No More Catholic Guilt! an encyclical review

Like many outside of the Catholic faith, I am a great admirer of the current pope. Francis was elected upon Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement in 2013. When he chose the name Francis (after the 12th Century Franciscan founder) and wowed the world with his simple, generous lifestyle, many have seen fresh winds of change blowing in Rome. In terms of theology, he is not significantly different from his predecessors. He lacks Benedict’s keen theological acumen (no insult here, Ratzinger is brillant!); however here is a pope who is pastorally sensitive and attentive to those on the margins. If there are indeed winds of change blowing in the Catholic church, it is one of tone.

This is what makes Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) so refreshing (yes I know it has been out a while and I’m late to the party). This is his second encyclical (though his first is regarded as largely Benedict’s work). Reading as an outsider, I hear the importance this pope places on gospel proclamation, that the church and all the faithful are given the missional responsibility of making disciples. He also stresses that the church and its ministers need to be thoughtful about how best to engage in the work of evangelization–that this involves holistic mission and care for the poor, as well as thoughtful ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. While many of his examples (and source material) make the most sense to the Catholic faithful, those of us in the other ‘ecclesial communions’ will also find in Francis an appropriate challenge toward holistic, generous and joyful proclamation.

Much of what Francis says here is rooted in Lumen Gentium (Light of Nations) from the Dogmatic Constitution of Vatican II.  Francis speaks to the following issues:

a) the reform of the Curch in her missionary outreach;

b) the temptations faced by pastoral workers;

c) the Church, understood as the entire People of God which evangelizes;

d) the homily and its preparation;

e)the inclusion of the poor in society;

f) peace and dialogue within society

g) the spiritual motivations for missions (17)

These seven topics give shape to the Pope’s discourse (notice that the alleged economic preoccupation of the Pope is couched and made subservient to the larger question of Christian mission). Reading as a Protestant, I found I could affirm much of what is said here. I still have many points of theological contention ( such as the  authority of the pope, differences on ecclesiology and soteriology) but this is such a generous and magnanimous presentation so I don’t much feel like fighting with the pope. As a preaching pastor I especially loved his words about homily preparation (145-159). As an advocate for mission with justice, I think this is a rich resource for us (especially 176-257).

Yet as I said above, what I appreciate most is tone. This is a book about the joy: joy in Christ through the church. Proclamation is not the main papal imperative here. Joyful proclamation is. Francis calls us back to the idea that the gospel–good news!–is joyful:

There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress: “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is . . .But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness . . . It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:17,21-23,26) (paragraph 6).

I have heard too many ex-Catholics bemoan their Catholic guilt. I have heard far too much from somber saints. How nice to hear a robust ode to Catholic Joy! Well done Papa Frank! 5 Stars

Notice of material connection: I recieved this free from the publisher in exchange for my honest review!

I Bet You Think This Blog is About You (an examination of the sin of Vainglory)

Vanity Smurf The sin of Vainglory is the desire for inordinate glory. Despite this image of Vanity Smurf, Vainglory isn’t exactly the same as vanity. Vanity often implies an all-consuming narcissism; Vainglory longs for personal glory and the applause of others(hence: vain-glory). As Rebecca DeYoung puts it:

The vainglorious primarily desire attention, approval, and applause–preferably (but not necessarily) heard far and wide. The attention is necessary, and the approval is necessary, but they are both for the sake of generating the public acknowledgment–the applause.(Glittering Vices, 63-4)

Rather than Vanity Smurf (pictured above), an image of any number of smurfs could show Vainglory. Brainy Smurf’s incessant need to be the smartest of his peers; Hefty Smurf’s need to show off his incredible smurf strength; Smurfette’s enjoyment of her own feminine charms, style and appeal. Smurfs are a vainglorious bunch.

But we’d be wrong to assume that Vainglory has been properly quarantined in the Smurf village. It is rampant in our culture and in our own hearts. Everyday we see advertisements that promise that if we where their clothes, put on their makeup, drink their beer and drive their cars, we will be seen as having style, as beautiful, as having superb taste and swagger. We buy in, even though we can spot the lie, because we desperately want people’s praise.

Vainglory manifests itself in countless ways but the Christian tradition points to three biggies: hypocrisy, boastfulness and the lover of novelties (Glittering Vices,69-71). Hypocrites display an exterior image without the internal reality. They desire to appear holy without actually becoming holy. The boastful call attention to their best qualities so that others will take notice. The ‘lover of novelties’ names what we today might call ‘the early adopters.’ There are those who have the newest gadget, fashion, Apps, etc. because they want to be seen as a cutting-edge trendsetter.

Being a trend-setting hypocrite boaster myself I can see how I have been caught in the grips of Vainglory, but I’m not alone. Vainglory is sneaky and perverts even good acts of service. Roberta Bondi captures this well:

Vainglory is a particularly insidious passion in our modern era. It lies behind the notion that whatever your skills, it is essentially yourself you are selling to others. Women are trained to please as little girls, and many women suffer from it all their lives to such an extent that they are not aware of any needs of their own, except to be approved of or loved. It is a special passion for ministers and priests or teachers, and anyone else whose self-identity is bound up in the idea of service. It is deceptively easy to combine being liked with having done a good job. Vainglory is probably the root of a lot of burn-out as the desire for approval replaces the goals of the vocation; certainly an enormous amount of self-deception and hence blindness stem from Vainglory (To Love as God Loves, 75-6)

What do we do about our Vainglory

Vainglory, like Envy, comes from a place of insecurity and involves habits of wrong thinking which manifest itself in our actions. In order to overcome Vainglory we need an awareness of the ways this sin entangles are best efforts and re-train ourselves. DeYoung provides a list of practices(Glittering Vices,72-77) which I have adapted here:

    • Overcome (personal) boasting by boasting in the Lord (2 Cor. 10:17-18). If the problem with boasting is that it is a strategy to bring yourself glory, the way to combat that is to redirect it towards the one worthy of all our praise. Acts of worship, testimony of God’s goodness, prayerful adoration are all counter-practices of vanity.
    • Overcome hypocrisy by being personally vulnerable with others. DeYoung observes that Vainglory would win us praise by showcasing our best self and hiding our flaws. When we strive for applause we hide ourselves, when we share ourselves and shed our false facades we give ourselves back to community.
    • Overcome the need for approval by cultivating an interior life in solitude. Solitude frees us from the need to perform, to feel approval and to gain acclaim. It is when we are alone and spend time with God. As with the sin of Envy, the way to overcome Vainglory is by knowing God’s love and acceptance of us, the real us.
    • Overcome our culture’s obsession with image by ‘fasting’ from media, Ads, TV, the internet.
    • Cut Vainglory out at the root and deal with your Pride.

An Alternative to Vainglory: Magnanimity

Ambitious people are loved by God and used by him for his Glory. To condemn Vainglory is not to condemn ambition, but only the self-centered variety. We were made to achieve great things and not merely build temples of our own ego.

Let us strive towards the great things of God, radiating his Truth, Beauty and Goodness in all that we do. May we bring Glory to his name and do great things in His service.