From Sandro Magister
The Joys and Sorrows of Francis’ Magisterium
The innovation in method of “Evangelii Gaudium” explained by an Australian theologian. But the pope is not always interpreted correctly. Not even by the director of “La Civiltà Cattolica.” The emblematic case of the baptism in Córdoba
ROME, April 15, 2014 – From the dicastery heads of the Roman curia called to report at the beginning of this month of April, Pope Francis wanted to hear just one thing, summarized as follows in the official statement: “the reflections and reactions raised in the different dicasteries by the apostolic exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ and the perspectives opened for its implementation.”
The fact that “Evangelii Gaudium” is essentially the action plan of the pontificate of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is now beyond all doubt.
But it is precisely for this reason that understanding it is so important. And at the same time so difficult. Because the form in which “Evangelii Gaudium” is written is not at all in keeping with the classical canons of the ecclesiastical magisterium, just like the everyday public discourse of Pope Francis.
In the analysis published as an exclusive below, Paul-Anthony McGavin maintains that Francis shuns abstractions, prohibits what he calls “cold syllogisms,” and instead loves thinking and action that are “holistic,” or all-encompassing. And he shows how precisely this is the novelty of method in “Evangelii Gaudium.”
McGavin is a 70-year-old Australian priest of the diocese of Canberra and Goulburn and an ecclesiastical assistant at the University of Canberra. In 2010 he published in “L’Osservatore Romano” an equally extensive and in-depth commentary on the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” of Benedict XVI.
In Pope Francis – McGavin writes – “we encounter a mind that is grounded in a pastoral empiricism . . . that integrates concrete circumstances within a structured and fundamental understanding of the Gospel.”
But McGavin himself acknowledges that this “unfragmented” mentality exposes the pope to substantial risks of misunderstanding [Note: the usual excuse for Francis' errors]. Especially when some of his statements are taken by the media as self-contained aphorisms and turned into comprehensive keys of interpretation for the current pontificate.
Two recent examples are proof of this misunderstanding.
Over the span of 36 hours, between Thursday the 10th and Friday the 11th of April, Pope Francis lashed out – and not for the first time – against the “dictatorship of uniform thought” that suppresses “the freedom of nations, the freedom of the people, freedom of conscience.”
He then forcefully defended “the right of children to grow up in a family with a dad and a mom, in relation to the masculinity and femininity of a father and a mother, thus preparing affective maturity.”
He furthermore expressed the toughest of views on “the horrors of educational manipulation” that “with the pretense of modernity pushes children and young people to walk the dictatorial path of the single form of thought.” And he added the testimony of a “great educator” who had told him a few days earlier, referring to concrete projects of education: “At times one cannot tell with these projects if one is sending a child to school or to a reeducation camp.”
And finally he reiterated his opposition to the killing of all “unborn life in the mother’s womb,” citing the summary judgment of Vatican Council II: “Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”
The references to events, to laws, to judicial decisions, to opinion campaigns attributable to “gender” ideology, in the news recently in Italy, France, and other countries, were transparent in the words of Pope Francis.
But in the media in general his warnings had practically no impact. As if they were a pure abstraction, with no influence on reality and foreign to any judgment. Because the key to explaining everything – in the media’s narration of Pope Francis – is by now the “who am I to judge?” spoken by the pope for the first time during the press conference on the return flight from Rio de Janeiro and a second time in the interview with “La Civiltà Cattolica,” in reference to the homosexual who “is of good will and is in search of God.”
The second example shows how a distorted and extensive use of the “who am I to judge?” has also made a breach in the Church, and even in some who should have been reliable interpreters of Pope Francis’s thinking. [Note: the intended effect is occurring]
On April 1, at a crowded public conference in Rome, the director of “La Civiltà Cattolica” and the pope’s interviewer, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, said:
“If it had not been for Pope Francis it would not have been easy to baptize a baby girl born to a lesbian couple.”
The Jesuit was referring to the baptism announced with great fanfare and then administered on April 5 in Argentina, in the cathedral of Córdoba, of the little daughter of a woman united in a civil “marriage” with another woman, both present at the rite as “mothers” and assisted by President Cristina Kirchner as “godmother.”
But if this, according to Fr. Spadaro, was the happy news fostered by Pope Francis, it must be said that there is nothing new but rather something very old and traditional in the baptism of a newborn girl, however she may have come into the world. Only a few progressive and anti-Constantinian Catholic currents are against the age-old practice of infant baptism.
The news, for the Church, was instead in all the rest of the highly touted ceremony in Córdoba. Where everything – from the unnatural “family,” to the two “mothers,” to the “godmother” Kirchner who was an active proponent of the law that allowed the two to be united in “marriage,” to the concealed biological father of the newborn girl – spoke of complete submission to that “single form of thought” so staunchly opposed by Pope Francis.
WHAT’S NEW IN “EVANGELII GAUDIUM”?
by Paul-Anthony McGavin
Pope Francis has attracted wide media attention with his one-line remarks and magazine style interviews. The popular press has largely lauded his remarks, hearing what they want to hear, propagating what they want to hear, and not hearing his refrain: “I am a son of the Church.”
“Evangelii gaudium” is the first extended and considered literary statement that encompasses much of what the Holy Father has been saying in oral formats. What I intend to show is that what is new in “Evangelii gaudium” is what I call method, the manner of thinking and reasoning.
Pope Francis does not present himself as a scholar, and his simple conversational one-line remarks are often made with unvarnished language. What becomes evident in “Evangelii gaudium” is that he nevertheless has refined intellectuality. The manner in which he thinks is sophisticated and has a distinct method or methodology that may be seen in “Evangelii gaudium”. This method is not new. What is new is the simplicity and clarity of its statement.
The irony, however, is that his method is at once simple and complex.
It is simple because it is straightforward. It is simple because there is constant reference to concrete situations, rather than to abstractions that cover all or various situations.
It is complex because it is situated in a cluster of understandings. The Pope’s oft-quoted single-line remarks in fact situate in a mind that sees a cluster of understandings, and not just single-line perspectives that call upon the mentality that we find in syllogistic logic. Pope Francis is a system thinker.
To say “a system thinker” seems abstruse, when Pope Francis is not an abstruse man. To use a different idiom, Pope Francis tends to think “holistically”. He tends to locate the questions with which he deals in view of a whole understanding of the work of God in Christ (the Gospel, “Evangelium”), and that whole understanding in the varieties of situations that are evoked. That is, in the concrete circumstances where he is considering the reception and living out of what God has done and is doing in the Church. His thought is always situated pastorally, rather than abstractly. Yet, however, he sees and thinks through the issues that engage his focus in a whole-view way that is complex.
Let’s look at an example of this from “Evangelii gaudium”:
“There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply “are”, whereas ideas are “worked out”. There has to be a continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone… So a third principle comes into play: realities are greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of wisdom” (n. 231).
One could get hung-up on the rather wide-sweeping list of examples that closes this excerpt, a diverse list that includes things that are likely to provoke an “Ouch!” in most readers. Rather, our attention should focus on the distinction between ideas and realities.
The Pope proposes that ideas are constructed or “worked out”, whereas realities simply “are”. In strict terms, his dichotomization may be questioned, because the subject must perceptually focus on “realities”, must engage an epistemology in order to comprehend the “reality” – just as the subject must engage an epistemology in order to give mental form to something that is noetic, to “ideas”. But introducing such strict philosophical and psychological issues would deflect from the central point that the Pope is making.
His focus is that there is a tension between the conceptual world and the practical world, and that this tension calls us to dialogue. This is an example of what I have named as at once simple and complex. People can readily grasp that there is often a disjunction between the world of ideas and the world of realities. It is a simple proposition. But once this perspective is engaged, it leads to complexity. This could be the complexity of conflict, or of pathways toward a resolution. The Pope proposes the latter, he proposes dialogue that typically is complex and culturally situated.
Just think how complex it is to moderate the position of someone who has constructed an asceticism that is non-incarnational (“angelicism”); or to moderate the position of someone who sees the whole moral order as self-defined (the “dictatorships of relativism”); or to moderate the position of someone whose position stands outside historical understandings of God’s providence in the world (an “a-historical version of Christianity”), to mention just three of the Pope’s examples.
The Pope comes down on the side of “realities”, saying that “realities are greater than ideas”. This would seem at odds with his emphasis on tension and on dialogue. But it is not really a departure from the points of tension and dialogue. It is an approach that proceeds from the Gospel as first rooted in “realities”, rather than in “ideas”.
The Gospel first involves the “realities” – the facts – of Our Lord’s incarnation, his earthly life, his passion, his resurrection, and his ascension. That is, the Gospel first involves the facts of God’s action in Christ. “He is Risen!” is not first the proclamation of an idea, but of a fact, an experienced fact (n. 7, quoting “Deus Caritas est,” 217). The Gospel is predicated upon witness: “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). The astonishing power of the Christian idea is that it articulates the realities of historical acts as encountered by witnesses.
It is this “reality” that precedes “ideas” in the Christian scheme of things. For the Christian – and using just three of the Pope’s examples – sin is a reality; salvation in Christ is a reality; injustices are a reality (of course, many mistakenly think injustices as perceptual rather than objective, but I do not speak to that); unkindnesses are a reality (although of course misguided sensibilities may wrongly attribute unkindness). In each of these three examples, one can see dangers in detaching from empirical matter-of-factness the notions of sin, injustice, or unkindness: “It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone…” (n. 231).
These reduced-form remarks of the Pope are situated in a comprehensive perspective, in a holistic perspective that is undergirded by a fundamental experience of and appreciation of the Gospel. It is a perspective that is at once simple and complex. It is a perspective that engages dialogue. It is a perspective that unmasks conceits of one kind or another (whether conceits of an artifice of religiosity or of a humanist relativism). The “rejecting the various means of masking reality” (n. 231) may seem a harsh turn of phrase, and here I would turn to the non-textual image of the body language of Pope Francis (n. 140): he can hardly keep a closed body posture; it constantly is open; the typical gesture is toward a meeting, toward a conversation, dialogue. Again taking up the text portion, it is a dialogue of truthfulness, and truthfulness that encounters matter-of-factness.
One sees in this example that the direction of the Holy Father’s manner of thinking and acting is not what I call single-line. He is not grabbed by single-line propositions (“cold syllogisms”, n. 142). His tendency is to thought and action that is holistic – toward a whole understanding of the Gospel, and to the grounding of that whole understanding in matter-of-fact circumstances that avoid abstractions. He is not drawn to a “desk-bound theology” (n. 133). His instinct is toward a pastoral theology.
The pastoral theology focus of Pope Francis may be illustrated with two other key quotations:
“Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed” (n. 35). “It needs first to be said that in preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained” (n. 38).
Again in these small quotes we see an implicit holistic grasp of the Gospel; again we see that the significances of aspects of the proclamation or of corollaries of the proclamation are situated in a whole that gives them proportion. What the Pope presents derives from systemic understanding. This is not intellectualist systematizing, but systemic understanding that is grounded in pastoral experience.
The Pope will be misunderstood if his various utterances (particularly those that grab the media as “sound bites”) are taken as one-line dictums, for the Pope’s mind is not a fragmented one. In Pope Francis we encounter a mind that is grounded in a pastoral empiricism, but an empiricism that is in whole-system dialogue with the foundations of Catholic faith that integrates concrete circumstances within a structured and fundamental understanding of the Gospel.
This is not to say that in each and every respect this integration is perfect. An Apostolic Exhortation forms part of magisterial teaching, but it is not unreformable. Pope Francis retains an Argentine passport, and his larger cultural situation is Latin America. And Latin America and Central America are without exception comprised of nations that are marked with poverty and political instability. His own perspective on this (his own “take”) is rather “culturally formed” – it is formed experientially, rather than conceptually. In brief, Pope Francis is not a social scientist, and does not bring a social science understanding of the poverty and political instability of his cultural background. One could hear him say, understanding has to begin “with realities”, not “with ideas”. Yet the “facts” are that about a century ago, Argentine and Australia had similar configurations of economy and society, but now Australia is materially more advanced, and is more equalitarian and with relatively little poverty. I regard the reasons for this divergence between Australia and Argentine (my home and the Pope’s home) as mainly “cultural” – and cultural divergences that reflect rather different conceptualizations (“ideas”) of economy and civil society.
I am not about to launch into an excursus on economy and society. I make these remarks to underscore that everything said in “Evangelii gaudium” is not said with equal robustness. There are points where as both a social scientist and a theologian I have heavily annotated “Evangelii gaudium” in a qualifying ways (particularly nn. 48-50 and 144-147, and 152f). But even within sections so annotated, one still finds restatement of the central thesis of Pope Francis. For example:
“Why complicate something so simple [as in biblical calls to almsgiving]? Conceptual tools [such as economic theories] exist to heighten contact with the realities they seek to explain, not to distance us from them [and to dampen direct action to alleviate poverty]” (n. 194).
One can see in this compressed exclamation, the urgency of the Pope’s call to grounded theorizing that is consistent with the generalizations that I earlier made. But in its textual context one can see a perspective that is not well informed in social science terms (nor perhaps in biblical terms if the perspective in Lukan parables is taken a paradigm).
This suggests that in reading “Evangelii gaudium” we should engage in “conversation”, in dialogue (nn. 31, 133, 137, 142, 165). That is, we should not engage the text as “the last word”, but try to enter the tensions in the text in a conversational manner that moderates positions.
Much in the Exhortation reflects personal positions of the Pope (his “personality”) and his Latin American culture (and a principle of cultural groundedness is crucial to his paradigm: see nn. 115, 123, 132f). His readers will have differing personalities and differing cultural perspectives. The strong contribution of “Evangelii gaudium” is the way it demonstrates a holistic method that has diverse applications for living and communicating the joy of the Gospel. Whether concerning issues of economy and society and social science understanding; or with issues of liturgical inheritance and contemporary expression; or with tangled issues of moral discernment; or with tangled issues of giving a good account in particular situations of the faith of the Church – we need to find both simplicity and complexity that involve tension and that call to sympathetic dialogue.
This is a call to charity, and “charity covers a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). The Exhortation of Pope Francis is, indeed, a call to charity and to joy – joy in the Gospel, “Evangelii gaudium”.
The agenda-setting apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis’s pontificate:
The April 10 homily of Pope Francis against the “dictatorship of uniform thought”:
The April 11 speech at the International Catholic Child Bureau:
> “Vi ringrazio…”
The speech on the same day to the Italian Movement for life:
> “Quando sono entrato…”
In the homily on April 10, in denouncing the “idolatry of uniform thought,” Bergoglio specified that often “when some governments ask for financial help, we hear the response: ‘if you want this help you have to think this way and you have to enact this law and that, and that other.’”
This denunciation made by the pope can be set alongside what was written in the latest issue of “Il Regno,” in an article on “Churches and gay rights” in Africa:
“The idea that the decriminalization of homosexuality is above all a priority of the West has taken on new vigor partly because of the hypothesis of cuts in development aid for Uganda floated by the United States, France, Holland, and Sweden, while the World Bank has frozen an award of 90 million dollars. But already at the end of 2011, after the statements of British prime minister David Cameron and former United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton on the possible suspension of aid for countries without guarantees of ‘homosexual rights,’ the spokesman of the episcopal conference of Zambia, Fr. Paul Samasumo, had asked that aid not be tied ‘to the promotion of immorality.’ On that occasion, various other Christian Churches had taken the same stance.”