Friday, November 29, 2013

Pope Francis's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: Reflections from a Nobody Who Isn't Even in the Room

I've struggled for several days now to write something about Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.  I have read the document--sort of: it's lengthy and diffuse, and to be honest, much of it strikes me as a habriaque√≠smo (a word I learned from the document itself, #96) that doesn't speak to me because it doesn't seem to see me in the room. And so my eyes scan the words without fully taking them in, since I suspect they're not addressed to me as an openly gay, partnered Catholic theologian who was never, throughout my brief, abortive theological career, accorded any lasting place within a Catholic college or university, or within a Catholic parish--because I am clearly not welcome within these institutions as I am in my real life.

One cannot be made more unwelcome than by being denied basic human rights freely given to everyone else in the world, targeted by the leaders of one's religious community for special messages of denigration and exclusion, excluded from employment, from a living wage, from healthcare benefits, from the social context in which one's gifts are able to be expressed and one is able to learn from others. 

I want to hear the nice words the pope declares in this new document. I really do. I want to find myself moved by them, as others say they're being moved.

But, as I say, it's more than a little difficult to hear words that appear to be addressed to everyone else  but oneself--because one is not even there. Not in the room. If I were there, surely those now talking in a hyper-accentuated way about flinging doors wide open and bringing . . . everyone . . . inside would feel no little chagrin about this talk, I tell myself. Especially when they haven't made any effort at all to knock on my door and ask me why I remain on the outside looking in, hungry to find a welcoming place and an affirming community, and why I've failed to take  advantage of those newly opened doors they've been telling the world about. 

And it's not just the pastoral leaders of my church who seem capable of this, of talking about newly opened doors and healing and welcoming communities without seeing the embarrassment of real-life human beings who belie their words standing right there in front of them--outside the doors, outside  looking in, completely invisible to those who have suddenly discovered that their church is all about love and welcome and invitation. It's not just my church's leaders: it's also all those entirely predictable chatterers who parse papal statements for the media to whom I continue to be invisible as well: the tribal gatekeepers who occupy the power perches among our chattering classes, who are almost all male, almost entirely white, exclusively heterosexual (or heterosexual-posturing), and who are, to all appearances, very cozy with the structures of power that have accorded them such entitlement and entr√©e.

Still talking after all these years. Talking about what they proclaim as entirely new. Talking about new matters in very old voices--the same old voices that previously praised the two popes whom the current pope is said to have superseded with an entirely new message . . . . Talking without any chagrin at all about the new message of open doors, welcome, inclusion, and healing, even as many of their fellow Catholics stand on the outside looking in, after having been placed there by the previous popes these power-mongering chatters defended . . . .

So here's what a nobody who isn't even in the room, and whose voice counts for nothing at all to the chattering gatekeepers, has to say about EG. Here are my few initial thoughts and responses, for what they're worth:

I'm inclined to read the document as I would any substantive text--as an interweaving (the etymological metaphor to which the word "text" points) of many different strands of thought with differing emphases. I think we're obliged to read any text, whether sacred or secular, with a sensitivity to the interwoven strands that comprise it. The act of careful reading involves separating strand from strand, isolating the various textual strands and placing them side by side, noticing their differences and contradictions.

I also think that as we read any document, we engage it from within particular communities of discourse to which we belong, and whose interests we bring to the act of interpretation. I read EG as an openly gay and partnered Catholic whose life has been made a living hell by the leaders of my church and those who support them. Because I'm openly gay and partnered.

I read the papal document as a progressive who shares the commitments and concerns of many progressives both inside and outside the Catholic church, some of whom are anti-religious or irreligious. And I read EG as a progressive, openly gay Catholic who stands squarely with women struggling for their human rights both in the world at large and within the Catholic church.

If I read EG as many of those lauding the document in the popular media are now doing, I take great hope from a significant papal statement that places the resources of a powerful and wealthy global religious institution unambiguously on the side of the poor and against all those who exploit the poor.

I'm also inclined to take hope from the program of decentralization the pope sets forth for the whole church in this foundational envisioning document of his papacy. EG is an "attempt to put all things in a missionary key" (#34), and that attempt has serious implications for parish life. Again and again, EG reminds readers that evangelization is the task of the entire church and not just its hierarchy. Francis speaks beautifully of each parish as the local instantiation of the church in general, in which the missionary imperative connects to the surrounding culture through the lived witness of parish members: a parish is called to be the following, he insists:

It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach (#28). 

But he adds,

We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented (#28).

He also stresses,

Today, as the Church seeks to experience a profound missionary renewal, there is a kind of preaching which falls to each of us as a daily responsibility. It has to do with bringing the Gospel to the people we meet, whether they be our neighbours or complete strangers (#127).

This bringing the gospel to the people we meet through parish life occurs through the lived witness of Catholics and their parish communities:

We need to remember that all religious teaching ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life, which awakens the assent of the heart by its nearness, love and witness (#134). 


An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the "smell of the sheep" and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be (#24). 

This preaching the gospel at all times, and when necessary, using words: it's the obligation of all Catholics and not merely ordained ones:

Today, as the Church seeks to experience a profound missionary renewal, there is a kind of preaching which falls to each of us as a daily responsibility. It has to do with bringing the Gospel to the people we meet, whether they be our neighbours or complete strangers (#127). 

For whom does the church, both globally and in its local expression through parishes, exist? For everyone. The document is unambiguous about this, and repeatedly so. There are constant references to the church's call to be an institution branded in the culture at large as the institution of Here comes everybody. The missionary aspiration that has to frame the life of each Catholic community at a fundamental level is "the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone" (#31).

This is so--this stress on Here comes everybody--because the gospels are clear about the fact that their invitation to experience God's salvific love is offered precisely to everyone:

The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone (#113)  . . . 
The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel (#114).

The call to be a community welcoming and including everyone is, Francis thinks, grounded in the Trinity itself:

To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that "he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity." To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. To believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobles each human being. Our redemption has a social dimension because "God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men." To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds . . . (#178, citing John Paul II, "Message to the Handicapped," Angelus (16 November 1980): Insegnamenti, 3/2 (1980), 1232; and Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 52).


If we are to share our lives with others and generously give of ourselves, we also have to realize that every person is worthy of our giving. Not for their physical appearance, their abilities, their language, their way of thinking, or for any satisfaction that we might receive, but rather because they are God’s handiwork, his creation. God created that person in his image, and he or she reflects something of God’s glory. Every human being is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives. Jesus offered his precious blood on the cross for that person. Appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love (#274).

The call to be a church for everyone has, as the preceding passage makes plain, a very specific focus for Francis: it's a call normed above all by the "the option for those who are least, those whom society discards" (#195), the "option for the poor," who have a special primacy of place in the concern of the church and its missionary focus--because they have a special primacy of place in the heart of God (#198-#200). And so the missionary impulse of the entire church, which must express itself in the life of each local community, in the life of each parish, is oriented first and foremost to the poor, to those on the margins, to those excluded from community: 

If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse, she has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and wealthy neighbours, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, "those who cannot repay you" (Lk 14:14) (#48).

The theme of exclusion--of the fundamental missionary obligation of all Christians and all Christian communities to work against structures that exclude anyone from participation in the economic and social life of community--runs throughout the entire document. Francis frames his strong attack on the structures of an unbridled capitalism that makes some persons non-persons by saying, "[T]oday we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality" (#53).

We have an obligation to draw the excluded into participation in the economic and social life of community because exclusion does the following to people:

Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the "exploited" but the outcast, the "leftovers" (#53).

Many of the people with whom we live, people all around us in the various social settings in which we move and have our being, are simply not there for most of us: they don't exist, because they have been shoved to the margins to such an extent that they are relegated to sub-human status and have become "remnants":

On the one hand, there are people who have the means needed to develop their personal and family lives, but there are also many "non-citizens," "half citizens" and "urban remnants" (74).

When we permit our privileged socioeconomic status or our uncritical glorification of cultural and socioeconomic structures that exploit others to cause us not to see those who are victims of the structures we're glorifying, we, too, become victims:

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own (#54).

There is a clear link, then, between the obligation of all Christians--and all Catholics at the parish level--to work to deconstruct each and every structure that results in the exclusion of others from human community, and the obligation to defend human rights. Francis reiterates a theme of Catholic social teaching that some recent Catholic pastoral officials have tended to ignore or even mute:

Sometimes it is a matter of hearing the cry of entire peoples, the poorest peoples of the earth, since "peace is founded not only on respect for human rights, but also on respect for the rights of peoples" (#190, citing Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 157).

He also notes that when one says that all Christians are always and everywhere obliged to hear the cry of the poor,

This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use (#192). 

You can't talk about concern for the poor or for peacemaking in a vacuum, then. Challenging structures that exclude others from participation in community requires working in concrete ways to overcome exclusion by providing education, access to healthcare, and employment with a just wage. Francis applies the point to the situation of women in the world at large, though, as he does so, he engages in a certain sleight of hand which seems to imply that there are women and then there are poor women--and it's the latter whose marginalization ought to be of concern to Christians and their communities:

Doubly poor are those women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence, since they are frequently less able to defend their rights (#212). 

I call this a certain sleight of hand because earlier in EG, Francis talks about the "legitimate rights of women"--as if there are rights and then there are rights, and some are legitimate while others are not legitimate, a point to which I'll return in a subsequent critical response I want to offer to this document in a day or so. Here, Francis writes,

Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded (#104).

The church has, then, an obligation constantly to go forth, and that obligation extends very decisively to each Catholic and to each Catholic parish community. There is an obligation built into the very center of Catholic faith to go forth from one's own circles of comfort and draw outsiders inside--to work against structures that make anyone an excluded and demeaned outsider, to work on behalf of justice and human rights, since the dramas of exclusion and inclusion occur in a concrete world in which human rights or their violation provide the conditions for this drama to take place.

Francis applies these themes in a very pointed way to individual Christians and to their communities of faith, as he challenges the perception that the moral life is primarily about "a catalogue of sins and faults," about privatized understandings of religious life that ignore what is absolutely central to the practice of Christian faith:

Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others. Under no circumstance can this invitation be obscured! All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love. If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it 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" (#39).

By its very nature, the church is a church always impelled to dispense with itself and its inward -focused concerns to go forth:

A Church which "goes forth" is a Church whose doors are open (#46).  . . . The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.51 These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.(#47, citing Saint Ambrose, De Sacramentis, IV, 6, 28: PL 16, 464; IV, 5, 24: PL 16, 463; and Saint Cyril of Alexandria, In Joh. Evang., IV, 2: PG 73, 584-585).

This formulation of what it means to live the Catholic faith in the context of parish life is a direct challenge to the understanding of those who quite precisely do intend to make the church a tollhouse in which treasures are locked up and dispensed only grudgingly to the worthy and the washed--and certainly not to everyone, since the word "everyone" comprises all those unworthy and unwashed people who would knock at our doors if they imagined those treasures were there for them, too. Here's what the pope has to say about that understanding of Catholic faith:

The other [i.e., form of spiritual worldliness that truncates the gospel understanding of the moral life] is 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. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others (#94). 

And then there is also this particular flavor of Catholics, who equally misunderstand what's central to the practice of their faith, EG suggests:

In some people we see 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 (#95). 

These deformed understandings of what it means to be Catholic, which have held such sway over the imagination of many Catholics in recent decades: they lead to the following quite damning indictment of the behavior of many Catholics, Francis says in a phrase that I find powerfully provocative: "[T]hey reject the prophecy of their brothers and sisters . . . (#97). If I'm reading the phrase correctly, I think Francis is speaking here not of a prophecy that our brothers and sisters bring us, but of the prophecy that they are to us.

I think he's speaking, in particular, of the prophecy that the different, the refractory, the excluded, the misfit, the dirty and unwashed, the poor and excluded are to us. And that's the point at which I'll take up my next statement about Evangelii Gaudium--a critical response to the apostolic exhortation from a nobody who isn't even in the room, and whose voice counts for nothing at all to the chattering gatekeepers who parse papal statements for the rest of us in the Catholic media.

(For the second part of this two-part series on Evangelii Gaudiumplease see this subsequent posting.)

The detail from Michelangelo's fresco in the Sistine Chapel, showing the hands of God and Adam reaching for each other, is from Wikimedia Commons.

No comments: