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Speed Reading the Pope

50,000 words, boiled down—way down.

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Everybody has an opinion about the pope these days and, what’s worse, feels compelled to express it. Rush Limbaugh has an opinion about the pope. He says he finds the pope “upsetting.” And he’s not even Catholic!

Promethean neopelagians, beware.

Promethean neopelagians, beware.

Tânia Rêgo / ABr

It’s true that Rush Limbaugh finds nearly everything upsetting. Getting upset is what he gets paid to do. What has set him off this time is the papal exhortation released late last month, Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel. It is the kind of document, increasingly common, that is commented upon and argued over and tweeted about rather than read. It goes on for more than 50,000 words, and much of it is of narrow, I almost said parochial, interest; according to a tally by the Catholic News Service, for example, more than 10 percent of it is devoted to the pope’s sermon-writing tips for pastors. Much of the rest has to do with the authority of bishops’ meetings and other matters of church organization.

Still, Evangelii Gaudium is easy to read, most of the time, thanks to Pope Francis’s pleasant and familiar prose style. This makes it all the more frustrating that so many opinion-izers didn’t dog-paddle through all of its 288 sections. Judging by the commentary, you’d think the upshot of the document, or even the document itself, consisted of six paragraphs devoted to the pope’s musings​—​it’s hard to call them ideas​—​about economics.

Too bad: There’s lots more to Evangelii Gaudium, including passages on the social obligations of private faith that are as graceful, generous, and penetrating as any you’re likely to read. A proper faith, he tells us, leads to “a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being, of tolerating the nuisances of life in common by clinging to the love of God, of opening the heart to divine love and seeking the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does.” This might have calmed Limbaugh down if he’d gotten that far.

It is perhaps the fate of Francis to be misunderstood, whether through ignorance, laziness, or acts of will. The public image of a thoroughly reformist pope is by now fixed, and people who like the idea​—​not a large percentage of them are Catholics, I’ll assume​—​are taking the ball and running with it. A priest reports being asked by a woman in a discussion group when he was going to be married, now that the pope had declared that priests should find a mate. (She had garbled the public comments of a Vatican official who had pointed out that priestly celibacy is a theoretically reversible convention and not a dogma of the church.) A Time magazine copy editor, giddy at the thought of a pope just like him or herself, tagged a picture of the pope like so: “The first Jesuit Pontiff won hearts and headlines with his common touch and his rejection of church dogma .  .  . ” The caption was corrected, but you can see why they think they like him so much.

Traditionalists are quick to point out that Francis hasn’t come close to “rejection” of any dogma, and, in matters dear to the hearts of Catholic traditionalists, he continues to make strongly worded statements on abortion and the protection of unborn babies​—​not a dominating concern for Catholic liberals in Europe and America. And in the new document, in a passage in praise of women’s contributions to church life, he includes a parenthetical aside: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open for discussion.” Time’s copy editors can take comfort from the pope’s modish use of the unisex “Spouse,” however.

Till now the pope’s reputation as a man of the left has rested on that “common touch,” along with his lack of interest in issues of homosexuality, particularly gay marriage, which in one way or another excite Western Catholics of all dispositions. The categories of right and left in the Catholic church don’t translate well into the world of practical politics, especially in the United States, where the politics are at once intellectually inert and rhetorically feverish. Many Catholic conservatives, for example, have little affection for the free market (until it comes to finding bargains) because it disrupts settled patterns of family and social life. In response to Evangelii Gaudium, they applauded as heartily as any Catholic liberal the pope’s treatment of market economics (he never uses the even more ambiguous word “capitalism”). It was rough indeed, as in this instantly famous passage:

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