The message of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad”) is one that deserves to be read. I very much like the spirit of the message of the universal call to holiness for all Christians regardless of their state in life and vocation. This is a good teaching reaffirming the statements from the Second Vatican Council “.. all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord – each in his or her own way – to that perfect holiness by which the Father Himself is perfect.” (LG, 11) We can unite our whole lives, in our daily thoughts and actions, to the life of Christ. I appreciate his mentioning of St. Josemaria Escriva’s call to become “contemplatives in the midst of the world.” This is a beautiful call to holiness.
On the other hand, as others have critiqued the document, there are a number of unnecessary “distractions” in it. These are the apparent rhetorical jabs at more conservative, traditional-minded Catholics. It is beneath the office of the Pope and against the unity of the Body of Christ to segregate the Church into separate political pockets. The Church is bigger and better than that. The Church is transcendent, not political. Nevertheless, she is a diverse, big-tent community. The idea of scolding certain types of Catholics is ultimately not helpful and only deepens divisions.
Critics have pointed in the document to his discussion on Gnosticism and Pelagianism. These were two ancient heresies that he warns have snuck back into the Church. Gnosticism was an ancient heresy that the body and physical realm are evil, and it was only through secret spiritual knowledge that one attains salvation. Pelagianism was a heresy that one can “earn” salvation through good works rather than the gratuitous sanctifying grace from Christ. Thus, it diminished Christ’s Cross and His gift to us for our salvation.
Pope Francis criticizes a group of Christians as “new Pelagians.” These new Pelagians have “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern with the Church’s liturgy . .” He adds, “some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting” that “appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures,” rendering the Church “fossilized, or corrupt,” a “museum piece.” This is reminiscent of a similar condemnation of neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism in the February 2018 letter titled Placuit Deo put forth by The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The letter states: “Both neo-Pelagian individualism and the neo-Gnostic disregard of the body deface the confession of faith in Christ, the one, universal Savior.” And, “The salvation that God offers us is not achieved with our own individual efforts alone, as neo-Pelagianism would contend.”
Jesus did warn us about the pharisaical practice of following the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law. I think this must have been Pope Francis’ intention. This is a good point, which we should all fully absorb to avoid too much rigidity and scrupulosity in our faith.
On the other hand, why does the Vatican seem to go out of its way to scold traditional Catholics? Are traditionalists really the main problem in the Church today? Certainly, the bigger issue seems to be those Catholics who have fallen away en masse from the doctrines of the Faith, ignore the social teachings, and ignore the sacraments of the Church. I would posit that, in fact, it is these Christians who fit better with the neo-Gnostic and neo-Pelagian labels. Liberal Catholics are much more likely to be the ones who want an ambiguous, individualized Christianity free of specific doctrines and dogmas, and free to determined one’s own personalized enlightenment. This would align much more closely with ancient Gnosticism. Similarly, a liberal Catholic would be much more willing to say, in a neo-Pelagian way, that they are a “good person,” who doesn’t really need the Church or social doctrines or the sacraments. In effect, they can do it on their own, earn their own salvation.
The Exhortation spends quite a bit of time highlighting the fact that we cannot earn sanctifying grace, but it is a free gift from God. We are justified by grace alone. Obviously, this is true enough. This is the same epithet of Pelagianism, however, that was a common accusation in the Protestant Reformation. It was a regular critique by Martin Luther and the other Protestant Reformers against the Church’s emphasis on good works. Pope Francis’ critics would argue he is echoing the critique of Martin Luther against the Church.
The Exhortation also makes the false equivalence between abortion and the “equally sacred” lives of the poor, destitute, and vulnerable. It argues that the quality of life of the poor and the migrant has the same moral weightiness as the very life of a human person. This is a nonsensical untruth. The quality of life of a poor person, or a migrant, as awful as their circumstances might be, in no way reaches the moral equivalence of exterminating the life of a human being. This is a misleading liberal trope, usually used by liberal Catholic politicians to hide their unfaithfulness to the Faith. It does not, however, excuse us from the Gospel’s mandate of serving the poor, sick and oppressed, which, as Pope Francis rightly points out, is the measure by which we will be judged.
The Exhortation also lashes out at Christians “caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet . .” It is no secret that the Vatican has had many recent spats with online conservative blogs, outlets and news organizations. Some have suggested that the swipe in the Exhortation against “silence” was a personal jab at Cardinal Sarah, who the Vatican has publicly rebuked and his book on The Power of Silence. The difficulty for many traditional Catholics under this Pope is the perception that he idolizes mercy to such a degree as to make doctrines and dogmas seem elastic, or at worst, irrelevant. I don’t believe that is true. We shall see over the next few years if this comes to a head with various social issues and synods. Pope Francis is a good Pope. But, for all of the pontiff’s wonderful gifts and his humble persona that attracts new people to the Faith, the Church must be able to show mercy without sacrificing truth.