Papal Exhortation: Catholic Leaders React

by Christine Niles  •  •  April 12, 2018   

While containing much good, Catholics fear Gaudete's moral ambiguities will be used by enemies of the Church

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VATICAN CITY ( - The pope's latest apostolic exhortation is generating mixed reactions among Catholics. Published April 9, Gaudete et Exsultate aims to offer guidance on how to attain personal holiness, the vast bulk of its content devoted toward this end.

Christ "wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence," the document begins, going on to "repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities."

Referring to the "saints next door" — "those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile" — the Holy Father notes, "In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God's presence."

Divided into five chapters, Gaudete cites the saints, offers reflections on the Beatitudes, and exhorts the faithful to persevere in humility, boldness and with a sense of humor.

Moral Ambiguity

Some Catholic leaders, however, are expressing concern over a handful of paragraphs that seem to blur moral lines.

"While I welcome much of what is old in the text of His Holiness, what is new is indeed troubling," Dr. Christopher Manion told Church Militant. "Pope Francis seems to celebrate deliberately ambiguous terminology."

One segment seems to push the seamless garment theory, equating the gravity of abortion with that of the migrant crisis:

We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the "grave" bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian ... .

Secular news outfits have published headlines assuming as much: "Pope Francis Puts Caring for Migrants and Opposing Abortion on Equal Footing" (The New York Times); "Pope Says Fighting Poverty Is as Essential as Opposing Abortion (Wall Street Journal); "Fighting Social Injustice as Important as Fighting Abortion: Pope" (Reuters).

"Unfortunately, the Holy Father has repeatedly been criticized for being intentionally obtuse, avoiding obvious distinctions and clear teachings," Manion said. "This statement qualifies as a prime example. Here he actually indulges in relativism, with the adjective 'lesser.' Less than what? Less important? By what standard? Prudential? Magisterial? We spend less time on it?"

"He could easily teach with clarity here," he continued, "but he refuses to make clear for the faithful reader the simple terms 'objective evil' and 'prudential judgment,' which definitions would quickly lay out the proper terms for discussion."

Father Richard Perozich, retired priest from the diocese of San Diego, California, told Church Militant, "Like some of Pope Francis' other documents, it uses Catholic words, but not with the same Catholic clarity or connection to previous Church teachings."

"It begins with a sound teaching, a call to holiness with which no one can argue is a work for all Christians," he continued. "As it progresses, it incorporates other novelties of Pope Francis in homilies and to the press."

"The exhortation wants to exhort the faithful to activism, and in so doing, follows the seamless garment approach," noted Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute.

The New Pelagianism

Chapter Two of Gaudete has also raised concern, being devoted to "two subtle enemies to holiness" — gnosticism and pelagianism. "They are two heresies from early Christian times, yet they continue to plague us," the chapter begins. The two topics had been addressed recently in Placuit Deo, a letter published in February by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In Gaudete, gnosticism is defined as "a purely subjective faith," while pelagianism refers to those with "an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church's liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with progras of self-help and personal fulfilment."

Orthodox Catholics see themselves as the target of these statements.

"Teach me to pray, to worship, bring me to Jesus, and let Him guide me in my path of holiness, Holy Father, as you stated in the beginning of the document," said Fr. Perozich, "without attacking me with insults because Jesus may be guiding me differently from you and other leaders in the Church."

Ross Douthat, Catholic columnist at The New York Times, observed, "This is a specific example of a general trend, where the Holy Father's seeming balancing act early in the pontificate — the attempt to direct critiques both leftward and rightward, as it were — has become a lecture delivered only to conservatives."

In comments to Church Militant, Hichborn remarked, "It seems to be a springboard for establishing a new heresy for neo-gnosticism and neo-pelagianism, which will be aimed at attacking those who question the pope's shift in moral teaching and those who adhere to Traditional forms of the Mass."

Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro — who last year penned an attack on American conservatives and Catholic "integralists," singling out Church Militant in particular — is rumored to have played a part in putting together Guadete, and has been quick to defend it against criticism. In a tweet published the day after the document's publication, Spadaro complained, "Some so-called 'catholic' commentators are trying to twist out the subject of holiness of #GaudeteEtExsultate. This is just sick."

While acknowledging the good in Gaudete, P.J. Smith of Semiduplex fears it "falls victim to the the narrative that has consumed this pontificate. Liberal pope and his liberal supporters set against conservative prelates and their conservative supporters, with the battle playing out on Twitter and Facebook. The takes and counter-takes and tweets all write themselves at this point."

And writing in First Things, Dan Hitchens noted:

Of course, there is an orthodox interpretation of all this: that the pope is reminding Catholics that our religion is more a love affair than a theory. But there is a different interpretation: that when someone says, 'The Church teaches that X is intrinsically wrong,' he is probably being a bit of a Pharisee. The history of Amoris Laetitia suggests that the more expansive interpretation often gains the upper hand.

"Gaudete, for all its strengths, adds to the ambiguities," he added.


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