Francis the Evangelist

While papal welcome words are nice, they still go only so far

I wanted to speak to Pope Francis last week when I encountered the phrase “openness to the transcendent” in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). I feel transcendence while stargazing on a clear, moonless night; but His Holiness thinks this is an impoverished perspective because I do not assume a divinity. He leads an organization given to issuing dogmatic pronouncements. I think that in confronting transcendence we should humbly acknowledge that we simply do not know.

In his exhortation, the new pope calls for renewed evangelizing and mission work. He cites Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” I appreciate his passion, but evangelizers and missionaries merit global skepticism. Evangelism carries an implicit message that the evangelizer’s religion is superior to all others. Missionaries advance cultural conquest, often in tandem with their military counterparts.

Francis acknowledges past wrongs by Christians, including the persecution of Jews; and he urges respect in dealing with people of diverse faiths. But I detect no awareness by him of the imperialism lurking within the evangelizing impulse.

That being said, Francis offers much to admire. He wants to replace scolding with confident outreach: “Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent 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.”

He stresses “the need to resolve the structural causes of poverty” and urges government and financial leaders “to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and health care.” He raises capitalist eyebrows when he says, “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth.” But this is similar to Benedict XVI’s 2009 economic encyclical, Caritas In Veritate.

He decries environmental destruction. He calls for people across the world to act “as committed and responsible citizens, not as a mob swayed by the powers that be.” He promotes decentralization: “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.”

This is fine; but a church that engages with the world cannot expect all the evangelizing to go one way. Those of us affected by the church’s ministries and teachings are entitled to have our say, in spite of the self-appointed gatekeepers among the conservative faithful.

Francis writes, “In a way, every Christian is believed to be a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ.” If men can slip into female gender roles with papal encouragement, it is hard to see why he declares the ordination of women “not open to discussion,” except out of long institutional habit. In any case, we are discussing it.

Francis accuses secularism of producing “a growing deterioration of ethics” and disorientation among adolescents, right before citing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2006 document, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination; and he associates human rights claims by gay activists with “moral relativism.” The USCCB document cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which describes homosexual acts as “contrary to the natural law” and the homosexual inclination as “objectively disordered.” This is where we were under John Paul II and Benedict.

Francis has extraordinary pastoral gifts. His public acts have moved many people, even those he categorizes as ethically deteriorated and morally relativistic. Despite the Catholic Church’s many historical crimes, I support those who seek to engage @Pontifex on LGBT and women’s issues. But they should enter with their eyes open, and not be tempted by his manifest charms into committing what we might call the sin of wishful thinking.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.