How to Read "The Joy of the Gospel"

What Is the Point of Evangelii Gaudium and What Does That Say About Paragraphs on the Economy

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By Michael Pakaluk

The Pope’s recent Apostolic Exhortation has drawn lots of criticism for its language in two or three paragraphs dealing with the economy. These criticisms should be taken seriously; I do not agree that they should be “spun” or “finessed” away, so that apparent problems disappear. However, first they should be placed in proper context.

The reason is that this vast, comprehensive Exhortation—containing 288 numbered paragraphs and stretching to 224 pages – should of course be read and interpreted in the same way that we would read anything that was written by an intelligent person who is not a fool. That is, we must (1) understand its point; (2) grasp any limitations placed on method or approach; and then (3) interpret the parts as contributing to the whole.  For most people, especially journalists, it would take days or weeks to do so.  Not surprisingly, then, early commentary on the Exhortation involved pulling paragraphs out of context.

(1)   The point of the Evangelii Gaudium

So, first, what is the point of the Exhortation? It points to a problem, gives a diagnosis of the problem, and offers a solution. The Great Problem which the Exhortation points to, is the almost complete lack of missionary zeal on the part of Catholics. If you do not agree that this is a problem, then you should skip reading the Exhortation. If you agree that the problem exists, and you are a Catholic, then you very much should be interested in what the Pope has to say about it, because, whatever his strengths and weaknesses, he is most certainly the Pastor, the spiritual Father, appointed by the Holy Spirit for guiding us in dealing with that type of “familial” problem.

This absence of missionary zeal could also be referred to as a near rejection, or forsaking, or lack of acknowledgement, of the apostolic character of the Catholic faith by the great majority of Catholics. In contrast to this one finds the teaching of both Scripture and Tradition: Scripture, as in Our Lord’s parable warning that the man who merely buries his talent is displeasing to God; and Tradition, as in the Creed (“holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”), and the Catechism, which states that “[the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God” (n. 1270).

Ask a Catholic, “What have you done this week to spread the faith?”, and he might look at you as if you were a Fundamentalist or oddball.  But obviously the New Evangelization, which recent Pontiffs have so fervently desired, will go nowhere unless the faithful are engaged in spreading the good news—which they evidently are not.

Now what is the cause of this problem? Probably all of us who have thought about it have our pet theories. For example, some think that the faith is not spreading because modern churches and church music are ugly. Others hold that the reason is that catechesis has been a near total failure. Others might agree with the theme of Mary Eberstadt’s recent book and finger the breakdown of the family as the main obstacle. Others again might fault the Catholic schools and universities, precisely for not being Catholic.

Undoubtedly there is merit in all of these suggestions, and the Pope refers to them all. But the Pope’s basic diagnosis goes deeper. He thinks that the problem is that Catholics lack joy: because if we have joy, then no one needs to tell us to spread the faith, as we will do so naturally and spontaneously, the same way that we share anything that we are passionate about. 

This lack of joy, in turn, he links to a certain “narrowness and self-absorption” (n. 8), which he finds to be exacerbated by various trends in modern life, such as consumerism and immersion in electronic media. This narrowness and self-absorption takes many forms (pessimism, being a “sourpuss”, defeatism, spiritual sloth, anxiety, worldliness, self-reliance) and hides behind many “pious” looking, false forms of Christianity.

Ponder for instance the Holy Father’s blunt correction of “those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying” (n. 94).  You can bet that each of us is prone to one of these types of pseudo-Catholicism: the Exhortation provides ample material for a serious examination of conscience.

The solution which the Pope proposes, most fundamentally, is that each and every Catholic, in a genuine and personal act, turn once again to Christ and, “unfailingly each day,” ask Christ to be with us as a friend.  At the opening of the Exhortation, the Pope even suggests the words one might use: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace” (n. 3).   

Many times in the Exhortation the Pope emphasizes the simplicity of what he is requesting. He begs his reader not to obscure and darken with needless complications.  And what could be simpler than this?

Now, the Pope anticipates that there will be lots of consequences of this renewed invitation of Christ into our lives, one of the most important of which will be a deep concern for the poor, as “the least of Christ’s brethren”, which will blast apart that self-absorption that keeps us from resting in the joy of the Gospel. And it is in this connection—and only in this connection—that economic activity and economic policy get brought into the Exhortation: because the Pope insists, surely correctly, that a genuine and deep concern for the poor must have a deliberate social expression, and not merely a spontaneous, personal expression. He warns in contrast that “many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel.” Note that word, “realism”: as there is an aspect of fantasy in the denial of the social dimension of the gospel. Just one among many remarkable assertions in the Exhortation is this: “The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (n 88).

(2)   The limitations of method and approach

By far the most important step in interpreting “The Joy of the Gospel” correctly is to understand its purpose and approach, as I have just sketched. But at the same time it is important to attend to the limitations and qualifications which the Holy Father explicitly sets down for the document, of which there are four.

First, all of the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church, especially the social doctrine in all its richness, is taken to be presupposed, and therefore these teachings do not need to be repeated in the Exhortation, in order for them to have sway: “I take for granted the different analyses which other documents of the universal magisterium have offered” (n. 51). Thus, if someone were to complain that the importance of wealth creation is not acknowledged in the Exhortation, or the way in which the Christian virtues naturally find expression in business activity, one might reply that the Exhortation does not need to state these things, as these are important themes in Centesimus Annus, and the teaching of that Encyclical are of course presupposed.

Second, the Exhortation is not meant to be a contribution to the social doctrine of the Church, and therefore its emphases should be interpreted, not as refining or developing that doctrine, but rather simply as the admittedly selective application of that doctrine to the problem at hand: “This is not the time or the place to examine in detail the many grave social questions affecting today’s world, some of which I have dealt with in the second chapter. This Exhortation is not a social document, and for reflection on those different themes we have a most suitable tool in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, whose use and study I heartily recommend” (n. 184). Thus it would be quite unfair to complain, as one commentator has done, that the Exhortation seems to downplay the importance of the family, because it devotes only one paragraph to the family. The family gets plenty of emphasis in the social doctrine of the church.

Third, the Holy Father does not intend his reflections to settle matters definitively or to crowd out contributions from knowledgeable experts: “neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems,” (ibid). So when the Pope speaks, for instance, about the need to address “the structural causes of inequality,” (n. 202), he is not thereby endorsing some already existing policy or political platform but rather drawing attention to a task which he is inviting economists and social scientists to contribute to.

Fourth, the Exhortation should be received in the manner of a Father’s teaching (often involving correction, as we have seen) and not in the manner of a professor’s thesis. This qualification marks an aspect which should give professional pundits and academic critics pause. The Pope is quite aware how the human mind can “work on” some teaching or guidance –especially if it comes from a Father, and especially if it makes a correction—in order to smother that teaching in an obscuring blanket of objections, criticisms, interpretations, and other quibbles. He warns against this vice repeatedly in the Exhortation, and therefore we ought to take care not to fall prey to it: “This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it. The Church’s reflection on these texts ought not to obscure or weaken their force, but urge us to accept their exhortations with courage and zeal. Why complicate something so simple?” (n. 194). Again: “I fear that these words too may give rise to commentary or discussion with no real practical effect” (n. 201).

(3)   Interpreting the parts as contributing to the whole

Any part of the Exhortation should be interpreted in view of the point of the document, in accordance with its approach and stated limitations.  So how should we deal in this way with those paragraphs which have received so much criticism?

Let us consider the much-maligned paragraph 54, which begins in this way:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably [or “of itself”] succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.

First off, let us accept the criticism that “inevitably” is not an accurate translation of the (probably original) Spanish, por si, and that “of itself” is better: a small point, but the more accurate phrase suggests that a free market, in accordance with Centesimus Annus and Rerum Novarum, is a necessary condition of greater justice, even if not a sufficient condition.

Next let us read this paragraph as we should read any other intelligent piece of writing and observe its context. The paragraph actually invokes a context! It says, “In this context…” So what is that context?   From the preceding paragraph it becomes clear that the Pope’s concern is precisely with cultures in which ”human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” He calls this a “throw away” culture—signaling his willingness to use popular, catchy phrases, which quickly get the intuitive idea across, even if they are not technical terms used in academic discourse. 

In such cultures, the Pope says, people are necessarily excluded: “those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’” (n. 53).  Another striking assertion!  A careful reader will observe that when the Pope says that the excluded ones are not properly described as “exploited” he is specifically rejecting a Marxian or liberationist analysis of the problem in terms of exploitation and oppression! He is explicitly saying that the problem is different and requires a different analysis and solution. Obviously the Marxian or socialist solution of a command economy will not address this different problem. That this context-- of exclusion not exploitation-- is the governing context of paragraph 54 is evident from what the Pope says there, “Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”  

So then what is the Pope’s concern? As my colleague, the economist Gabriel Martinez, has observed, the Pope almost certainly has in mind the kind of situation described by D. Acemoglu and J. Robinson's book, Why Nations Fail, which echoes the findings of hundreds of research papers in holding that long-term growth can be sustained only in what they call “inclusive” as opposed to “extractive” societies. In “extractive” societies, quick growth may sometimes take place, but the economy is in effect designed to allow “insiders” to win and “outsiders” to lose in every transaction, even in seemingly free transactions. 

“Most of human history has been dominated by ‘extractive’ societies,” Martinez remarks, “and ‘inclusive’ societies are really the historical exception. Recommending free markets to an ‘extractive’ society is to offer them a poisonous combination.”  Martinez observes that Charles Murray and Tyler Cowan, in their work, are in effect giving libertarian warnings that the traditionally “inclusive” United States economy is becoming increasingly “exclusive.”

Commentators have complained about paragraph 54 that “trickle down” is a political slogan, not a respectable economic term. However, it captures the intuitive idea exceedingly well. The Pope is not slinging around the slogan to side with some political party. Actually, his use of the term implicitly concedes that wealth does “trickle down” in an “inclusive” society! But he is pointing out, correctly, that in an “extractive” situation this effect is frustrated. Since normal market mechanisms (whereby the pursuit by individuals of their self-interest works out to the benefit of all) do not apply, then to suppose that the “extractive” situation might “fix itself” would indeed imply some kind of “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power” or perhaps that the current system is “sacralized” in the sense that somehow God’s beneficent providence will insure that the system just of itself will produce justice. People do think this way; they do implicitly make these or similar false presumptions; and the Pope’s diagnosis is perfectly accurate and fair.

Every paragraph in the document should be approached in the same way—again, in the way that we would interpret any intelligently written document. May this brief discussion of paragraph 54 serve as a helpful worked example, while deflecting what I think on reconsideration must be regarded as unfair criticisms.

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Michael Pakaluk, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Ave Maria University, is an Ordinary Member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas.