Those words of George Bernard Shaw were meant as dry humor. But sometimes they have the uncomfortable ring of truth. The public’s ongoing fascination with nearly everything Pope Francis says and does is well earned and hugely refreshing. This Holy Father is a man not just of intelligence, but also of simplicity, energy, openness and hope. Nothing is more compelling than a person who radiates joy. And given the character of Francis the man, it’s no surprise that the first major text written entirely on his own as bishop of Rome is entitled Evangelii Gaudium – “The Joy of the Gospel.”
But the point of writing the text, of course, was to have Catholics actually read it, all of it as a whole — not read “about” it, or read it selectively, or read it through the lens of an agenda. The content of Catholic belief can’t be reduced to sound bites. When interpreters do that, they impose impossible expectations and false perceptions on the public. The result is confusion and resentment, which are a very long way from the “joy of the Gospel.”
Nothing has changed in the essentials of Catholic belief about the priority of the sanctity of life issues; about the nature of human sexuality; about the urgency of defending marriage and the family; or about the need to carry the struggle for charity and justice into the public square. It’s worth noting these lines from Evangelii Gaudium:
On the unborn, in part quoting John Paul II:
Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual” (213).
On marriage and the family:
The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children. Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple. As the French bishops have taught, it is not born “of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of the obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life” (66).
On politics, in part quoting Benedict XVI:
If indeed “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,” the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world (183).
These good passages though capture only a part of the power of Evangelii Gaudium. What makes this text so memorable is the Holy Father’s extraordinary zeal for the poor. Love for the poor is hardly a new message from the Successors of Peter, but Francis brings a humility and passionate eloquence to the task that moves the heart as well as the mind.
Some years ago I asked an audience where I was speaking to repeat out loud, three times, these words: If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell. It was a sobering moment for everyone in the room. More importantly though, the opposite is also true: The more we love the poor, the more fully human we become; the more generously we encounter the needy and serve those who suffer, the more we begin to experience the joy of heaven. Evangelii Gaudium captures this freedom, this joy, of meeting God in the daily struggles of the poor with remarkable power.
Critics who claim that Francis has attacked wealthy persons, or condemned capitalism, or dismissed the dignity of business as a vocation simply haven’t read “The Joy of the Gospel” with a listening heart. The text is alive with the spirit of mercy. It’s a profound invitation to each of us to turn away from the personal acquisitiveness and consumer gluttony that divide people from each other, that break down our families and communities, and that deaden us to the urgent needs of others.
As we enter more deeply into Advent, as we’re buffeted by the commercialism that now marks the holidays, it’s worth reflecting on these words of Francis:
One cause of [the inhumanity in modern culture] is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption (55).
The joy we seek at Christmas and throughout the year can’t be had from things. It comes from the experience of love we share with God and other people. “The Joy of the Gospel” distills and expresses that simple truth with uncommon beauty. Read it. Pray over it. Then make it a part of your life.