As the Church marks five years since Pope Francis’ election as the 266th Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, many observations will be made about this pontificate’s sweeping ideological changes, which have unsettled and surprised even those expecting major reforms.

And yet a closer look at his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), reveals that much of what the Church has experienced since 2013 should not have come as a surprise.

Rereading the document, published just eight months after Francis’ election, it becomes clear just how much this exhortation provides a valuable key to understanding this pontificate.

Initially meant to be Benedict XVI’s summary document of the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization, it is first and foremost Pope Francis’ guide for the Church’s missionary life.

His frequent calls to look outwards, to go to the peripheries and bring the light of the Gospel to the world can be traced back to this text, and so, too, can his demands for radical forms of mercy, inclusivity and a “poor Church for the poor.”

One of the Holy Father’s clearest aims in the document is for the Church to be “permanently in a state of mission” and for her to be liberated from “self-absorption” through a renewed encounter with God’s love. He warns against “being comfortable” in the faith and instead to “become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.”

He says he dreams of a “missionary option” that must be capable of transforming everything, so that the “Church’s customs, ways of doing things,” can be “channeled” to evangelize today’s world rather than be geared to her “self-preservation.”

Effort should be made to make “ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open,” he writes. In Paragraph 30, he calls for a “resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.”

In many of his subsequent writings and teachings, including his 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), the Pope has followed his precept articulated in Evangelii Gaudium that it is “not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction,’” and that “everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love.”

He notably states that if the Church’s moral teaching and virtues do not “radiate forcefully and attractively,” then the “edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards.” It would mean the Church’s doctrinal or moral points are “based on specific ideological options,” which “run the risk of losing its freshness and will cease to have ‘the fragrance of the Gospel.’”

The Pope’s insistence on inclusivity is frequently stated in the document, from his exhortation that “the joy of the Gospel is for all people: No one can be excluded” to his call for the Church’s doors to be “always wide open” and that the “doors of the sacraments” should not be closed “for simply any reason.”

The Eucharist, he adds, “although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” — an assertion used subsequently by some interpreters of Amoris Laetitia to promote highly contentious innovations, from Holy Communion for remarried divorcees who feel unable to leave a life of objective adultery, to intercommunion for Protestant spouses.

In Paragraph 32, Francis lays out his vision for a potentially even more controversial goal: a decentralized Church, including when it comes to doctrine. The papacy and the “central structures of the universal Church” also need to hear “the call to pastoral conversion,” he writes.

He stresses that the Second Vatican Council called for a “concrete realization of the collegial spirit” but regrets that this desire “has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated” (italics added for emphasis). He adds that “excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.”

This vision was reinforced last fall by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who in a speech at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., departed from Benedict XVI’s view of bishops’ conferences as merely bureaucratic structures, saying they are, on the contrary, “episcopal” in the full sense of the authority of a bishop, which includes the power to define doctrine. The issue was also raised at the latest meeting of the C9 Group of Cardinals, Feb. 26-28. 

Later in Evangelii Gaudium, Francis again communicates a revised attitude toward doctrine, saying “pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed.” He later adds that an “imbalance” results when “we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.”

In a passage with relevance to the subsequent controversy over Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which some scholars say contains elements not in continuity with Church teaching nor in accordance with the Church’s tradition, the Pope writes that “differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word.”

He goes on to say that 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 in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.”

His willingness to do away with long-held customs can be found in Paragraph 43, where he says that some “may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them.”

The Pope’s frequent criticisms during the course of his papacy of the tendency of some within the Church toward “rigidity” can be traced back, in part, to Paragraph 45, where he writes that a missionary heart “never opts for rigidity and defensiveness” and that the Church has to “go forth to everyone without exception.”

He warns against “fear of going astray” and “remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat.’”

He chastises 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.”

Francis adds that they have a “supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline,” which leads 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.”

The Pope links spiritual worldliness to those with an “ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people.”

Such worldliness, he says, can lead to “enmity, division, calumny, defamation, vendetta, jealousy and the desire to impose certain ideas at all costs, even to persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts. Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?”

He exhorts the faithful “not to think the Gospel message must always be communicated by fixed formulations learned by heart or by specific words which express an absolutely invariable content,” but, rather, advocates a theology “in dialogue with other sciences and human experiences,” saying it is “most important for our discernment on how best to bring the Gospel message to different cultural contexts and groups.”

Such an approach, which he claims is rooted in the Second Vatican Council, has been witnessed in, among other examples, his refounding in September of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which he renamed as the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family Sciences.

The Holy Father’s wish for a change in pastoral discipline regarding those in irregular unions might have been prefigured in Paragraph 172, when he urges accompaniment of those whose “situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without.” He adds that the Gospel “tells us to correct others … without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability.”

The association of the Holy Spirit with the changes laid out in Amoris Laetitia is foreshadowed in Evangelii Gaudium, when he says, quoting Pope St. John Paul II, that the Holy Spirit “can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable.”

He goes on to warn against being concerned “simply about falling into doctrinal error” and the need to remain “faithful to this light-filled path of life and wisdom.” For, he adds, “defenders of orthodoxy are sometimes accused of passivity, indulgence or culpable complicity regarding the intolerable situations of injustice and the political regimes which prolong them.”

Pope Francis’ famous wish for a Church “which is poor and for the poor” is mentioned in the document, as is his concern for migrants, for whom he, as the “pastor of a Church without frontiers,” is conscious of leading in a Church that “considers herself mother to all.” His concern for the environment in the face of a free market that has rejected God and ethics, a theme most clearly covered in his later encyclical Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), is touched upon when the Pope criticizes “the thirst for power and possessions” that “knows no limits,” so that “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

He also articulates his four specific foundational principles to guide people and society: “Time is greater than space,” meaning to “work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results”; “unity prevails over conflict”; “realities are more important than ideas,” meaning a rejection of what he sees as false ideologies; and “the whole is greater than the part.” The provenance of these principles has been traced back to some controversial historical Argentine figures and to his preference for la teologia del pueblo (“theology of the people”) that was developed in 1967 and is similar to liberation theology.

The Pope also underlines the importance of dialogue, which he says is enriching, and writes that whenever we enter the “reality of other people’s lives” our lives “become wonderfully complicated.”

His frequent recourse to the Holy Spirit as underpinning his actions is clear in Paragraph 280, in which he says “there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills.

“The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every time and place. This is what it means to be mysteriously fruitful!”

In summary, Evangelii Gaudium prefigures much of what has been witnessed over these past five years in terms of the themes Pope Francis has chosen to prioritize. In particular, it shows his skeptical view of the Church’s law and doctrine, which he sees as restricting its evangelizing mission and curtailing the work of the Holy Spirit. In so doing, the Holy Father proposes an idealistic, even revolutionary vision of the Church and human society, one that increasing numbers of faithful see as problematic.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.