Caring for migrants and the poor is equally as holy a pursuit as conflicting abortion, Pope Francis declared in a main document issued by the Vatican on Monday morning.
Brushing back against conservative critics within the church who argue that the 81-year-old pope’s focus on social issues has led him to lose sight of the true doctrine, Pope Francis again cast himself, and the mission of the Roman Catholic Church, in a more progressive light.
“The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” Pope Francis wrote in an apostolic exhortation on the subject of holiness issued Monday morning. “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and ardent. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, and the abandoned.”
The pope’s vision of holiness explicitly highlighted migrants, whose plight he has sought to elevate to global attention perhaps more than any other problem.
“We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser problem,” he said.
“Some Catholics consider it a secondary problem compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian,” he said, adding that welcoming the stranger at the door was fundamental to the faith. “This is not a notion invented by some Pope, or a momentary fad.”
The pope’s 103-page document — an apostolic exhortation titled “Gaudete et Exsultate,” or “Rejoice and Be Glad” — is less authoritative than a papal encyclical, but is nevertheless an essential teaching pronouncement. At its outset, Francis makes clear that it is not meant “to be a treatise on holiness” but to “re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time.”
As he put it elsewhere in the document, “Seeing and acting with mercy: That is holiness,” a statement that is a distilled expression of Francis’ vision of the church. That vision is consistent with the view articulated by Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago who died in 1996, who called for a “consistent ethic of life” that wove issues of life and social justice into a “seamless garment.”
Throughout, Francis urges followers not to withdraw from the world but to engage with it, and to be less consumed with showy demonstrations of faith and piousness than with patiently raising children with love and working hard to support families and representing what he called “the middle class of holiness.
“In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant,” Francis wrote, utilizing a phrase that has been appropriated by arch-conservatives critical of his papacy. The pope’s allies have described the fringe Catholic website Church Militant as openly in favor of political “ultraconservatism.”
But a majority of the document is rumination on what constitutes an effective and true practice of holiness.
While he says “ the silence of prolonged prayer” is critical, Francis also says that holiness at times requires the faithful to be loud and active, and says it “is not healthy” to seek prayer while disdaining service.
He cautions against a cold reason untethered from spirituality, and warns against an overemphasis on the power of human will alone “as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added.”
In doing so, he suggests that prosperity and power gospels fail to realize that not everyone can do everything. Holiness requires humility, he says, and a lack of “acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us.”
In a section of the document titled “Signs of Holiness in Today’s World,” the pope absolutely laments a modern culture that includes the “the self-content bred by consumerism; individualism; and all those forms of ersatz spirituality — having nothing to do with God — that dominate the current religious marketplace.”
The pope, like many others, is also worried that social networks like Facebook feed into the hedonism and consumerism that “can prove our downfall” and are, in short, a waste of time.
“When we permit ourselves to be caught up in superficial information, instant communication and virtual reality, we can waste precious time and become indifferent to the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters,” he says.
At another point in the document, he expresses his concern for a contemporary culture that “offers immense probabilities for inaction and distraction.” He warns that “all of us, but especially the young, are immersed in a culture of zapping. We can navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three virtual scenarios.”
And despite a recent controversy caused by a favorite, if infamously unreliable, narrator of the pope’s conversations, who asserted that the pontiff did not believe in hell, Francis has no doubt that the devil is real.
“We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea,” he writes. “This mistake would lead us to let down our guard.”
In the devil’s arsenal is the spreading of gossip, which the pope disdains, but he also express his intolerance for the intolerant and close-minded.
In what some Vatican watchers already interpreted as another poke at the small but vocal chorus of his conservative critics inside the Vatican hierarchy, he bemoans those who would prefer a self-righteous and orthodox minority to the tough work of spreading peace by embracing “even those who are a bit odd, troublesome or difficult.”
He writes: “Sowing peace all around us: That is holiness.”