When an apparently innocuous teaching document comes out of Rome – and a pope calling us to holiness fits that description better than most – it’s always important on the Vatican beat to ask: Why this, and why now?
When you apply the context lens, two recent events help answer that question.
One was yesterday: Amoris Laetitia — the most fought-over papal teaching since the Humanae Vitae controversies of 1968 – quietly celebrated its second anniversary. Over the weekend, its handful of celebrity opponents organized an event in Rome to insist Amoris was heretical, while a group of bishops in Lombardy became the latest of dozens of dioceses to accept and implement it.
At the heart of Amoris is an attempt to change the Church’s focus: Away from concentrating on the defense of the truth about marriage at the level of culture and law and towards widening the access to grace that enables people to live that truth. (Whether it compromises the witness to that truth in the process, as its critics claim, is the disputed matter).
The paragraph that best revealed the Amoris agenda was #37: “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life,” Francis admonished.
In Evangelii Gaudium in 2013, the pope foresaw the difficulty some might have with this refocusing, which the 2007 Aparecida document of the Latin American bishops called “pastoral conversion.” That resistance, he suggested, had echoes of early-Church battles over the ancient heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, at the heart of which was, precisely, the role of grace.
And now, having sought to open the channels of grace in the Church, he is turning to people, and inviting them to open to grace too.
Hence Event Two: A few weeks ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a brief treatise “on certain aspects of Christian salvation.” Although the CDF prefect, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, spoke of the document as contributing to ongoing debates since John Paul II’s 2000 Dominus Iesus, the first paragraph of Placuit Deo made clear it was about deepening the teaching on salvation “with particular reference to the teachings of Pope Francis.”
Its topic too was grace, and the way it is excluded by the contemporary versions of the ancient heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, which Francis from the start of his pontificate has warned infect not just modern culture but also the Church.
Having left the CDF document to do the theological heavy-lifting in advance of today’s document, the pope has now turned to us in very personal, pastoral language to embrace the offer of holiness and avoid the holy-looking but in reality grace-excluding heresies.
What is unique about Gaudete et Exsultate is how it is addressed. Francis not only invites us all into a personal relationship with Christ, but shows us the route there – and includes (as all good maps should) the dead-end paths which at the start look deceptively promising. His goal, he says, is “to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time.”
The “universal call to holiness” is an ancient idea, given rocket boosters at the Second Vatican Council and urged in the papacies since. St John Paul II in Novo Millennio Ineunte #30 and 31 called for the Church to include “training in holiness,” above all in the art of prayer.
But while he is clear that the Church has everything we need on our journey to become holy, and even lists the menu of travel aids, Francis is issuing a direct invitation to people to embrace holiness, in a tone that is not just familiar but positively familial.
(This comes across even more strongly in the Latin-language translations, in which he deploys the informal singular vocative tú in close to half of all the paragraphs — a deliberate linguistic choice on the pope’s part which of course is lost in English.)
And because Placuit Deo has dealt with all the fine points and definitions, the pope in Gaudete et Exsultate can take the unusual step of warning Catholics against certain kinds of Catholic mindsets that are an obstacle to salvation via Jesus Christ.
Although they are dressed up in Catholic clothes, the modern forms of Gnosticism and Pelagianism in practice deny Christ (grace) any ongoing involvement in the process of conversion and journey towards holiness. God is reduced to a distant moral code-giver, and salvation is achieved on their own strengths by an elite cadre of enlightened or strong-willed Christians.
It is neo-Pelagian, for example, to speak about grace but then confine it in practice to a one-off gift from the outside in the form of, say, clear doctrine, or forgiveness to one who has repented.
(The anti-Amoris declaration on Saturday is an example. It claims that “forgiveness is based on an intention to abandon a way of life that is contrary to divine commandments,” suggesting the first is always conditional on the second.)
The view of grace in Evangelii Gaudium, Amoris Laetitia, and above all now in Gaudete et Exsultate, is very different. Francis follows the firm Augustinian view that grace is an interior gift constantly available to us in humble prayer when we – inevitably – fall, and in which God takes the initiative in order to change people.
“When some of them” – the neo-Pelagians – “tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added,” Francis writes in Gaudete et Exsultate.
In fact, he says, quoting St Augustine, human weaknesses are not healed once and for all by grace, and our holiness grows in our humble reception of grace over time, step by step, within the constraints of our circumstances and strengths.
Conversely, “the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgement of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us,” because we shut out what we think we don’t need.
The reason this goes to the heart of the pontificate’s program is that God saves humanity via the Incarnation — in fleshy, concrete human reality — not via precepts and laws and complex ideas. Francis believes that the Church’s emphasis on truth and moral precepts without emphasizing the centrality of grace has made the Christian invitation forbidding, even threatening, and is one reason why many have stopped listening to the Church.
It was a problem his predecessor saw. In a quote that Francis in Evangelii Gaudium says he never tires of repeating, and which reappears in Placuit Deo, Benedict XVI says in Deus Caritas Est that “Being a Christian is not the result of choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
The aim of Gaudete et Exsultate is to show that this encounter is what saves. Grace is always available to those who turn humbly to God, seeing His mercy; and the Church’s task is to provide access to that Grace, removing unnecessary obstacles.
It is also about showing that holiness involves a turning towards, rather than recoiling from, suffering and poverty and need.
Gaudete et Exsultate identifies the royal road – actually, the only road – to salvation, which is clearly marked out by Jesus himself in the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. The first are the attitudes, or signs, of holiness in our attitudes, and the second are the ways we respond concretely to human need.
These, too, are all about grace. Our merciful actions make us more receptive to grace, and grace makes us more sensitive to need and merciful in response to it. Thus, says Francis, the authenticity of our prayer can be judged by how it changes how we act towards the poor and how we see them.
Hence a sign of our holiness, he says, is “a constant and unhealthy unease” with regard to the injustices of the world. Rather than absolutizing one area of ethical concern and dismissing other kinds of social engagement as political – being strongly anti-abortion, say, but regarding concern for migrants as leftist, examples the pope himself gives in the document – holiness means growing more and more concerned by every affront to human dignity.
Gaudete et Exsultate is remarkably short: It weighs in at 177 paragraphs, compared with Amoris’s 325. But it is arguably his most direct and compelling yet, because it gets right to the heart of his pontificate’s aim of restoring the centrality of grace to the Church’s invitation.
Why this, why now? Because after great efforts, not without opposition, to open the Church’s doors to grace, it’s time to invite people to step through them, and to reassure them that’s it’s not their knowledge or strength they need for the journey, but only faith in God’s help.