The past two years have seen endless conflict over Pope Francis’s 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris laetitia. This conflict, focused primarily on the question of whether and under what conditions the civilly divorced and remarried may be admitted to communion, grew fiercer in 2017. Most recently, a letter sent by Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy to Francis was released publicly, criticizing the pope’s apparent willingness to let confusion reign in the Church. Naturally, the pope’s supporters in the media—including Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit removed from the editorship of America magazine under Benedict XVI—have accused Weinandy of dissent and disingenuousness. But while this controversy was raging, something equally interesting happened.
On November 3, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, Francis’s nuncio to the United States, delivered the McManus Lecture at the Catholic University of America’s School of Canon Law. The nuncio’s address was ostensibly a reflection on Francis’s emphasis on synodality. This would be interesting in and of itself, as synodality has been a major theme of Francis’s pontificate. But in an aside, Pierre remarked that the Church is “still far away” from receiving Francis’s programmatic document, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium. He encouraged his audience to accelerate the process of reception.
Evangelii gaudium, which followed a 2012 Synod of Bishops meeting on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” has long been seen as a sweeping statement of Francis’s agenda. In particular, Francis articulated “four specific principles which can guide the development of life in society and the building of a people where differences are harmonized within a shared pursuit.” Those principles are: “time is greater than space”; “unity prevails over conflict”; “realities are more important than ideas”; and “the whole is greater than the part.” Francis has returned to these principles throughout his pontificate, expanding upon them, for example, in his letter to Angela Merkel for the July G20 summit in Hamburg.
It seems that Evangelii gaudium has been much on the minds of leaders of the American Church over the past year. Back in July, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops hosted an invitation-only “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” in Orlando. The event, titled “The Joy of the Gospel in America,” was aimed at presenting the exhortation to Americans. According to veteran Church journalist John Allen, both Timothy Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz stated that the event was an attempt to sketch out an application of Evangelii gaudium in the United States.
Archbishop Pierre’s remarks at the Catholic University of America mark the third time this year he has addressed Evangelii gaudium. A career diplomat, Pierre was appointed nuncio by Francis in April 2016, previously serving as nuncio to Haiti, Uganda, and Mexico. In his current position, he replaced the unhappy Carlo Maria Viganò, who was appointed by Benedict. Shortly before the July Convocation, at the USCCB meeting in Indianapolis, Pierre argued that Evangelii gaudium was Francis’s effort to bring the principles of the final document of the Latin American bishops’ 2007 Aparecida meeting to the universal Church. At the Convocation, Pierre asserted that “the pastoral plan of the Holy Father in Evangelii gaudium is what God expects, and as one theologian recently said, ‘If you don’t think Francis is the cure, you don’t grasp the disease.’”
Pierre is not wrong to say that the Church has not received Evangelii gaudium: It has been busy receiving other teachings. The controversy over Amoris laetitia dates back to October 2014, when the catastrophic Relatio post disceptationem was released at the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, and the ensuing debate has been almost constant. There was a brief diversion over Francis’s brilliant environmental encyclical, Laudato si’, in 2015—but that didn’t last, as the fall Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops convened in October 2015. Recently, a group of theologians issued a “filial correction” to the pope, accusing him, essentially, of promoting heresy. Weinandy’s letter does not go that far, but it states, respectfully though plainly, that the pope ought to clear up confusion in the Church. Even before Weinandy’s letter, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the powerful secretary of state, called for dialogue with Francis’s critics. Given the liberal reaction to Weinandy’s letter, dialogue seems a distant goal.
In the summer and fall of 2017, we have seen the United States bishops, along with Francis’s man in Washington, working to bring Evangelii gaudium to American Catholics. Their efforts take place more than four years since Francis’s election, and three years after Evangelii gaudium was issued. One wonders whether this new emphasis is not in some respect an attempt to hit the reset button on Francis’s pontificate.
If so, it is a gambit that indicates how damaging the debate over Amoris laetitia has been. In 2009, there were no calls to return to some programmatic document in order to understand Pope Benedict better. It is unlikely that anyone in 1982 called for such a reassessment of John Paul II. If we must return to Evangelii gaudium in order to understand Francis and this moment in the Church, then one wonders whether it was prudent to proceed with Laudato si’ and Amoris laetitia and other reforms. The developments of the last four years begin to look like unnecessary haste, which has hindered rather than helped Francis’s agenda.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.