Still, the Pope is signaling a new emphasis in the way in which he thinks the Catholic faith should be proclaimed to the world. Given the cultural setting in which we find ourselves in the secular West, we must recognize that we are in missionary territory. And that has significant consequences for how we present the faith to those outside the Church. We are not teaching in a cultural vacuum. Pope Francis insists several times in his La Civiltá Cattolica interview that we need to give an initial proclamation of the Gospel, one that takes on what he calls a “missionary style”—an approach that focuses on the essentials of the Gospel. A proclamation that tells the story of God’s love, God’s plan of salvation, and fascinates and attracts people and makes their hearts burn as the two disciples experienced with Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.
His putting the emphasis more on God’s love and mercy than on complex moral issues is an important matter of priority and order. In harmony with previous magisterial teaching, Pope Francis underscores how initial proclamation of the Gospel must come first. Catechesis and then drawing out moral consequences for our lives comes after, he says. The Gospel message of Christ’s love and mercy provides the context for understanding the moral consequences. But without that context (and with the crisis of reason today), how is someone in our secular world to understand why two men can’t get married or why a married couple should not use contraception? These are not the ideal lead-off topics for the new evangelization. The Pope expresses this point best when discussing how a good homily is structured.
“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…The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.” (4)
This approach is in perfect harmony with John Paul II who explained how catechesis is a moment in the larger process of evangelization and one that builds upon certain elements of the Church’s pastoral mission that prepare for catechesis, including “the initial proclamation of the Gospel or missionary preaching through the kerygma to arouse faith” (Catechesi Tradendae, 18). It reflects the “divine pedagogy” in which God reveals Himself to man gradually and in a proper order, starting with the most fundamental truths of the Gospel that provide the context for expounding on other aspects of the faith. Debating the all-male priesthood or papal infallibility with someone who does not even believe in Jesus Christ, for example, is not likely to bear much fruit. We generally must address the more fundamental issues first.
The order of the Catechism of the Catholic Church also reflects the divine pedagogy. (5) The first pillar of the Catechism, the Creed, sums up the story of God’s love for us in creation, redemption and sanctification. The second pillar tells how we are drawn into that story of God’s love through the life of grace imparted to us in the Sacraments. Then, only after knowing the story of Christ’s salvation and after learning how we are filled with Christ’s life through the Holy Spirit’s work in the liturgy, do we come to the third pillar of the Catechism, which addresses the moral life. Here, Christian morality is presented as our response to God’s love for us and our life in Christ Jesus. Indeed, the Catechism proclaims the Church’s moral teachings as a life “worthy of the Gospel” which we are made capable of pursuing by the grace of Christ received in the sacraments and through prayer.
When the Church’s moral teachings, however, are taken out of the context of God’s loving plan of salvation and our life in Christ, they appear as arbitrary rules from a bygone era being imposed on people today. What is supposed to be the pathway to human beatitude comes off as legalistic moralism. And without the life of sacramental grace—the very grace that makes us capable of living the moral life in Christ—the beautiful moral teachings of the Church can seem quite discouraging. Without grace, people are incapable of pursuing the high call of imitating Christ. People outside the Church, therefore, cannot be asked to practice heroic virtue overnight, and they need much more than a list of strong moral condemnations. They need the initial proclamation of the Gospel to understand the context of the Church’s moral teachings. And they need the hope and encouragement that grace gives the person to pursue the good, even when it is very difficult to do so.
The Difference between Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul
Perhaps the difference between the initial proclamation of the Gospel to which the pope is drawing our attention and the more in-depth catechesis and moral exhortation that follows can be illustrated by the difference between Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul. In Acts, the way Peter and Paul initially proclaim the faith to those who have not yet heard the Gospel is different from the way Paul instructs believers in his letters to established Christian communities.
In Acts, Peter and Paul’s initial Gospel presentation focuses on God’s plan of salvation culminating in Jesus Christ dying and rising to save us our sins. To the crowds at Pentecost, for example, Peter proclaims the core of the Gospel message: Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead and the call to repent, be baptized and be forgiven of sins (Acts 2:14-39). He does the same before the crowds at Solomon’s Portico (3:11-26), before the high priest and rulers of Jerusalem (4:8-12), after the angel released him from prison (5:30-32) and when he defends the baptism of the Gentiles (10:34-43).
Paul takes a similar approach of focusing on the core Gospel message on his missionary journeys (Acts 13:16-41; 17:22-31). In every case there is simply an initial proclamation and a general call to repent—to turn away from sin and turn to the Lord. But there is no in-depth challenge on specific moral issues such as infidelity in marriage, neglect of the poor or unchaste living—not because the people had mastered these areas of the moral life—but because they needed the story of salvation before they could comprehend and aspire to live the high moral calling in Christ.(6)
The apostles certainly were not afraid to address tough moral issues. Read First Corinthians in which Paul condemns the Christians there for their failure to feed the hungry, their pride, their drunkenness, and their many sexual sins including adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, and incest. But there, Paul was addressing the believers inside the Christian community—those who already knew Christ crucified and surrendered their lives to Him, but were now struggling in their walk with the Lord.
Perhaps Pope Francis can be seen as taking a similar approach. Like Paul, when he has in mind primarily those outside the Church, as he has in these two public interviews, he takes a more missionary-styled approach which leads with authentic dialogue and initial proclamation. But when he is particularly addressing those inside the Church, as he did in his September 20 address to Catholic gynecologists, a focus on the particular moral consequences of the Christian life may appear more clearly.
(Column continues below)
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At the same time, his drawing attention to the core of the Gospel message speaks volumes to those inside the Church as well. He is reminding us that the core of Catholic identity is not about wearing a badge that says “I’m pro-life” or “I don’t use contraception”—as essential as faithfulness in these important moral issues might be for Catholic living. The very heart of Catholicism is a living encounter with Jesus Christ, intimate communion with the Lord who died for us and wants to forgive us and heal our wounds.
That, in fact, is how Pope Francis views his own identity as a Christian. When asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?,” he didn’t respond, “I’m a pro-life Catholic” or “I follow the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.” Rather, he said he sees himself in the role of Matthew the tax collector, “a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.” And in so doing, I think he is inviting us to do the same.
(1) Eugenio Scalfari, “The Pope: How the Church will Change” La Repubblica (October 1, 2013).
(2) Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America (September 19, 2013).
(3) Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting Organized by the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (September 20, 2013).
(4) Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America (September 19, 2013).