“Taking aim at Catholics…”? Granted, it is an exhortation, but Martin’s rather giddy Tweet carried a strong whiff of “giving them what they had coming”. Would (or should) a papal text on holiness really “take aim” at certain Catholics? Meanwhile, in an online piece for America magazine about the “top five takeaways” from the papal text, Martin explained that the first key point is “Holiness means being yourself.” And what if I’m someone who has a “punctilious concern” for the Church’s liturgy and doctrine? What then?
I’ve read Gaudete et Exsultate and, as I expected, I found some of it to be challenging, engaging, and compelling. Pope Francis, as usual, is at his best when it comes to straight-forward, meat-and-potatoes teaching, such as this section near the opening of the exhortation:
A Christian cannot think of his or her mission on earth without seeing it as a path of holiness, for “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3). Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel. That mission has its fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him. At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love. (par 19)
Of course, none of this is new or unique; in fact, the best parts of the exhortation are those summarizing or revisiting the Church’s core beliefs about holiness, sainthood, and the spiritual life. There are hard truths put forth with clarity and brevity, as in this passage from Chapter 4, on signs of holiness in today’s world:
Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. Without them, there is no humility or holiness. If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness. The holiness that God bestows on his Church comes through the humiliation of his Son. He is the way. Humiliation makes you resemble Jesus; it is an unavoidable aspect of the imitation of Christ. For “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). In turn, he reveals the humility of the Father, who condescends to journey with his people, enduring their infidelities and complaints (cf. Ex 34:6-9; Wis 11:23-12:2; Lk 6:36). For this reason, the Apostles, after suffering humiliation, rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for [Jesus’] name” (Acts 5:41). (par 118)
Unfortunately, the document also contains more than a few remarks or suggestions that are either puzzling or disconcerting—and not, I think, for the right reasons. The passage quoted by Martin is certainly one of more obvious examples. Yes, there are undoubtedly a few Catholics who fixate on liturgy and doctrine in a way that can be unwise or unhealthy. But how many more Catholics obsess about “tolerance” and “openness” to certain ways of being or living—usually advanced with a lengthy, ever-evolving acronym—in a way and to a degree that is far more obvious and problematic? How many Catholics show little or no concern for liturgy and doctrine, and view “being Catholic” as either some sort of curious birthright or an embarrassing attachment to “recover” from? And how many Catholics obsess—and I don’t use the term loosely or lightly—about being accepted, embraced, and otherwise feted by those in power and in the limelight?
Francis, as has been his common practice, warns not only against having too much concern for doctrine, but also too much emphasis on rules, describing as “pelagian or semi-pelagian” those who feel superior “because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style” (par 49). He says that like “the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things.”
All of these descriptives can be parsed in an agreeable fashion, I suppose, but the overall impression is that rules, boundaries, limits, dogma, and tradition are almost always impediments. And yet, for a growing number of people in the West today—especially those who are younger—there is a recognition that the past several decades, which has witnessed full-scale assaults on many “rules and regulations” (and certainly on dogma), bear witness to the fact that some things really should hold fast and must stay put in order for goodness, order, and authentic love to survive, never mind thrive.
And, again, in a manner familiar to those who have read or heard nearly everything uttered by Francis:
It is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past, since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances and what was useful in one context may not prove so in another. The discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial “today” of the risen Lord. The Spirit alone can penetrate what is obscure and hidden in every situation, and grasp its every nuance, so that the newness of the Gospel can emerge in another light.
Very well. Meaning…what? Is it really true that “the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances”? There is a certain cognitive dissonance at work when we are told, on one hand, how the new gnostics and pelagians are bad because they are contrary to “the concrete simplicity of the Gospel” (par 43) and, on the other hand, how they are also rigid and harsh because they cannot appreciate the complexity and uniqueness of a world that cannot be understood in simple, clear terms.
As a quick aside, the section on gnosticism (pars 35-46), which references (at least at the start) the recent CDF letter on “Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation” (Feb 22, 2018), is a bit strange, in part because Francis describes a form of “gnosticism” that often has little, if anything, to do with ancient and perennial forms of gnosticism. So, for instance, he writes:
Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible. They absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking. A healthy and humble use of reason in order to reflect on the theological and moral teaching of the Gospel is one thing. It is another to reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything. (par 39)
But this is the exact opposite of what scholars and texts tell us about gnosticism, as Sandra Miesel and I recounted in The Da Vinci Hoax:
For students of gnosticism today, the “gnostic gospels” and the ideas in them offer a more inclusive, ambiguous, accepting, and individualized version of Christianity, one free of unneeded doctrine and stifling dogma. Princeton professor and scholar Elaine Pagels, whose 1979 work The Gnostic Gospels was a watershed in popularizing gnosticism and is mentioned in The Da Vinci Code (245), writes in her recent best-seller, Beyond Belief, that gnosticism is about being a seeker—someone who seeks for God—not a believer. She laments those elements of orthodox Christianity that she “cannot love: the tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs—however these actually vary from church to church—coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God.” She states that orthodox Christianity is too rigid and keeps people from making their own choices about good and evil, truth and falsehood. “Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such distinctions and insists on making them for us”, she remarks. “Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches.” … In general, Gnosticism is dualistic, focused on hidden spiritual knowledge (gnosis), antagonistic towards or uninterested in time and history, and distrustful—even hateful—towards the physical realm and the human body. Gnosticism seeks to escape the limits of time and space, to transcend the physical and historical realm, and attempts to obtain salvation through secretive, individualistic means. (sans footnotes)
If anything, gnosticism can far better be aligned today with movements that emphasize radical individualism, freedom from physical and material limits, ability to construct one’s belief system around one’s circumstances and desires, and places final authority in the hand of the self-created and enlightened creature rather than in the doctrine and person of the One Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Finally, this passage caught my attention:
It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission. (par 26)
The Italian journalist Sandro Magister quips that this one passage “seems to wipe out two millennia of contemplative monasticism, male and female,” and then points to this commentary by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., who is editor of La Civiltà Cattolica and one of Francis’ most trusted advisors: “Alternatives such as ‘either God or the world’ or ‘God or nothing’ are wrong. God is at work in the world, to bring it to fulfillment, that the world may be fully in God.”
These two passages, as Magister logically surmises, appear to be swipes at The Power of Silence and God or Nothing, the two recent best-selling books by Cardinal Robert Sarah. And if you don’t think that’s likely, then I politely suggest you haven’t been really paying attention to what has transpired in over the past five years, because these sort of personal jabs are very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ personality and style.
My point, in conclusion, is that while I certainly have benefited in some ways from reading Gaudete et Exsultate, the good qualities and substantive passages in documents and texts such as this are increasingly overshadowed, or even undermined, by the grave tensions and growing conflicts within the Church. Especially since, sadly, Pope Francis and his closest collaborators have not only failed to address those tensions and conflicts, they have played a significant role in exacerbating and deepening them. They do appear to be take pleasure in “taking aim” at Catholics they deem to be too dogmatic, rigid, and focused on liturgy. It is a shame that this has continued in this apostolic exhortation on holiness but it is not, I’m sorry to say, too much of a surprise.