Snippets From an Exhortation: The Anti-Modernism of Pope Francis

francis-waveThe narrative that has been played out since the election of Jorge Bergoglio is one of a Pope ready to overturn all the doctrines of the Church , ordain women priests, change the teaching on marriage and homosexuality, and generally turn the Catholic Church into a minor caucus within the Democratic Party. This narrative was advanced by the press spin on Francis’ interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, or rather, on selected snippets from that interview.

The narrative has now moved on to the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. As with the infamous interview, the conversation has centered on snippets from the document. And there are two sets of snippets which have attracted the most comment: the sections on economics and the comments on traditionalism. The secular press has concentrated almost entirely on the former. Concerning the latter, the Pope’s comments seemed gratuitous and have caused deep pain and sorrow among the Church’s most ardent and faithful supporters.

I would like to suggest that when one moves beyond these snippets, a totally different picture emerges, one in which traditionalists can take heart and one which must drive liberals—and especially economic liberals—to despair. For when we look at the exhortation in toto, what emerges is an attack on the entire Enlightenment project: an attack on secularism, rationalism, relativism, invidualism, economic liberalism, coupled with a defense of the family, popular piety, and Christian culture. And even in the attack on traditionalists, what is being questioned is not the commitment to the Tradition itself, but a certain form of traditional-ism, the conversion of the tradition into an ideology with a political agenda; it is a critique that Traditionalists would do well to take to heart in an act of self-examination. Overall, it is a document which Traditionalists should welcome, one which validates the concerns they have expressed since the beginning of the modern era. It is a document which refuses to accept the basic tenant of liberalism, the one that marginalizes the Church as an institution which should confine itself to the otherworldly and leave this world to the social scientist, the businessman, the politician, and the bureaucrat.

Allow me to read a few additional snippets, not with a view to giving an exhaustive view of the document, which would certainly exhaust the readers, but merely to suggest that there is more here than one meets in the popular press. And a good place to start is with the attack on secularism and rationalism, as in this snippet:

The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism. These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood which are so vulnerable to change. As the bishops of the United States of America have rightly pointed out, while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone, “there are those in our culture who portray this teaching as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. (64)

This section provides a target-rich environment, covering culture, secularism, transcendence, ethics, sin, absolute rights, and relativism. These topics form a motif that will run throughout the Exhortation, and are examined in some detail, especially in relation to their effects on culture, social order and, above all, evangelization.

Underneath these problems, for Francis, lies individualism and its associated moral subjectivism:

We should recognize how in a culture where each person wants to be bearer of his or her own subjective truth, it becomes difficult for citizens to devise a common plan which transcends individual gain and personal ambitions. (61)

Connected to this secularism is the problem of a rationalism which excludes, a priori, any transcendence:

At other times, contempt is shown for writings which reflect religious convictions, overlooking the fact that religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart. This contempt is due to the myopia of a certain rationalism. Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in a context of religious belief? (256)

All of these ills result in a “cultural crises” which has profound effects on marriage and the family:

The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children. Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. (66)

The individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favors a lifestyle which weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds. (67)

Throughout the document Pope Francis stresses the importance of culture, for believing as individuals is not enough; there must be, for a healthy society, a shared cultural dimension of the faith:

The immense importance of a culture marked by faith cannot be overlooked; before the onslaught of contemporary secularism an evangelized culture, for all its limits, has many more resources than the mere sum total of believers. An evangelized popular culture contains values of faith and solidarity capable of encouraging the development of a more just and believing society, and possesses a particular wisdom which ought to be gratefully acknowledged. (68)

I could go on in this vein but I believe this is enough to show that the most crucial elements of the Exhortation have been largely ignored in the public press. But what of the elements that have attracted the attention of the press, namely the attack on economic liberalism and the condemnation of a certain strain of traditionalism? On the first issue, the press, whether of the left or the right, has completely missed the point, while on the second, it deserves a more sympathetic reading, even from those of us who feel that we are the targets of the attack.

Nearly every news story that has dealt with the economic aspects of the document has used the phrase “unfettered capitalism.” But the odd thing is, neither the term “capitalism” nor the word “unfettered” appear anywhere in the document, much less the phrase. This is not a trivial point, because if the document had attacked “unfettered capitalism,” it would be implicitly an endorsement of some sort of “fettered” capitalism. But it is not that at all; rather, it is an attack on economic liberalism per se, fettered or not.

At base, the Pope is attacking the divorce of ethics and economics:

How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference is made to protecting labour and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indifference in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning. (203)

This separation of economics and the moral order, this attempt to treat economics as a physical rather than as a humane science, is at the base of the defenses of Capitalism mounted by Thomas Woods and similar writers. But economics is not a physical science; rather, political economy is the science that deals with a certain class of human relationships that are necessary for the material provisioning of society. As with all human relationships, they are governed by the virtue of justice.

Indeed, the very idea of economic equilibrium, the balance of supply and demand that allows for markets to be cleared efficiently, is based on the “demanders” getting an equitable portion of what their labor produces, i.e., the just wage. Absent the just wage, markets cannot be cleared economically and equilibrium must rely on government, either as redistributor of incomes, consumer of last resort, or as both; or on consumer credit (usury) to supplement buying power. The very sign and measure of the deficiency in the just wage is precisely the amount of government spending and consumer lending necessary to clear the markets. Justice, therefore, is not a mere moral platitude but rather a practical principle of economic order. Indeed, all morality is practical, since it deals with action in the world.

I am of the opinion that Pope Francis phrased his attack the way he did in order to prevent his works from suffering the fate of those of Pope John Paul II, and especially of Centesimus Annus. That encyclical contained a nearly identical attack on economic liberalism, but the most popular interpretation centered on the reading of one sentence within section 42. This section asks whether capitalism is a good thing or not. John Paul answers that with certain restrictions (a “fettered” capitalism, if you will) it could be, but then he concludes by saying, “[but then] it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy’, ‘market economy’ or simply ‘free economy’.” In other words, when capitalism is good, it isn’t capitalism and we shouldn’t call it that. Based on that rather thin reed, a whole interpretation of Centesimus Annus as an “endorsement of capitalism” has sprung up. The message of the encyclical was spun out of existence. This, I think, is an example of what Francis means when he says, “At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them.”

But what then of the attack on traditionalism? Here, I think, another approach is required, given the harsh rhetoric:

The other [form of worldliness] is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity. (94)

As one author points out, there are at least nine insults, or at least rebukes, contained within this brief passage. And if that is not enough, the next paragraph takes a swipe at adherents of the Latin mass (“an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy”) and accuses them of being,

without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. (95)

This is especially painful because the traditionalists consider themselves, not without reason, to be among the most loyal and supportive children of Holy Mother Church. As we say in Texas, “Them’s fighting words!” Indeed, it is precisely the impact on the “concrete needs of the present time” that motivates most traditionalists.

That being said, we can all think of strains of supposed “traditionalism” that do indeed fit this description. Certainly, the sedevacantists would qualify. Most traditionalists, of course, are not “sedes.” Nevertheless, as one becomes a wanderer around the literature of traditionalism, one cannot help but notice a certain tendency in certain quarters for the “-ism” to turn into an ideology, and one with a particular political agenda. As with all political ideologies, anything that doesn’t advance the agenda is truncated or ignored. And for this particular sort of “traditionalist,” the content of that ideology is nothing less than modernism! Once outside the bounds of liturgy and the issues of marriage, they tend to be Americanists, glorifying the liberalism that is part of our nation’s founding (as Chris Ferrara has shown) and adopting economic liberalism as their preferred, nay required, economic doctrine. This is the “traditionalism” that easily fades into “conservatism” (of a sort) and becomes a servant of the Republican politics. Thus we have a “traditionalism” which exhibits a certain schizophrenia: it demands people believe on Sunday in principles which it demands they abandon on Monday; the “workaday world is severed from the world of the Gospel. This is the essence of modernism.

This, I think, is the “traditionalist” who opposes abortion but who does “little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty” (214). Mr. Ferrara has labeled this a “canard,” but his critique is both true and false. It is true when speaking of those in the pro-life movement who spend so much time actually working and praying with women in difficult situations and whose concern is for both the child and its mother. But it is false for a certain kind of “political” traditionalist, who in fact has little concern for the child or the mother, but rather for the value of the issue to a certain political agenda. What is presented is a truncated form of the tradition which relies on bits from the past to justify bits of the status quo.

But tradition is not really about the past at all; it is not, in any sense, antiquarian. Rather, it is about applying the timeless truths learned in the past to the circumstances of the present moment, and of learning how to express that truth in the current culture, or of reforming that culture so that it can absorb the truth. This is a tremendous task, since we live in enemy-occupied territory. The enemy is not just the liberal state, but a corporate culture which, through a vast propaganda apparatus of the 24/7 mass-media, has normalized the attitudes to human relationships which help to create so many mothers in this situation. That is to say, an authentic traditionalism has to address the whole of the cultural problem; it can’t be simply the Republican Party with a Latin gloss.

And that brings us back to where we started, to the Pope’s aggressive anti-modernism; to his campaign against secularization, rationalism, relativism, individualism, subjectivism, in short against the whole cultural (or anti-cultural) position known as modernism. In this, we have not an opponent but an ally, and an ally willing to fight—and fight aggressively—on pastoral grounds, on grounds which insist on the Church’s role in shaping the culture, and shaping it from top to bottom. It must be remembered that the pastoral always has priority within the Church. The Church is not a machine for producing doctrines, but a community for advancing holiness. Indeed, the Church only delves into doctrine to prevent pastoral problems. For example, it took three or four centuries to work out what we now know to be the most central doctrines on the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ. It did not take that long because the Fathers were particularly slow thinkers, but because they only declared doctrines when there was a pastoral need to do so; when not declaring a doctrine would have created confusion among the faithful. St Nicholas slaps Arius not over an intellectual dispute, but because of the pastoral disaster that Arianism had become.

This is not to suggest that there are not problematic aspects of the document. For example, should the bishops’ conferences really have a doctrinal role greater than that which any bishop already has (33)? Surely the bishop has the responsibility of applying doctrinal positions to local situations, and there is a certain advantage to having all the bishops in an area speak with a unified voice. But in a hierarchical Church, there are limits to collegiality, and I suspect that limit occurs right around doctrinal formulations.

If this Pope is suspicious of traditionalists, he at least shares our concerns. And it is then our task to demonstrate that his concerns with traditionalism per se are misplaced, that we are indeed concerned not with old forms for their own sake, but for the sake of the Gospel, and how it impacts “the concrete needs of our time.” Given the success of indult masses, traditional parishes, the growth of traditional orders of priests and nuns, this in itself shouldn’t be much of a task; we are, in fact, in the vanguard of the movement the Pope would like to see take place. And as always, we offer ourselves in service to the Church in union with its Pontiff.

John Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He is the author of The Vocation of Business, and Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.
  • Christopher Fish


  • Sometimes we traditionalists need to be introspective when it comes to criticism. When we are amongst each other, we can talk about the damaging aspects some of our brethren inflict upon the movement as a whole.
    Yet when in public, sometimes the tribal identity stuff gets a little too strong, and we feel the need to defend no matter what, when the proper response is to take an examination of conscience, and realize that being sinners, we have a lot of work to do. The article is on the money.

  • steye

    Thank you for this balanced take. In the response to this exhortation, as to his interview earlier, the evangelium is lost in all the ideological filters being put on it. Francis is saying, in so many words, that salvation in Christ, and mercy, are the horse which must pull the cart. The Mass, the source and summit of all Christian life, is overloaded and overflowing with this proclamation and manifestation and actual communication of Mercy. This is what Francis the pope as much as his namesake are concerned with living out, not just talking about.

    This proclamation of salvation in Christ, this kerygma, is what the Church exists for. All the moral and economic and liturgical yokes we put on that horse cannot pull the cart, though it seems many have been trying. But isn’t that exactly why all those yokes struggle so much? Christians preaching morality are just wagging fingers, but a disciple sharing an encounter with his or her savior attracts followers. This is how the Church converted the Romans and the barbarians after them.

    Preaching the yoke is a doomed strategy; Francis knows this and is simply calling us all to task for it, and lighting the way for us to follow.

  • Suzy

    I like what you have to say here and I do want to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt. I am no rabid tradionalist, however, his choice to replace Cardinal Burke with Cardinal Wuerl does not seem to me to nice well. It should make even those liberals who are mostly focusing on the abuse scandal shake their heads in dismay.