Some thoughts from a nonbeliever on Evangelii Gaudium

One of the big bits of international news this week was the release by the Roman Catholic Church of Pope Francis’s first major official statement, Evangelii Gaudium (translated in English as “The Joy of the Gospel”). This “apostolic exhortation” set off a bit of a firestorm among economics bloggers, and I follow enough of them to have seen the commentary and been intrigued enough to download the whole thing and spend an hour or so scanning through it. Although I would now describe my orientation as “agnostic humanist” (and if I felt the need for organized religion in my life I’d probably join a Unitarian congregation), I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic schools during the primacy of John Paul II, so I have at least some perspective on this document. I will intentionally avoid cherry-picking actual quotations from Evengelii Gaudium; I certainly could find plenty of Francis’s words that I could agree with, but it seems that the blogosphere is full of people doing exactly that, and there is little value in me doing so as well. It is a long but not particularly difficult read, and if you’re interested, please go to and get a copy of the text.

What drew the most obvious attention in my media exposure was the Pope’s attack on the modern idolatry of mammon and markets (cunningly timed to be announced right before Thanksgiving). This can only be seen as a direct rebuke to a group of (primarily American) Catholic intellectuals who have been carrying water for the reactionary right on economics issues, and their public reaction to the exhortation does make one question (somewhat uncharitably, I admit) whether they worship the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or have replaced it with the Neocon Trinity of Hayek, Mises, and Ronald Reagan. But while Francis may have worded his critique more strongly than his predecessors, the principled opposition of the Church to seeing human beings as mere means to greater profit has a long history. I think one black mark on the service of Pope John Paul II was his willingness to make common cause with the right wing on what we now call “hot-button social issues” — abortion, contraception, and individual self-determination more generally — in service of his opposition to the atheistic materialism of the left, particularly in the Communist bloc (as then was), when perhaps the Church should have attended more closely to its social mission, solidarity with the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden in “free” as well as socialist countries. Francis’s statement, and indeed his actions since assuming the primacy, make one hopeful that he is actually determined to right the Church’s course in this matter.

Towards the end of the document, after all the controversial economics bits, and the tutorial on homily preparation, Francis reiterates existing Church policy on abortion and the ordination of women. I do not doubt his sincerity on either point, but I expect that the latter will come in time, if not during Pope Francis’s life, then later in this century. He almost gets there, in his insistence that priests are the mechanism by which the Sacraments are delivered, but not supposed to be people of power in their own right. There was no mention of priestly celibacy, which is understood differently in the western and eastern branches of Catholicism, and it seemed like the pontiff, in his insistence on an inculturated Church, was signaling some flexibility on that matter: perhaps the “New Evangelization” might involve the development of new Rites of the Church that are more culturally appropriate for Catholic communities in the developing world, and some of them might allow married priests as Eastern Rite churches do now. But all that is just speculation.

I mentioned abortion above, an issue on which the Pope admits no flexibility. I can have some respect for this position, even though I disagree with it profoundly, because it is a reasonable conclusion to make given the Church’s “human dignity” agenda, with which I am quite sympathetic. (I disagree with the Church’s insistence that human dignity logically entails opposition to abortion and contraception, and I think a different — not necessarily better, but different — way of understanding “dignity” would result in the opposite conclusion.) There is no mention that I saw of capital punishment, another area in which the Church and its right-wing Protestant fellow travelers disagree (and rightly, in my view).

The matter of “inculturation” ties closely with one of Francis’s other pressing concerns, that of decentralization. The difficulty of reorienting such an enormous organization — remember, the Catholic Church is not only the world’s largest religion, but also an enormous business enterprise, one of the world’s largest providers of education and health care — must have made a significant impression on Francis as he began his papacy. It is said that he is serious about making significant reforms of the Church’s central administrative organ, the Roman Curia, and cleaning up the scandal-ridden, money-laundering Vatican Bank, but Evangelii Gaudium does not discuss these matters, except obliquely in his plea for a more decentralized Church and a suggestion that more authority ought to be given to the national and regional councils of bishops, a position which some more knowledgeable commentators say is at odds with the Pope’s two most recent predecessors.

There is also some hope for an end to the “wafer wars”, where otherwise faithful Catholics have been denied Communion — the entire point of the Mass — for having done something that the Church, or at least the local bishops, disagree with. This has been a particular issue in the American church, with bishops ordering that Communion be denied to Catholic lawmakers who do not vote to impose the Church’s moral teaching on the people of their counties, states, and country. But the Pope combines his teaching on this issue with elsewhere insisting that faithful Catholics, and not just the clergy, must make their moral views heard in the political process. I hope, in a democratic society, that we can come to some accommodation that respects the right of all people, not just members of a particular religion, to have their moral views heard and considered, but not taken as determinative for all of society.

I’ve already mentioned the reactions — both laudatory and angry — from economists. Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh ripped into the Pope on Wednesday, probably egged on by those right-wing fundamentalist economists. To get a broader range of opinion, I spent some time searching news and blog sites for commentary from other people, and especially people of other religions. Unfortunately, I was not able to find very much. There was a statement from a Jewish organization (I don’t even recall which one or in which country) thanking the Pope for reiterating the Church’s commitment to dialogue and openness with Jews, but I also saw numerous commentators claiming that the Pope’s statement that the Old Covenant was still valid and thus Jews were worthy of the Church’s respect, even as it continues to try to convert them, was a MAJOR DOCTRINAL CHANGE. (I’ll admit that this was not something we covered in religion classes in high school, so I have no conception of where the Catholic Church officially falls on this spectrum. Christian groups disagree: some claim that the New Covenant was an add-on to the Old and both apply to all the faithful; some say, as Francis appears to have done, that the Old Covenant still applies to Jews but not to Christians; and some, including the critical commentators I mentioned, say that the Old Covenant was entirely superseded and Jews, having “rejected” Jesus, are categorically excluded from the People of God until they convert.) There was also some commentary about Francis’s statements about Islam, but not any from actual Muslims (at least not that I was patient enough to dig out of the fifteenth page of Google results), most of it profoundly negative and ill-informed (“OMG THE POPE SAYS ISLAM IS A RELIGION OF PEACE DOESN’T HE KNOW THEY ARE ALL RUTHLESS KILLERS AND EAT KITTENS FOR BREAKFAST?”).

A few of the Protestant commentators seemed to be at least welcoming of the statement, noting that the Pope’s emphasis on making “joyful evangelization” a fundamental and daily part of the Church’s practice reflects what their churches do all the time. However, there were some typically sour notes as well, including one memorable blog post that I saw which could best be summarized as “BREAKING: BISHOP OF ROME STILL ANTICHRIST, MORE DETAILS AT ELEVEN”, as well as the somewhat less histrionic “Well, he still believes in justification by works, so nothing he says is to be trusted by faithful Christians.” (As an aside, the doctrine of sola fide seems to me to account for a great deal of the harm done by American Protestant churches in the name of Christianity. How is it that European Protestant churches, which share the doctrine, don’t seem to give rise to the same sort of social harm?) A similar blog post took a more condescending tone, addressing the Pope directly and instructing him in the Bible study that would correct his (non-Protestant and therefore erroneous) ways.

One other major note of criticism that I’ve heard has been from issue-advocacy groups that are primarily concerned with clerical sex abuse. It is somewhat disappointing that, having already included a long tutorial on homily preparation, Francis did not also choose to offer instruction to his fellow bishops on this matter, seeing as how the numerous scandals around the world have been one of the major causes driving the faithful away from the Church, and the Pope presumably wants to reverse that. (Of course, it’s not just the sex-abuse scandals but also garden-variety hypocrisy that turns many people off. Others, like me, simply no longer find it plausible to believe what the Church claims with certainty to be true, which is not something that this document is going to reverse, no matter how joyfully Catholics from the Pope on down commit to evangelize.)

A few notes about the document itself. According to Vatican officials, it was written by the Pope himself, in his native language, Spanish. When it was first released, several translations into living languages were made available, but notably, there was no official Latin translation. A few commentators spouted the usual nonsense about how Latin was so much more precise and it would have been better if the official Latin text was released first; other more serious commentators looked for possible translation errors by comparing the various official translations with the original Spanish. One particularly odd note from both mainstream press reporting and bloggers was that nobody seemed to agree on how long the document was. Some said 40,000 words, and others said 50,000; some said 66 pages and others said 88 pages. I can’t speak to the word count (which does not seem to me to be particularly salient anyway), but I downloaded the official English-language text directly from the Vatican (they don’t appear to be using a CDN) and it is unquestionably a 224-page PDF. Did those “88 page” commentators look at the HTML version and try to print it out from their browsers? The Vatican translators have used American spelling but British punctuation conventions throughout the English-language version of the document. I’d be curious if any Spanish-language dialect expert can detect signs of the Pope’s home dialect in the (presumably edited) published Spanish text.

All in all, I like what this document has to say, at least in the parts I have read, and even where I disagree with it, it’s hard to find fault with Pope Francis’s apparent sincerity. There’s no chance that the Church could get me back — that’s water long since passed under the bridge — but if the Pope succeeds in changing the orientation of the Church in the way he has set out to do, it will still be an enormous improvement over the institution that his predecessors left for him.

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