Politics & Policy

Want the Perfect Gift?

The media’s take on Evangelii Gaudium obscures its rich message of joy and love.

‘The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike.”

It’s safe to say that is not the most quoted line from the pope’s most recent, most talked-about document.

“If we don’t love the poor, and do all we can to improve their lot, we’re going to go to Hell,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said in a 2011 interview. To read this statement is to be haunted by it. In an e-book reflecting on his time in Rome between the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York quoted Chaput’s warning, seeing it as a point of continuity between Benedict and Francis.

#ad#If all you’ve read about these guys is the mass-media commentators, you probably think of Chaput as one of the most “conservative” bishops in the country. Generally that means he talks about “The Gospel of Life” and reminds us that we have moral responsibilities when we vote and that we do, in fact, have obligations to civic engagement. That while politics won’t save our souls, how we participate in it is part of the integrated wholes of our lives. He also offers pastoral guidance on the death penalty and immigration and, yes, poverty. And he did so before we met Pope Francis.

Meanwhile, did you know that God wants Obamacare? And that Barack Obama is exactly what Pope Francis is talking about, a poster boy for social justice? This is what we have learned on MSNBC in recent days.

With glee, liberal Democrats — professed Catholics, non-Catholics, and fallen-away Catholics alike — note that Rush Limbaugh has called Francis a Marxist. What nerve, they say, dissing a pope!

This, from a channel that, reacting to the latest events in the Church’s sex-abuse scandal, called for Pope Benedict’s resignation during Holy Week of 2010, convinced that he was all that was wrong in the world. (This was long before we really believed a modern-day pope would resign.)

Now, Pope Francis is being compared to Obama — on the website of Fox News, no less.

Who is Pope Francis? Is he the religious leader the long-suffering and yet twice elected president Barack Obama has been waiting for? That’s the impression given by one television host who — “as a Roman Catholic” — interviewed the president, never pressing him on the fact that, in his commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame in 2009, he insisted that conscience rights would be respected in his health-care law; today Our Lady’s school is suing his administration over its failure to respect conscience rights in that same law. At Notre Dame, the law has provided an unexpected source of a renewal of mission and given rise to reflection about our everyday encounters with the reason for this coming Christmas season.

There’s a new commercial I watched the other day. Kids make music. Adults make music. An elderly couple plays checkers. People get sandwiches together, presumably to share with those who might not have a decent meal otherwise. And they do it all to the tune of “Joy to the World.” It’s from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington (D.C.), urging us to “Find the Perfect Gift” this Christmas. I walked away looking for the angle. What is joy, anyway, in the age of hope and change? At a time when everything is Right or Left?

Resist the temptation, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, cautions, “to fit [Pope Francis] into ideological and ecclesial categories.”

The cardinal — generally considered more to the left than some of the bishops named earlier, if you’re tempted by categories — was speaking at the start of an event at Georgetown University titled “The Pope and the Poor.” This forum, sponsorred by the new Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, was held in the shadow of The Gospel of Joy, the long papal intrachurch document that has received so much attention over the past two weeks. Evangelii Gaudium echoes many themes we’ve heard before in the few months of Francis’s papacy. It’s about a “loving attentiveness,” and, yes, it talks of our obligations to life and marriage and even religious freedom. Out of all this, what our impoverished headline writers see as joy is Marxism and the Affordable Care Act. The reaction is a reminder of how important communication is and how challenging it can be in the age of Twitter and ever more limited attention spans. Even as the Internet is the great equalizer — allowing alternative media sources to be easily accessible and everyone who can grab a Wi-Fi signal to be a news source — it is also overwhelming in its abundance. And the number of people who are ever going to read more than 40,000 words before commenting on commentary about it is slim — as you know all too well if you’re among the few readers of The Gospel of Joy who have been following the commentary!

Telling us we’ll go to hell if we don’t love the poor and work to improve their lot — both their moral and their spiritual lot, and spiritual poverty is familiar to people in all financial brackets — is “a rather blunt statement,” Cardinal Dolan writes in Praying in Rome, but it’s necessary for reconnection, he says, and that bluntness is seen in the person of this new pope. “Francis is reminding us of our Christian obligation for the corporal works of mercy. To take care of the poor, to visit the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to tend to the sick,” Dolan reflects. This is what pastors do.

There’s a book by a bevy of Dominican priests, one now an archbishop among some of the highest-ranking in the Vatican. It’s called The Love That Never Ends, and it contends that “to share in the unending love of the triune God is the destiny of every human person in Christ.” This is the pope’s message. It’s not a political agenda, it’s an evangelical one. If you have actual hope — not that a website will work by New Year’s, but that there is endless mercy and justice for those who seek it, that there is a redeeming love available to all, that your neighbor truly is your brother — then there has to be a joy about you, one you’re going to want to share in service, and fellowship, and charity. That’s not condemning us to hell for considering prudential budgetary questions that need serious debate — and not assertions of Divine endorsement — but reminding us all of the meaning of words and lives. And if you believe it — that the human person is a beloved treasure of the Creator — then this is the perfect gift to bring joy to the world.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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