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Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is rightly considered the inaugural address of his pontificate. In it, he sets forth the major themes and directions that have characterized the writings and speeches of the ensuing four years.

I have often cited and commented upon the clear and welcome Christocentrism of the document. At the very beginning, the pope quotes movingly and with approval Benedict XVI’s contention that “being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, who gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

And toward the end, Francis insists: “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him.” He then asks provocatively: “What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?”

However, between these robust affirmations Francis inserts in the document a section titled, “The Common Good and Peace in Society.” Here he articulates four “principles,” which are evidently dear to his heart. He draws upon them continually, in diverse contexts, as hermeneutical keys to understanding complex ecclesial and social situations. These four 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.”

It seems to me that, in contrast to Europe and South America, there has been relatively little attention paid in the United States to the importance Francis assigns to these principles.

Of the four, the first assumes particular importance in the pope’s thinking. He invokes it tellingly at the very beginning of Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family. He writes:

Since “time is greater than space,” I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral, or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.

Critics have raised a number of objections regarding the principles themselves. They question their derivation. Are they philosophical impositions, rather than evangelical imperatives? They also point to their abstractness, and the irony of their sway upon a pope who generally shows himself wary of pure “ideas.”

Commentators have traced the principles’ origin to the never completed doctoral dissertation on the thought of Romano Guardini that Jorge Mario Bergoglio began in Germany in 1986. Indeed, Guardini is cited in Evangelii Gaudium, precisely in the section treating “time as greater than space.” Others have maintained that the principles were already in place during Bergoglio’s term as the quite young provincial of the Argentine province of the Society of Jesus. There can be no doubt, however, of their ongoing and pervasive influence on the thought of Pope Francis.

I suggest that a generous reading of these papal principles would acknowledge that Francis roots them in the soil of the Gospel and, especially, in belief in the Incarnation. He sees social and ecclesial reality through the eyes of faith. Thus he grounds the principle that “reality is greater than ideas” in the conviction that the Word has become flesh and is “constantly striving to take flesh anew” (Evangelii Gaudium no. 233). His assertion that “unity prevails over conflict” finds its basis in the conviction that “the Gospel message always begins with a greeting of peace, and peace at all times crowns and confirms the relations between the disciples” (no. 229).

That said, one may still question Francis’s rather undifferentiated appeal to the principles, and the relevance and appropriateness of their application.

Concerning the all-important first principle, “time is greater than space,” Francis suggests that it “enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results.” One can catch here the words of the sage spiritual director encouraging his counselee, or the experienced pastor guiding his congregation.

But then comes a leap. Francis detects a common failing: Often, “spaces and power are preferred to time and processes.” Suddenly, “space” becomes associated with “power,” and “time” with “processes.” Hence, “Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (no. 223, italics in original).

What I have called a leap—from space to power and time to process—is not argued for but simply asserted. Yet this instinctive suspicion seems to underlie many of the pope’s most characteristic actions: from the decision to translocate from the Apostolic Palace to Santa Marta, through his urging the youth at World Youth Day in Brazil to go forth and shake things up (hace lio), to the support of diverse (and incompatible) pastoral “processes” in the aftermath of Amoris Laetitia.

Further, the preferential option for “processes” appears to animate the pope’s repeated injunctions to “accompany,” “discern,” and “integrate.” One can certainly endorse the need for such crucial pastoral activities. But what leaves many perplexed is the lack of sustained attention to and articulation of the criteria for authentic discernment. What is the distinctive Christian goal of accompaniment? What is the unique salvific reality to which the process ultimately leads?

Let me instance Francis’s most recent evocation of his privileged principle. It occurs in his address on October 28 to a conference in Rome sponsored by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community. The theme of the gathering was “(Re)Thinking Europe: a Christian Contribution to the Future of the European Project.”

In an impassioned appeal to the participants, the pope declared: “Person and community are thus the foundations of the Europe that we, as Christians, want and can contribute to building. The bricks of this structure are dialogue, inclusion, solidarity, development, and peace.” And he indicated the royal road that Christians must travel to achieve this goal. “Christians are called to revitalize Europe and to revive its conscience, not by occupying spaces—this would be proselytizing—but by generating processes capable of awakening new energies in society.”

So, once again, the governing principle is invoked. But now the pope associates occupying spaces with “proselytizing”—an undertaking he never ceases to excoriate, nor bothers to define. And he summons the great figure of St. Benedict as a concrete exemplar of how to proceed. St. Benedict, the pope proposes, “was not concerned to occupy spaces in a wayward and confused world. Sustained by faith, Benedict looked ahead, and from a tiny cave in Subiaco he gave birth to an exciting and irresistible movement that changed the face of Europe.” In short, Benedict initiated a process.

What remains unsaid and unexamined is that Benedict did so by founding monasteries, spaces in which the treasure of classical civilization could be preserved, transformed, and handed down. Spaces not of power, but of peace. Christ-centered spaces from which the renewal of Europe could begin.

“Prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ,” Benedict urged his monks. The supreme paradox for me is that Evangelii Gaudium exhorts Christians in similar manner. “Share the love of Christ you have received,” Francis urges Christians!

But then, whether through fear of being accused of proselytizing or through a visceral suspicion that doctrines will domesticate the Gospel, Francis grows ambivalent. And the new Christological synthesis, one that roots both doctrine and discipline in the novum of the living Christ (a synthesis he seems genuinely to desire), remains inchoate and uncertain—more an ideal to be pursued than a reality to be experienced and embraced.

Fr. Robert Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.

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