Pope Francis was already the “most talked about person on the planet,” but lately the media obsession with him has gone into overdrive. Buzzfeed is running stories about how Francis used to be a bouncer, and Think Progress and Huffpo are excited that he currently spends his evenings sneaking out of the Vatican to distribute alms to the poor. But the biggest driver of the pope’s ubiquity was the release of Evangelii Gaudium, the apostolic exhortation heard round the world. The document was released just before Thanksgiving, and immediately made waves with its strongly worded claims about economics. For example:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.
Despite the fact that much of what Francis said is of largely of a piece with Catholic Social Thought that’s been around for centuries, the media firestorm over this document hasn’t yet died down, with new responses and reactions still coming out.Key parts of the document were passed over in the frenzy over its economic commentary. Most of the text of Evangelii Gaudium wasn’t about economics; it was explicitly about the joy of the Gospel, and it served as a call to “encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy.” The exhortation is more accurately described as Francis’ take on how the Catholic Church should live out its mission to evangelize all nations and peoples today. It is a holistic manifesto that includes, but is not reducible to, witness against injustice and solidarity with the poor. As a John L. Allen Jr, one of the best Vatican reporters out there, insightfully argued, the document is an attempt to show how the Church’s mission to spread the Gospel is inextricably bound up with its call to care for the poor.One crucial bit overlooked by much of the media is the sentences on papal authority. The text here could prove as consequential for Francis’ papacy as his economic commentary. Francis wrote, “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization.'”These words are huge in the context of a long-running debate among Catholics over whether the Pope should delegate more teaching authority to the Bishops. Typically “liberals” have favored the delegation because they believe it would help them push through some liberalizing measures on gender and sexuality, while “conservatives” have favored centralization as way to protect the deposit of faith. By talking about a “sound decentralization,” Francis may be once again trying to herd together a “religious middle” that appreciates some decentralization, but can make peace with reserving key teaching prerogatives to the Vatican (that would be the “sound” bit).Still, the key test for Francis won’t ultimately be the big splashy public statements that get a lot of press. It will be the quiet, behind-the-scenes work of reforming the Curia. Today is the first day of Francis’ second meeting with the council of eight cardinals he appointed to help advise him on reform going forward. It is expected to last until Thursday. We’ll be watching closely to see what kind of concrete changes, proposals, and internal shakeups these and future meetings produce.