Pope sets out blueprint for pontificate
Papal teaching should not be expected to be definitive on every issue, pope says
Pope Francis’s compelling document touches on many of the key issues that have marked the first eight months of his pontificate. Photograph: EPA/Maurizio Brambatti
In what is arguably the most significant document of his pontificate to date, Pope Francis yesterday released an apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) which has the hallmarks of a pontifical evangelisation blueprint. This compelling 50,000-word document touches on many of the key issues – poverty, inequality, ecumenism, dialogue with Islam, decentralisation and inculturation (adaptation of the way Church teachings are presented to non-Christian cultures) – that have marked the first eight months of Francis’s pontificate.
The chapter headings are indicative of his style. He moves from No to an Economy of Exclusion to No to the New Idolatry of Money on to No to a Financial System which Rules rather than Serves and to No to the Inequality which Spawns Violence. Much of what the pope has already said is reiterated, forcefully, in this work, an exhortation he alone wrote.
In paragraph 198, for example, he writes: “I want a church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelised by them.”
Denunciation of capitalism
The question of inequality and social injustice acts as the backdrop to the document. In what appears to be a bitter denunciation of modern, deregulated capitalism, the pope writes: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” (Paragraph 53)
When discussing violence, the pope concludes: “Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.” (Paragraph 59).
The exhortation is not only concerned with the impact on Catholic teaching of crucial socioeconomic issues. In that context the pope makes some candid observations, particularly in relation to the decentralisation of the 1.2 billion-strong worldwide Catholic Church:
“Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium [pope’s teaching] should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the church and the world. It is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory.” (Paragraph 16)
Not only does the pope appear to advocate greater autonomy for local Catholic churches but he also argues against a European bias to Catholic worship. “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history.”(Paragraph 118)
Given his effectiveness as a preacher, it is curious to hear what Francis says about the art of the sermon, that “it cannot be a form of entertainment”, rather “it should be brief” because it is “situated within the framework of a liturgical celebration”. (Paragraph 138)
Issues such as the need to make greater space for the laity and particularly for women in church decision-making are also aired in the exhortation. However, Francis is careful to point out that the ordination of women priests is “not a question open to discussion”.
One item that does not feature in the blueprint, in the way that it has featured little in his pontificate, is the question of clerical sex abuse.