Evangelical Discernment

4 Dec

Pope Francis 3In Chapter Two of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis provides the context for his discussion of evangelization in today’s world. His stated goal is to examine the “signs of the times” not from a sociological or quantitative perspective, but rather as part of an “evangelical discernment” (EG 50). What is the Holy Spirit saying to us at this time?

This discernment has two parts. First, he considers societal factors that can hinder the Church’s missionary outreach (EG 51). In a separate post, I will address the second part of the chapter, namely the challenges and temptations faced by pastoral workers.

The Holy Father begins his consideration of societal factors with a resounding criticism of what he calls an economy of “exclusion” and “inequality” (EG 53-54), where many people find themselves marginalized. He considers “trickle-down” economic theories and today’s “culture of prosperity” dehumanizing, such that we become incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.

He goes on to the related topic of the “idolatry of money” and “the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose” (EG 55).  His reference to ideologies that defend the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” (EG 56) is hard to understand, because no reputable economist in our culture at least takes such an extreme view.  One also wonders what he makes of the opposite–and arguably more prevalent–problem of a government that is too controlling rather than laissez-faire.

But the Pope’s point here is evangelical, not political: a “deified market” in any form reduces man to a mere consumer, and reflects a rejection of God and the moral order (EG 57). He calls on the rich to “help, respect, and promote the poor” (EG 58), quoting St. John Chrysostom:

“Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

The Holy Father also points out that just as goodness tends to spread, so too does the evil of exclusion and inequality, which makes for a violent world (EG 59). Sustainable, peaceful development is not possible unless we address the evil embedded in unjust social structures.

The Holy Father then turns to some cultural challenges to the new evangelization, noting that these can take the form of persecution and attacks on religious freedom as well as widespread indifference and relativism (EG 61). He says that “in many countries [later citing Africa and Asia] globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting . . . which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated” (EG 62). It surely makes one think about the devastating global effects of exporting America’s secularist and consumerist mentality.

The Pope also mentions other religious movements, from fundamentalist sects to others that promote spirituality without God. On the one hand, this seems to be filling a void in our materialist society, but it can also be a means of exploiting the poor and disenfranchised. Yet, Pope Francis unabashedly says that the Church must take much of the blame for their not turning to the Church instead:

“We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people. In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization” (EG 63).

Pope Francis says that the process of secularization tends to reduce the faith to the private and personal, leading to a steady increase in relativism (EG 64). Interestingly, in affirming the Church’s insistence on objective moral norms valid for everyone, the Holy Father cites a document by the U.S. Bishops regarding ministry to persons with same-sex attractions.

The Pope acknowledges that moral relativism, the widespread belief in the absolute rights of individuals to do as they please, and negative aspects of the media and entertainment industry are threatening traditional values, especially in the domain of marriage and family life (EG 62-64). The latter is experiencing “a profound cultural crisis” (EG 66), as marriage is now commonly viewed as “a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will” (EG 66).

All of this not only affects our ability to pass on the faith to our children, but it also tends to weaken and distort family bonds (EG 67) and our relationships with others. Despite all this, many still recognize the significant, ongoing contributions of the Church to the world (EG 65), including her steadfast intention to respect others, heal wounds, build bridges, and bear one another’s burdens (EG 67).

The Holy Father says it is imperative to evangelize cultures in order to inculturate the Gospel (EG 69). He describes the breakdown in the way the faith has been passed on to young people and what he calls an “exodus” toward other faith communities (EG 70). He identifies many of the causes:

  • a lack of opportunity for dialogue in families
  • the influence of the communications media
  • a relativistic subjectivism
  • unbridled consumerism which feeds the market
  • lack of pastoral care among the poor
  • the failure of our institutions to be welcoming
  • difficulty in [maintaining] the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape

He ends the section by discussing the unique challenges of evangelizing urban cultures (EG 71-75). He finds it curious that the fullness of human history is realized in a city, the new Jerusalem (cf. Revelation 21:1-4). We need to take a fresh look at finding possibilities for prayer and communion that would appeal to the rapidly changing lives of city dwellers. The Pope even calls modern cities “a privileged locus of the new evangelization” (EG 73).

The Pope concludes by noting that today houses and neighborhoods tend to be “built to isolate and protect rather than to connect and integrate” (EG 75). He wants so much more for our neighborhoods and for our Church, for Our Lord desires to pour out abundant life upon our cities (cf. John 10:10).

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