Monthly Archives: February 2014

Francis’ Focus on the Family

Slight departure from my too infrequent posts on Evangelii Gaudium, about which much more needs to be said.

This week’s news is personal and local for me, as Pope Francis announced an a series of meetings by bishops (called synods) on the topic of the family. One remarkable thing is that he asked all families to pray for the meetings. His announcement came via a letter addressed simply “Dear families,” which you can read in its entirety (it is short) on the Vatican website.

While I have not gotten to this point in The Joy of the Gospel, the humility of Francis in asking for prayers from regular families, and his promise to include lay Catholics in the proceedings, shows a theme apparent from the beginning of his papacy that spiritual wisdom and faith lies with all believers and not just with priests.

Incidentally, if the pope wants me, I’m all in for this process. Especially since I help (very little, and insufficiently,) with marriage prep at my church. Just putting it out there.

But beyond the synod announcement comes news from my very own diocese, St. Petersburg, Florida, where Bishop Robert Lynch had the audacity to follow directions and implement a broad survey of the faithful in his care as requested by the Pope. Apparently, this isn’t what most of his US colleagues did. And apparently, the Catholic press was surprised that he was so direct in reporting the results. Here, see?

If you’re wondering, here’s a link to Bishop Lynch’s actual blog post. And are the results themselves. All worth reading.

Since you may have heard some of this, I figured it would be helpful to put all the resources in one place. More on the synod as news breaks. Back to your irregularly and infrequently scheduled blog.


Can’t spell Diversity without C-I-T-Y. Oh, wait.

Some of the themes in Pope Francis’ exhortation are pretty obvious, but others are more subtle. Here’s one of the latter: diversity as a good thing in the Church.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like many Catholics (and many religious believers of any stripe) aren’t so hot on diversity. There’s a tendency, if you believe yours is the One True God, to think the corollary is that everyone should be just like you, apparently. Francis sees it differently.

Francis talks a fair bit about cities, and one of the things he loves about them is their diversity. “In cities, as opposed to the countryside, the religious dimension of life is expressed by different lifestyles, daily rhythms linked to places and people.” (72) Evangelization “must reach places where new narratives and paradigms are being formed, bringing the word of Jesus to the inmost souls of our cities. Cities are multicultural; in the larger cities, a connective network is found in which the groups of people share a common imagination and dreams about life, and new human interactions arise, new cultures, invisible cities.” (74) Even so, “properly understood, cultural diversity is not a threat to Church unity…we in the Church can sometimes fall into a needless hall owing of our own culture and this show more fanaticism than true evangelizing zeal.” (117) But “faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture. single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ.” (118)

It’s not just cities that reflect a diversity which Francis praises; he also talks in 125-126 about popular piety – those traditions that flower in local communities and generally make non-Catholics wonder if we’ve lost our marbles. These aren’t just human traditions run wild to Francis. “Underlying popular piety, as a fruit of the inculturated Gospel, is an active evangelizing power which we must not underestimate…we are called to promote and strengthen it, in order to deepen the never ending process of inculturation.” (126)

Diversity isn’t supposed to be easy or comfortable. “Differences between persons and communities can sometimes prove uncomfortable, but the Holy Spirit, who is the source of that diversity, can bring forth something good from all things and turn it into an attractive means of evangelization.” (131) Diversity can lead to conflict, but Francis believes that conflict will not have the last word: “the unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize every diversity…Diversity is a beautiful thing when it can constantly enter into a process of reconciliation and seal a sort of cultural covenant resulting in a ‘reconciled diversity.'” (230)

Sometimes recognizing diversity leads to a paradoxical movement to create a “least common denominator” culture that tries to segregate the things that make us different to a private sphere of life. That’s not what Francis wants. “A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques.” (255)

Finally, recognizing and valuing diversity is an extension of the recognition of the dignity of each human being. “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.” (274)

The one thing, as it shows up in The Joy of the Gospel

As I outlined in the last post, I think Francis’ central message is that grace is more central than law. Here, let me show you.

Our message as Christians to the rest of the world (and even to each other), needs to skew heavily toward the joy of the forgiven and away from the guilt of the disobedient. “The Good Shepherd…seeks not to judge but to love.” (125) “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, [evangelizing Christians] 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.'” (15) “The message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.” (35) “If this invitation [to respond to God’s love with love in return] does not radiate forcefully and attractively…it would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific, ideological options.” (39)

To do that effectively, we need to bury our desire to judge others and focus on loving them. “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) “Rather than experts on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.” (168) “Even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked. It is the convergence of peoples who, within the universal order, maintain their own individuality; it is the sum total of persons within a society which pursues the common good, which truly has a place for everyone.” (236) Referencing the Gospel story of the wheat and the weeds, Francis says we need to be patient with those who are slow to respond as we think they should. An evangelizing Church “cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds.” (24)

Francis has some pretty harsh words for Christians who miss this point. “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.” (6) “Certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not and on and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message.” (34).

This is especially true for priests, by the way. “For example, if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catches is are overlooked. The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.” (38) And not just in the pulpit: the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation (or Confession), should be about grace, too. “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best…Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love, which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings.” (44) “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than it’s 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)

But if we do focus on the gospel, it doesn’t mean we ditch the law. Instead, it gives the law a more joyful, positive purpose. The hearts of the faithful, “growing in hope from the joyful and practical exercise of the love which they have received, will sense that each word of Scripture is a gift before it is a demand.” (142)

The kerygma, or central Church teaching, “has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by Joy, encouragement, liveliness, and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical.” (165)

The one thing you need to know to understand Pope Francis

Look, I’m not an expert. I haven’t read any of the works Pope Francis wrote when he was just Jorge Bergoglio, for instance. But it seems to me that the reason a lot of liberals and conservatives alike wrongly think that Francis is changing Church teaching is because they don’t pick up on the pope’s central theme: the Gospel, to be good news, needs to focus much more on God’s love, forgiveness, mercy and grace than on law, sin, judgment, and disobedience. Both ends of this spectrum are still valid and true, and the tension between the two that his change in tone has surfaced has really always been there. But Francis is pushing so forcefully toward the pole of mercy, and the perception of the Church (and religion in general) has been weighted so heavily toward the pole of law, that the whole effort feels disruptive.

Francis isn’t the only one to eloquently argue against an overemphasis on judgment, on religion as set of rules. Here’s a column this week by David Brooks on the topic. (He also profiles Catholic singer/songwriter Audrey Assad, of whom I am a big fan.) Here’s a daily reflection from the excellent Protestant website “The High Calling” on the same topic. These are both just from this week. So it’s a thing.

For the pope, I think, the need to shift focus from law to gospel is both deeply practical and deeply theological. It is practical, in that, if your goal is to help people come to know and accept God’s love for them and offer love in return, you’re going to be more successful talking emphasizing the joyous, wonderful positives of this message than you are by focusing on the negatives. You draw more flies with honey than vinegar. But it’s also for Francis more central to who God is and who we are. God is love. We are beloved. That we are disobedient is still true, and that we should strive to return God’s love is still true, but our disobedience isn’t the heart of the gospel; it’s just the setting for God to show how much deeper His love is than our disobedience.

If you want to understand why Francis says what he says, especially but not only in the Joy of the Gospel, this is a good lens to start with.

I’ll throw some examples into the next post.