This is the text of a talk given on 20th June 2018 at the invitation of Westminster Inter Faith Group, which is linked to Westminster Cathedral, the ‘mother church’ of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. I should give the leader of the group, John Woodhouse, credit for his efforts to ensure a wide range of views are heard and considered.
‘Evangelii Gaudium’, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, was a document issued by Pope Francis in 2013, shortly after he became Pope.
As you’d expect, like most humanists, I’m an atheist, so I found plenty to disagree with in Pope Francis’ underlying theology in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). But let’s take that as a given and focus on the other aspects of what he says. And I should add that I’m giving my personal perspective as a humanist – there is no official Humanists UK line on this document.
The impetus for this new evangelical drive came from a Synod of Bishops meeting in 2012. I can see why they were worried. The Church is, in many places, in decline. In Britain in 2016, roughly a third of people who were brought up in Catholic households now identify as non-religious. The overall Catholic proportion of the British population is remaining roughly steady at around 9% only because immigration, mainly from Poland, has so far made up for the attrition. Catholics in Brazil have dropped from 90% of the population in 1970 to 50% now. The institution is under threat.
So Francis makes it clear that this document is a call to arms: “I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. ‘Mere administration’ can no longer be enough.”
But Evangelii Gaudium goes a lot further than that. He sees two big problems: the state of the world and the state of the church. His thesis seems to be that fixing the state of the church, in which evangelism – in the very broad way he uses it – has a part to play, will make a major contribution to fixing the state of the world. He wrote Evangelii Gaudium shortly after he became Pope in 2013. I read it as, effectively, his manifesto.
His analysis of what he calls the challenges of today’s world focuses on two broad areas: firstly, socio-economic exclusion, inequality, and the ills of the financial system; and secondly a range of cultural and religious issues, including the state of his own church.
He blames poverty, inequality and social exclusion on over-reliance on trickle-down economics, free markets and “a globalisation of indifference”. He complains about “the new idolatry of money”, globalisation, a global elite beyond the reach of state control, corruption, and “a limitless thirst for power and possessions” which means that anything fragile, including the environment, is “defenceless before the interests of a deified market”. He blames the injustices of the socioeconomic system for rising levels of violence. And he calls for the reform of the financial system based on a “non-ideological ethics” to bring about balance and a more humane social order.
It’s hardly news that a religious leader says the world is unfair and excessively materialistic. What’s different here is the specificity of the analysis and the language used. He’s very political. Although I don’t think he’s got everything right – the causes of the financial crash were rather more complex than he seems to think for example. And he generalises wildly, ignoring the fact that an analysis 100% applicable to Latin America may be only 30% applicable to Britain, Germany or China. But overall, I think a lot of people, regardless of their religion of belief, would agree with his concerns about inequality and corruption. He’s hardly alone in thinking that. On the other hand, his analysis must be anathema to many others – I can’t see how a committed American Republican could support him for instance.
In making these important points, though, he omits some others. The last 200 years, and the last few decades in particular, have seen an unprecedented decline in the proportion of people living in absolute poverty, that’s living on less than $1.90 a day. It’s currently around 10%, a quarter of what is was in 1981. Not good enough of course – there are millions of real lives behind the statistics – but it’s a dramatic improvement by any standard. Many would claim it’s attributable to trade and globalisation, with wealth from developed countries moving to all the places our clothes and mobile phones are made. And he doesn’t mention factory conditions or the need for organised labour to avoid exploitation.
Something similar applies to war and violence. It’s striking that Evangelii Gaudium doesn’t mention war among the world’s problems, although the Syrian conflict had been running for two years when it was written. While war and other violence continue to plague the world, as Stephen Pinker has demonstrated, “violence has been in decline over long stretches of time…and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” Of course, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. But it does mean the Pope’s analysis is rather one-sided.
Nevertheless, he’s right that there are big social and economic issues to be tackled.
He groups his other global problems under the general banner of “culture”. Here again, there is much that people from all sorts of backgrounds, including humanists, can agree with. For example, freedom of religion and belief is constrained in many countries. We should all deplore the persecution of Christians, atheists, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Rohinga Muslims or anyone else. And it’s no surprise to find his concerns for social cohesion, individualism, and family life. But he elides that into concern about what he calls “relativism”. For example, he says “We should recognise how, in a culture where each person wants to be bearer of his or her own subjective truth, it becomes difficult for citizens to devise a common plan which transcends individual gain and personal ambition.” By relativism he seems to mean pluralism. Not only is that a challenge to democracy as a means to decide what should happen, but it implies that there’s a major problem with the city we’re in now, as London has a massive diversity of religions and beliefs, and massive diversity within each grouping, including among Catholics and the non-religious. Actually, London works pretty well and I think we should be proud of it. We teach people to think for themselves on these matters and, as a secularist, I think we should respect their right to draw their own conclusions, provided they don’t then erode the rights of others. The alternative seems to be a religious hegemony. That might be attractive for a Pope, but we all know where it can lead.
While he’s ok with cultural diversity per se, which he says is “not a threat to Church unity”, he is concerned about it in the sense that “in many [developing] countries globalisation has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated”. Of course, there are real issues here. But the example he gives, referring to Asia and Africa, is about the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family in the face of what he considers to be poor, or at least culturally-inappropriate, examples in western mass media. That may be so. But he doesn’t mention the positive contribution of global sharing on women’s rights, women’s health or the fight against FGM, or the fact that it is culturally-appropriate Nigerian mass media, in the form of the Nollywood film industry, which has reinforced belief in witchcraft across Africa . Homosexuality isn’t mentioned anywhere in the document. The most charitable explanation for these omissions is that they are the compromises required to find common messages for audiences in several continents.
Beyond these wider issues, some of his concerns under the “cultural” heading are in fact concerns about external challenges to the Church. They comprise both what he calls “the onslaught of contemporary secularism”, and competition from other faiths.
By “Secularism” he seems to mean “living without a religious identity”. That’s not the meaning that most British Secularists give it. We say it’s about the neutrality of government in matters of religion or belief; freedom of religion and belief – provided it doesn’t erode the rights of others; and lack of discrimination. I’d recommend Andrew Copson’s recent book on Secularism, which will become part of the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series and which puts it in its varied international contexts.
Francis sees Secularism as a “challenge to inculcating the faith”, bemoaning parents who fail to have their children baptised, or to “teach them how to pray”. He bemoans “spiritual desertification…as a result of attempts by some societies to build without God or to eliminate their Christian roots”, adding a quote that, in these places “the Christian world is becoming sterile, and it is depleting itself like an over-exploited ground, which transforms into a desert”. But it turns out that quote is from Cardinal Newman in 1833. This isn’t new.
He accepts that deficiencies in the Church itself may be contributing to the decline. He lists “machismo, alcoholism, domestic violence, Low Mass attendance, fatalistic or superstitious notions which lead to sorcery and the like”. There seems to be a misfit here with his enthusiasm for what he calls “popular piety”, which to my mind includes attributing miraculous powers to statues and relics. In fact he explicitly mentions “journeying together to shrines” as an “evangelising gesture”. From the outside, it seems that some forms of superstition are more ok than others.
What is pretty astonishing, though, is that this list of deficiencies doesn’t include the fact that Catholic priests have sexually and physically abused children all over the world and the Church has protected the abusers and covered up the abuse. This is such a major stain on the Church’s reputation, and has had such major repercussions, it seems strange that Francis has apparently decided to play it down.
Then there are more subtle issues which are largely invisible to those on the outside. He quotes his predecessor talking about “the grey pragmatism of daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small mindedness”, and he talks about a “tomb psychology transforming Christians in to mummies in a museum”. Strong stuff. Then there are demotivated pastoral workers, and recruitment problems for the priesthood. Yet there’s no mention of celibacy. And he rules out women priests, while emphasising women’s rights and the “equal dignity” of men and women. I wonder how long those positions will be sustainable.
Among the reasons he gives for losing adherents to other religions is “relativistic subjectivism” and, significantly for today’s discussion, “our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape”. To me these apparent problems sound more like “thinking for yourself”. Ironically, and to his credit, he explicitly encourages “critical thinking”.
He attacks the idea of a “purely spiritual faith” and “immanentism”, which apparently means a denial of God’s transcendent reality in favour of a wholly subjective form of faith. “Today” he says, “our challenge is not so much atheism as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God, lest they try to satisfy it with alienating solutions or with a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others”. The language he uses here about incarnation and “personal relationships …..with God…Christ…Mary and the saints”, devotions he calls “fleshy”, is rather off-putting for a humanist. But underlying it is the concern that a religion or belief that only looks selfishly for spiritual or material well-being – such as the ‘theology of prosperity’ which is popular in Latin America and parts of Africa – means not caring for others. He sees that as a core of the message. And on that there’s common ground.
So those are the problems. He then turns to the solutions.
His solutions to socioeconomic problems are no different from those that many others would offer. He wants a more people-oriented financial system, greater equality and so on. But there is something a little patronising in the implication that charity and concern for others is a specifically Christian characteristic. He contrasts St.Paul’s emphasis on looking after the poor with the “self-centred lifestyle of the pagans” – I guess he means the pre-Christian Romans – which he sees re-emerging in modern society. Setting aside the fact that slaves were surely among the worst off people in Jesus and Paul’s time, yet neither of them expressed an objection to slavery, he’s simply wrong about lack of charity in pre-Christian Rome and Greece, and it also featured in Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and subsequently in Islam. Modern Britons are among the world’s greatest contributors to charity, while also being among the least religious –last year we were 7th out of 139 in the World Giving Index 5 year ranking – the top three were Myanmar, the USA and New Zealand.
While it was no surprise to find his emphasis on including the poor in society, his claim that “for the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one” would seem to make little practical difference. In practice, while charity has a vital role, structural change in this area is more likely to be brought about in the political arena than the religious – compare universal health care in Europe and the US. To be fair, he recognises that and encourages “responsible citizenship and participation in political life”.
In some respects, I think the religious perspective might even get in the way. For example, he says that the poor are “beautiful above and beyond all appearances” and “the love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely”. I’m not sure that it’s desirable to put “the poor” into a different them-and-us category which we are obliged to consider “beautiful”, rather than simply recognising everyone as fellow human beings with equal rights and similar needs whose suffering it is right to alleviate. As Bertrand Russell said: “The happy life is, to an extraordinary extent, the same as the good life”. We all gain from helping others.
The four principles he offers for the construction of a just and peaceful society – “time is greater than space”, “unity prevails over conflict”, “realities are more important than ideas” , and “the whole is greater than the parts” – are fine, to varying degrees, but I didn’t find them particularly helpful, or particularly specific to the Pope’s position.
When it comes to fixing the Church’s problems, he goes beyond simply counteracting the negatives he’s identified to a radical vision of “a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” The implication is that the message is more important than the survival of the institution. He wants “a Church which is poor and for the poor”. That’s pretty bold coming from the CEO, especially one sitting in the splendour of the Vatican. I’m not sure I believe it. Without the institution and its resources there is no mission, and he hasn’t got a job. In fact I think it’s really one of several challenges to Cardinal Burke and his followers in the Church’s conservative wing. Francis wants the organisation to “abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’”. Among other things, that means taking into account developments in social science, and recognising that, as Thomas Aquinas apparently pointed out, “the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God ‘are very few’”. Just in case that wasn’t clear, he says “For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion”.
But the biggest challenge for the Church is that it is losing active adherents. While he would argue that doing good works and arguing for the poor is itself an evangelical activity, there’s no escaping the fact that he sees a need for evangelism, or missionary activity, in a more conventional sense. The targets are not only “those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him”, but also both existing Catholics who rarely go to church, and lapsed Catholics, where the aim is “to help them experience a conversion” – all rather ‘Born Again’ I thought. As an aside, it’s interesting that, among the major faiths, only the Catholic Church refers to former adherents as “lapsed”, with the implication that they’re still really Catholics and may be back later. In reality most are ex-Catholics, just as those who have left Islam are ex-Muslims.
He mentions the fact that evangelism will highlight the difference between the Church’s ideal self-image and the actual image it currently has. He says this difference is the “source of the Church’s heroic and impatient struggle for renewal”. That felt to me rather disingenuous. The problem is not simply one of image, but of substance, especially on the child abuse issue, but also on some other ethical matters.
To be fair, he does try to deal with the problem of divergence between Church teaching and changed public ethics. Homosexuality and divorce aren’t mentioned explicitly, but it’s hard not to think that’s what he has in mind when he says “the biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message”. He refers to a hierarchy of truths, all descended from the core message of “the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ” and the need to see God in others”. He wants evangelism to be focussed on this positive message, not on rules, if the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching isn’t to collapse. I don’t think that will work if the underlying issues are not addressed. He may not think issues such as homosexuality and divorce are major issues, but a lot of other people do. But it’s hard to see how he can address them without causing a rift in the edifice he’s trying to protect.
While he tries to draw a distinction between evangelising and proselytising, he says that Christians are duty-bound to “proclaim the Gospel” and the Church will grow because people find the missionary message attractive. I think this is a meaningless distinction: no-one can ever be forced to believe something they don’t believe. And “proclaiming the Gospel” – depending on how it’s done – is indistinguishable from proselytisation if you’re on the receiving end. Even more contentious is his emphasis on the role of Catholic schools which, quote “always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelisation of culture”. As you would expect, as a humanist I find it astonishing that schools with that objective continue to be financed by the state.
That’s especially a problem in a society such as ours. His respect for the sciences is, of course, something I’d agree with. But then he goes on to complain that “positivism and scientism refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”, which denies “other areas of knowledge such as…faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence”. Few humanists would go along with scientism in the sense of denying the reality of emotions and all the other subjective human experiences which make life what it is. But talk of mystery transcending nature as a real thing, as opposed to something people have created to explain subjective feelings and answer their desires, is where we part company. And when he says “the Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science” presumably a line is drawn when it contradicts Church truth claims. For example, we know that homo sapiens, while special in what we have achieved and the richness of human life, is in genetic terms not special in any way – we’re just a particular human animal species that has been very successful over the geologically-short period of around 100,000 years. We also know that no-one is actually possessed by evil forces, physical miracles don’t happen, and the Turin Shroud dates from the 14th century.
At the same time, he seems to have no real answer to the problem of other religions looking more attractive in a plural marketplace of ideas, or to why people should abandon the sort of purely personal spirituality he criticises. Having said that, he does recognise the fact of plurality, and encourages “dialogue with other believers who are not part of the Catholic Church”. So apparently not unbelievers, which cuts out roughly half the population of the UK, and the great majority of the young.
Overall, Evangelii Gaudium left me with a more favourable impression of Pope Francis. It’s a lot more radical and political than I’d expected, and it does no harm for such a prominent figure to highlight some of the ills and injustices of the world.
But I ended up feeling rather sorry for him. For good or ill – and probably a bit of both – the world is moving on.