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Apostolic exhortations tend to be quickly forgotten. When was the last time you perused "Ecclesia in Africa" (1995) or "Pastores gregis" (2003)? Like great books, they seem to remain part of the "canon" of what faithful Catholics read, only because they both are highly relevant and greatly beloved. Probably only two of the 15 exhortations of John Paul II have this status. For guidance on Catholic family life, nothing is better than "Familiaris cosortio," cherished as much now as when it was written in 1981; and "Christifidelis laici" (1988) remains one of the best explanations of the lay apostolate.
We may lament the transient character of exhortations, but, after all, they do not define doctrine, and they are proposed as having less authority than an encyclical or even an apostolic letter. An exhortation, by the nature of the case, must be directed to a particular community at a particular time.
Moreover, there is a self-selection effect: because most people will not pay attention to them, it follows that those who do, are precisely those who will read them carefully. Exhortations carry along with them a built-in mechanism of sound interpretation. It follows that the immediate "shock effect" or apparent "newsworthiness" of an exhortation is probably the least important thing about it, in the long run.
These reflections are good to keep in mind when we read Pope Francis' amazing and bracing exhortation, "Evangelii gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"). The news headlines focused on some lines in which the pope criticizes a "naive and crude" trust in the market and the idea that market mechanisms themselves do not produce a just society, through a "trickle down" effect. Because the phrase, "trickle-down economics," has been used by the political left to attack the policies favored by the political right in the U.S., the pope seemed to be taking sides in this dispute -- which the media, not surprisingly, loved and trumpeted. Was the pope giving his stamp of approval to the high rates of taxation and redistributionist schemes? Was he teaching "socialism" and attacking the "free market"?
You can say it until you are blue in the face, but it does not matter, because that news cycle is over: but a careful reading of the exhortation shows no such thing. From what the pope says about current political leaders, it is clear that he is not endorsing any current government or policy. When he says, for example, that "A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders," (n. 58), then, clearly, he implies that our political leaders right now are not open to the correct ethical considerations. When the pope says that the "marginalized" get ignored because of "the widespread and deeply rooted corruption found in many countries -- in their governments, businesses and institutions -- whatever the political ideology of their leaders" (n. 60), he is probably criticizing, by implication, more governments which embrace policies of the "left" than of the "right."
And the pope does not attack market mechanisms but rather affirms them: "Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth" (n. 204). He could not have said it any clearer than that, but let me rephrase: there can be no social justice without economic growth. Naturally, the pope affirms, therefore, the importance of job creation, which implies wealth creation: "We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a 'dignified sustenance' for all people, but also their 'general temporal welfare and prosperity.' This means education, access to health care, and above all employment," (n. 192); a true concern for the poor "requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality" (n. 204).
Note: my goal here is not to "spin" the exhortation. It is undeniable that, at first glance, the exhortation seems to support the political left. But it leaves this impression, not because of any intention of the pope to take sides, but rather because the political left, in its rhetoric at least, gives a prominent place to the alleviation of poverty.
I suggest that those on the political right, rather than attempting to "spin" the encyclical, would better spend their time by trying to change the rhetoric of the right, to make it absolutely clear that a central purpose and point of their policies is the assistance of the poor. (Some Catholic politicians on the "right" are trying to approach economic and social policy in just this way.)
It is difficult to say what the long-term fruits of the exhortation will be, if Catholics take it seriously and continue to study it. That the pope intends the exhortation to have a lasting effect is clear: "I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences" (n. 25).
What might happen if every Catholic responded to the pope's invitation to a renewed personal encounter with Christ (n. 3)? What if all of us loved the poor immediately and directly and could say along with the pope, "Why complicate something so simple?" (n. 194).
Michael Pakaluk is a professor and chairman of philosophy at Ave Maria University.