The Good Shepherd carries a staff to help him herd the sheep. With the crook at the top, he can reach out to rescue the fallen, and with the point at the bottom, he can prod the sheep if necessary to keep them in line.
It is no mistake, therefore, when one blogger described Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) as "the shepherd prodding the flock." One commenter complained that the Pope was "a scold."
He may be scolding, but his comments are also scalding. If we listen carefully, we’ll realize that the smiling "peoples’ pope" has some harsh criticism for a whole range of people — including Catholics. His words are blunt, and we’re beginning to realize that they don’t call him "Pope Frank" for nothing!
Pope Francis says if we are to evangelize we "must not look like we’ve just come from a funeral," and "there are some Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter." After an inspirational start, in the second chapter, the Holy Father gets down to business. He opposes an economy of exclusion, decries the idolatry of money and demands an economy which serves instead of enslaves. He cries out against inequality that leads to violence and acknowledges a range of cultural problems that impede evangelization.
Then he goes on to assess problems in the Church. He says "No" to spiritual sloth and "Yes" to a vibrant missionary mentality. He says "No" to a sterile pessimism and "Yes" to new relationships in Christ. Then, in the midst of a rich exhortation that bears detailed study, the Pope makes a very astute analysis of what he calls "spiritual worldliness" — a religion that looks perfectly fine on the outside but is rotten on the inside.
Pope Francis says this spiritual worldliness takes many forms depending on the groups or individuals into which it seeps, but he goes on to define two forms of this spiritual malaise which we cannot help but see as a criticism of two tendencies among Catholics: what I call the trendies and the traddies.
He says, "This worldliness can be fueled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideologies and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings."
Gnosticism was a heresy in the early Church that was free-ranging, amorphous and difficult to define. This was because it was based in subjective feelings, personal revelation and individualistic interpretations of the truth. Gnosticism was notoriously shaky on an orthodox understanding of the Incarnation. Some gnostics got caught up in what we would recognize as New Age-type beliefs, while others turned the faith into a bland, humanistic self-help religion.
This sounds like the "trendies" to me — Catholics who are caught up in subjective New Age spiritualities combined with politicized agendas. These modern Catholics are only concerned about worldly power, and they believe the mission of the Church is no more than to make the world a better place.
The Pope describes them saying, "This spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs or an obsession with programs of self-help and self-realization. It can also translate into a concern to be seen, into a social life full of appearances, meetings, dinners and receptions."
If Pope Francis criticizes the "trendies" for their subjective worldliness, he also criticizes the "traddies" with some astoundingly erudite nomenclature. He says, "The other [form of spiritual worldliness] is the self-absorbed promethean neo-pelagianism 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."
What on earth is "promethean neo-pelagianism"? Prometheus was the Greek god who, by individual genius and effort, raised humanity by stealing fire. The translators have chosen this word to express the Pope’s vision of self-absorbed Catholics who thinks they know it all and have it all worked out. And Pelagius was the heretic who taught that humans could earn their own salvation.
We can’t help but see radical traditionalists as the Pope’s target. He pinpoints their "supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline" and their intransigent allegiance to traditional worship. He also dashes their judgmental attitudes that end up as a "narcissistic and authoritarian elitism" and assesses their self-defined and determined form of Catholicism as neo-pelagianism.
Pope Francis quite rightly sees that neither the "trendies" nor the "traddies" will be able to evangelize effectively. In harsh and blunt criticism rarely seen in papal documents, he says, "In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism." By "anthropocentric immanentism," he means the idea of God being centered in human activity and ideas that mimic true religion. He goes on to state, "It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity."
These statements are not simply an attack on Catholic "trendies" and "traddies." In many ways, this paragraph lies at the heart of understanding Pope Francis and his whole mission. Put simply, he recapitulates the Gospel message of Christ the Lord and takes us back to the essentials.
As Jesus turned over the tables in the Temple, so Francis turns over those who have set places, established agendas and organized power structures in the Church. As Jesus undermined the Zealots and the Sadducees — who turned the Jewish religion into a humanistic political campaign or a social club, so Francis criticizes Catholics for their shallow spirituality, political agenda and social maneuverings. As Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their narrow-minded legalistic traditionalism, so Francis pulls the rug from under the Catholics who fall into narcissistic and authoritarian elitism.
Pope Francis’ first words to a waiting world included the comment that he was called "from the ends of the world" to be pope. His words carried a deeper meaning, for he is a true outsider.
His fresh approach cuts through all our expectations and categories. He shifts paradigms, moves us from our comfort zone and demands that we consider our faith from a new perspective — a perspective that is also as ancient, disturbing and table-turning as the Gospel itself.
Father Dwight Longenecker’s new book,
The Romance of Religion,
will be published in February by Thomas Nelson.
Visit his blog, browse his books and be
in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.