The Social Dimension of Evangelization (Part 3-Conclusion)

Previous posts in this series can be found here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Pope Francis and Evangelii Gaudium

If the “new evangelization” has become the definitive terminology and vision of the Catholic Church’s mission today, how is the papacy of Pope Francis shaping this ongoing conversation about the relationship between evangelization and works of charity and social justice? Evangelii Gaudium offers a clue. The fourth chapter is given over to a reflection on the social dimension of evangelization. Interestingly, Pope Francis quickly connects the terms “evangelization” and “liberation” in this discussion:


“Evangelization is meant to cooperate with this liberating work of the Spirit. The very mystery of the Trinity reminds us that we have been created in the image of that divine communion, and so we cannot achieve fulfilment or salvation purely by our own efforts. From the heart of the Gospel we see the profound connection between evangelization and human advancement, which must necessarily find expression and develop in every work of evangelization” (178; emphasis mine).

The relationship between evangelization and charity is a theme dear to Pope Francis. Pope Francis suggests a fundamental link between the preaching of the Gospel and the promotion of human life in all of its expressions: “The kerygma has a clear social content: at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others. The content of the first proclamation has an immediate moral implication centred on charity.” (177).

Moreover, he points to work for social justice as a key test of a “faith which is authentic,” since genuine faith “always implies a profound desire to change the world” (183). Interestingly, on this point he again does not steer away from connecting evangelization and liberation as concepts: “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society” (187).

As the Vatican summary notes, two key themes emerge in this section of Evangelii Gaudium: the “social inclusion of the poor” and “peace and social dialogue.” Importantly, like his two predecessors, Francis recognizes that articulating the correct relationship between evangelization and work for social justice is essential: “If this dimension is not explained in the correct way, we run the risk of disfiguring the authentic and full meaning of the mission of evangelization” (176). Moreover, the promotion of every human being must be holistic and work intensely to avoid the relegation of religion from social and public life exclusively to the private sphere. Noteworthy is the fact that the Pope suggests that it is precisely the NE which impels the Church to concern for the “social inclusion of the poor” and every Christian’s responsibility to undertake “simple and daily gestures of solidarity in the face of the many concrete situations of need” which are constantly before our eyes (188). Yet he underscores the Church’s more fundamental mission, in addition to acts of charity, “to contribute to the resolution of the instrumental causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor” (198; emphasis mine), a key idea in more recent Catholic Social Teaching and certainly in liberation theology.

As the Vatican summary of the exhortation suggests, “What emerges from these closely written pages is an invitation to recognize the “salvific force” which the poor possess and which must be brought to the center of the life of the Church with the New Evangelization.”[1] They go on: “This implies that first of all, before any concrete experience, there be a rediscovery of the attention due to this theme together with its urgency and the need to promote its awareness. Moreover, the fundamental option for the poor which asks to be put into practice is, in the mind of Pope Francis, primarily a ‘religious and spiritual attention’ which must take priority over all else,” referring here to section 200. What seems most striking is the tremendous forthrightness with which Francis challenges the whole Church to consider a theme central to the thought of Gustavo Gutiérrez and liberation theology broadly: the fundamental option for the poor. Pointing the onus first to himself, the Pope envisions himself as “Shepherd of a Church without borders,” a Church that turns its eyes directly to the tremendous suffering of the poor and marginalized (210).

Such a vision of the papacy takes on new force in light of the speech the Pope gave last June to gathered pontifical representatives and apostolic nuncios, where he underscored that those in ecclesial leadership must model not only “inner poverty” and prayerfulness, but simple living and genuine solidarity with the least: “Be careful that the candidates [to these positions] are pastors close to the people, fathers and brothers; that they are gentle, patient, and merciful; animated by an inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord, and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life; that they do not have the psychology of ‘princes.’” It is also noteworthy that Pope Francis notes Christians’ partial responsibility for current social injustices such as migration, “human trafficking, the narcotics trade, the abuse and exploitation of minors, the abandonment of the elderly and infirm, and… corruption and criminal activity,” so that responding to these ills is among the central tasks of evangelization. Powerfully, he writes: “Where is the person that you are killing every day in his secret little factory, in networks of prostitution, in children used for professional begging, in those who must work in secret because they are irregular? Let us not pretend. All of us have some share of responsibility in these situations” (211). Moreover, he defends the life and dignity of every human person from conception (213). And peacebuilding is an issue intimately related to evangelization, the Pope suggests, stressing the need for dialogue between Christian denominations, scientists, other religions and the non-religious if lasting peace is to be achieved.

In Patrick Deneen’s thoughts on the exhortation, he perceptively notes that while some find the document insufficient in its condemnation of abortion, “if one reads [the Pope’s] criticisms of the depredations of capitalism with care [in EG 53], one notices that he uses the same phrases with which he criticized abortion—namely, that abortion is but one manifestation of ‘a throw-away culture.’” Likewise, “if one attends carefully to Francis’s criticisms of the economy’s effects on the weak and helpless, one can’t help but perceive there also that he is speaking of the unborn as much as those who are “losers” in an economy that favors the strong.  Like John Paul and Benedict before him, Francis discerns the continuity between a “throw-away” economy and a “throw-away” view of human life.”

These are simply preliminary thoughts on what will surely be a topic of ongoing discussion in the upcoming months, as Pope Francis and the whole Church wrestle with the question of how the New Evangelization connects to the realities of human suffering and the persistence of social injustice, violence, war and poverty in the twenty-first century. Time will tell how the papacy Pope Francis will continue to shape and affect this vital conversation.[2]

[2] In his final conclave speech before appointment as Pope, Cardinal Bergolio’s urged fellow cardinals to select a Pope who could reach out to those who face social and economic injustice and thus help the Church to “be the fruitful mother, who gains life from the sweet, comforting joy of evangelizing.” It could be the argued, then, that “evangelization,” rather than “new evangelization” will again become the more important buzzword in the Church, allowing Francis to set a new tone and trajectory in his policy-setting, one with a distinctly communal, even liberationist outlook and a justice-oriented vision of discipleship.

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