his office, which reopens wounds that were slowly healing—thanks to Pope Benedict—reignites the very divisions Francis professes to deplore (cf. EG 98), and degrades the Church’s image, to the world’s delight, with the spectacle of a Pope publicly hectoring and humiliating his own sheep for nothing more than their fidelity to Tradition.
I urge my fellow Catholics to join me in making their concerns known to Pope Francis as the law of the Church contemplates. (Cfr. CIC 1983, Can. 212, §§ 2-3). As we read in the press two weeks ago, the Italian traditionalist intellectual Mario Palmaro, exercising that very right, co-authored a scathing critique of this pontificate entitled “We do not like this Pope” which was published in a major Italian newspaper. In response, Palmaro received a telephone call from Francis during which the Pope stated that “he had understood that those criticisms had been made with love, and how important it had been for him to receive them.” Perhaps you will be favored with one of those disarming phone calls. If you are, I hope you will not waste the opportunity to tell the Pope what it is important for him to hear. ■