Some of the headlines about Pope Francis’ recently-released Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium would have you believe that the Pope’s central message is about decentralizing the Church, affirming populism, denouncing libertarian economics, or condemning capitalism as tyrannical. The Pope himself seemed to anticipate such reactions when he said in the Exhortation, “In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects.” He anticipated correctly: the media has, by and large, missed his central point.
The subject of the Pope Francis’ Exhortation is something much deeper than politics or economics; it is about preaching the Gospel. The title of the Exhortation reveals that, for Francis, the Gospel is a source of joy. Indeed, the first section of the Exhortation is dedicated to offering today’s “complacent” hearts a “personal encounter with Jesus Christ” which will “always … restore our joy.” But the Pope’s message does not stop here. Joy is contagious; those who have it cannot help but share it. The joy of the Gospel causes us to give up our lives, that we may gain them in sharing our joy with others.From this foundation, Pope Francis launches into a discussion of the “New Evangelization” and lays out some of the difficulties that this mission will be faced with in the modern world. Certainly, a Gospel that preaches the supreme goodness of an eternal supernatural relationship above all material wealth is going to hit a rut when it come up against extreme capitalistic tendencies. Similarly, since local bishops are closer to their people than is the Pope, it only makes sense that local bishops should have primacy in the spreading of the Gospel at the local level.
But all of these discussions are, in the Pope’s own words, “secondary,” for “[i]t is not the task of the Pope of offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality.” Rather, Pope Francis’ primary concern in writing this Exhortation is the joy that the Gospel brings to those who accept it. To that end, he has to address some practical challenges the Church will face in proclaiming the Gospel, but these treatments of practical matters shouldn’t occupy the whole of our attention. As the Pope is speaking primarily as one concerned with evangelization, so he is speaking not in the first place as a populist, or an anti-capitalist, but as a Christian.
The Church’s wisdom about economics is offered to people of goodwill, just as its wisdom on matters social and sexual is. But the foundation is always the Gospel. We should be worried about sentences like this, taken from the Matt Yglesias pieces linked to in the first paragraph above: “There’s a lot of stuff about Jesus in his thinking that I can’t really sign on to but here’s a great point about media priorities and the declining marginal value of income.” As Francis said elsewhere, “A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”