Some years ago in an RCIA class on ethics and moral decision-making, I listened in horror (and silence) as the instructor outlined how a faithful Catholic was to make moral decisions and arrive at moral discernment. Widespread consultation with friends and others was advocated together with plumbing the wisdom of many sources, amongst which was the “teaching of the church.” Then, based on the situation and broad context, the individual was to make up his or her own mind. It was as if Joseph Fletcher had arrived, incarnate in our midst. I wrote a letter to the instructor and supervisor of the program (copying the local priest) asking if what I had heard accurately outlined the position of the Roman Catholic Church on ethics. I suspected, but did not write, that the leader, very much a “child of the sixties,” had not read anything written after Situation Ethics and was blissfully unaware of its culturally outdated and largely ignored recipe for saintliness.
There are large sections of Evangelii Gaudium which summon the same hesitations. I suspect that if Pope Francis were not so “humble” a man, theological professionals would be ripping this document to shreds. But, he is humble and thus lauded and thus, I wonder, untouchable?
Having said that, lurking within its many paragraphs is a notion of truly radical potential. Pope Francis writes against the consumerist culture fostered by capitalism and its penchant for creating victims (the poor), the blame for all of which he at one point briefly lays at the feet of “the West.” He espouses the importance of homilies and good preparation for delivering them, hints at reforms, and pleads with “all of God’s people” to see themselves as “evangelizers.” The priesthood’s unique reality lies not in its hierarchical power, but in its sacramental function. All very well, even predictable, but then he pinpoints a different degree of danger to the Gospel and all he is advocating under the rubric of “evangelization.” He calls this danger the “theology of immanence” or, more simply, “immanentism.”
Here, I detect, a theological bedrock at last, amidst the cultural and socio-political meanderings. By “immanentism” Pope Francis means a rejection of “the transcendent” (to use what may be politically correct lingo for “supernaturalism.”) Evangelii Gaudium in such passages takes a stand, a theological and cultural stand. The document is fond of the “No to this and Yes to that” dynamic. We can fairly say, then, that in its condemnation of immanentism it says No to atheism and yes to God; No to secularism and Yes to worship; No to individualistic humanism per se and Yes to theocentric humanism. Underneath its tones of socio-political unrest, it insists upon a wildly traditional underpinning. The transcendent, the Wholly Other, God, is that by and through and with whom all else takes its meaning and purpose.
This will not be widely covered in Pope Francis’ press clippings. More will be made of small checks written for a poor lady by the papal Almoner, of the Swiss Guards being commandeered for soup kitchen charity work, of the demotion of the Bishop of Bling. God, I take it, does not sell many newspapers. The transcendent is not headline material. The Wholly Other is hard to capture in a photo op. Programs for poor relief, however, cannot be criticized.
Which brings me back to the start; the centrality of the Eucharist and the lack of cohesion in Evangelii Gaudium. On the one hand, Pope Francis is thoroughly conservative and unsurprising, insisting upon the central power and need for the Eucharist. On the other, he seems to wish to sweep aside the ancient-however-much-once-loved contributions of the West. I cannot for the life of me think of a more thoroughly western notion than transubstantiation. Two DWEMs (dead white European males) in particular, Aristotle and Aquinas, bequeathed the notion to us. It overlays the ambiguously and culturally domesticated biblical story of the Last Supper, allowing it to transcend the ages and escape “inculturation.” How can Pope Francis square this circle?
I have tried to articulate some unease, noting in Evangelii Gaudium a political and economic bias, a socio-economic naiveté, and a lack of intellectual rigor, all coupled, however, with a profound reverence for the Eucharist, a love of evangelization, and an unease with the ecclesiastical status quo. The latter keeps offering reform. Specifics are lacking. At one point Pope Francis mentions the lack of vocations to the priesthood and offers as reason the “lack of fervor” amongst local parishes. Really? How about the lack of wives? Is it not possible that celibacy is one of those cultural aberrations, once acceptable, which now has to go? He laments the restraints placed on female giftedness in the power structures of the church, but offers only an invitation to wider participation. “Sit on another committee, ladies.” I suspect that won’t do.
For the joy of the Gospel to be wildly and widely unleashed in the church, restraint on courageous imagination has to be discarded amongst those who seek to lead it on through this century.