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Evangelii Gaudium: Pure Christianity

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By Stephen Schneck, IPR Director

Rush Limbaugh called this week’s letter from Pope Francis “pure Marxism.” He could not be more wrong.

Midway through Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospels), the Apostolic Exhortation just released by Pope Francis, is a telling prescription. Resituating the story of Moses and burning bush in the context of Matthew 25, the pontiff writes that we must all learn to “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” The other in all her complicated reality, in her frailty, weakness, and sin, is a uniquely immanent reflection of God. She is imago Dei, the face of God for us.  At the heart of the evangelization that Pope Francis believes to be the joyful mission for the church in the modern world is this extraordinary idea. He calls on Christians to understand anew that the face of God for us is found on others.

Here’s the hard part. He insists that most especially we are called to see the face of God upon those in poverty, in the cells of death row, on the homeless man panhandling for change, the immigrant without papers, the vulnerable, the drug addict, the oppressed, the marginalized, and – yes – in the faces of the unborn. Moreover, it is not enough merely to see these lowly as representations of God for us, challenging even as that is; we are called collectively and individually, publicly and privately, in our churches and our governments, to serve them and to serve them with joy.

The first major letter from the pope in his own voice, Evangelii Gaudium asks the church to evangelize with a joyful gospel of mercy for what the pontiff sees as a deeply wounded world. Pope Francis tasks the church to rejoice in its mission to the world, with the tenderness of Mary, with open doors, and “not as an enemy who critiques and condemns.” He tasks its shepherds to “smell like the sheep,” to proceed with more grace and less law, to remember that they are servants, to love more than judge, to not be “sourpusses.”  The pope speaks of rejuvenating parish life, for strengthening national and regional episcopal conferences, for a greater “decentralization” of church institutions. He remonstrates Catholics who prefer turning inward, toward the past, and away from optimistic engagement with the world of today. Fresh evangelization for our times, he insists, would benefit from homilies that speak to people’s hearts, from support for popular piety, from liturgies that reflect the diversity of everyday life, and catechesis that attends to the “way of beauty.”

It is, however, the pope’s plainspoken and sometimes shocking analysis of the self-inflicted wounds of modern times and his call to see God in the weak and lowly that makes his exhortation so important.

The contemporary economic system is one of these wounds. Invoking the “thou shalt not” language of the commandments, the pope instructs that “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.” Worshiping the invisible hands of the market, celebrating “trickle-down theories,” imagining that “everything comes under the laws of competition and survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed on the powerless” has yielded a society where “masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized.” To sustain this “selfish ideal,” he insists, “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.”

The pontiff points to what he describes as fundamental structural causes of poverty that are evidenced in the exponential growth of worldwide income inequality. He discerns radical free market practices as the problematic. Naming ideologies that “defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace” and that reject the duty of governments to exercise any form of control, Pope Francis fears that from such errors a “new tyranny” is born. Invisible and often virtual, this tyranny devours “everything which stands in the way of increased profits.” Moreover, the pope continues, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market.” Such ideologies are not in accordance with the church, he explains. Morally, “the social function of property and the universal destination of all goods are realities that come before private property.”

Materialism, secularism, “insidious worldliness,” the cult of celebrity, the relativism of roll-your-own morality, and many similar malignancies of modern culture are perceived by the pontiff in relation to the errors of contemporary economic practices. Our age’s idol of the unencumbered and autonomous self, the “heroic” solipsism of John Galt for whom selfishness is virtue, the lionizing of private liberty, and self-absorbed individuals for whom the “selfie” has become the measure of art contrast sharply with the vision of Evangelii Gaudium, for “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.” Not seeking to offend, the pope explains…

I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth. #208

Pope Francis reminds his church that the Gospels offer a balm for the wounded modern world. It is to look for God in others, most especially in service to the poor and to new forms of poverty and vulnerability. “That is why,” he says, “I want a church which is poor for the poor. They have much to teach us.”

Importantly, they teach us to transcend, overcome, and give away the self. It is especially in service to the oppressed, marginalized, and forgotten that we discover solidarity and discern the common good of all.  The pontiff cites the particular responsibility of the government to safeguard and promote the common good, a responsibility that he claims cannot be delegated. Promoting the common good, moreover, “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.” Pope Francis chides those who would sideline the church from involvement public life in pursuit of justice. “All Christians,” he affirms, “their pastors included, are called to show concern for building a better world.” Each Christian is called to be “an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.”

The evangelization preached by Evangelii Gaudium will surely be a challenge to many around the world, to the powerful, to the rich, to ideologues of every stripe, to Americans, to all Christians, and especially to Catholics. The pope invites us to come out of our private sanctuaries and to take up anew a Christ-like mission in the world. He diagnoses the wounds of that world and finds them self-inflicted. He tells us to look up from our narcissism and to approach the sacred ground of the other. The others whom he directs us to see remain for too many of us still invisible. Just seeing them will be a major hurdle, but the greater onus the pontiff puts on us is to serve them. And, oh yes; did I mention that we are called to do this with joy?

It’s not Marxism, Mr. Limbaugh. What Pope Francis offers in Evangelii Gaudium is pure Christianity.


Featured image is by Stefano Corso  from Flickr’s Creative Commons, license can be found here.