Pope Francis’s recently published Apostolic exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium, is a call to the entire Church to move forward in the new evangelization with purpose, missionary zeal, sacrifice and love. It is written in dynamic terms, with vast and deep vision. 


In this 220-plus page document, there is a short section where he examines some impediments to living out the mission that is now facing the Church. On one hand, he describes the corrosion of man’s dignity and value by the “dictators of moral relativism”—as he has repeatedly done since his election to the papacy, and as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as priest and ever-courageous pastor. Lest we presume that he is referring only to people who have fallen into sexual sin and erroneous doctrine, he also takes pains to critique the errors in neo-conservatism, including Catholic neo-conservatism in its political and economic stands. Yet this is no departure from the teachings of his two immediate predecessors; indeed Francis builds solidly on the foundation of the major social encyclicals of the past 122 years. 

In Evangelii Gaudium he also focuses on other impediments to the new evangelization, describing in strong language certain attributes of what might be interpreted as ultra-traditionalism within the Church, or alternatively as a kind of self-contented, self-indulgent clericalism—doctrinally correct, liturgically correct, but inwardly lifeless, lacking in charity and authentic missionary zeal. In the sections subtitled “No to pessimism” (n. 84, 85) and “No to spiritual worldliness” (n. 94 to 97), the Holy Father uses word-choices that sound, in English, quite harsh (one wonders about the language in which the exhortation was originally written, and about the translation). If indeed he intended the harshness, the word-choices seem to indicate a certain anger, or perhaps an anguish, a strong desire to awaken the entrenched self-righteous to Christ’s redeeming love.  

It strikes me that in our Anglo-Saxon psychological cosmos, where we are accustomed to exquisitely nuanced terms, and of course politeness at all times, the Latin American temperament’s emphatic expressiveness can send messages that were not intended as insult or dismissal but may be heard as such. The distance between speaking and hearing can sometimes be great. And thus these sections of the document, sad to say, have been the cause of much confusion and loss of joy among some orthodox Catholics. Part of the confusion is due to the fact that few, if any of us, know whom, precisely, the Pope is speaking about. 

Which brings to mind a moment in the Gospels where Jesus at the Last Supper says, “One of you will betray me.” I have always found it fascinating (and somewhat consoling) that each of the apostles asks him, “Is it I, Lord?” In other words, each of them knew his own capacity for betrayal, each knew his own vulnerability. Thus, when I read those passages in the Apostolic exhortation, I felt mixed emotions, pain, confusion. Is it me, Holy Father, you are referring to? You, my spiritual father whom I love so much, admire so much, you a man of courage and truth and love?  Yes, I see the seeds of the Pharisee in  myself, and the most degraded sinner too. Without the grace of Jesus, that is who I am. I am both the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the younger brother. 

Of course, I would not have felt so disturbed if Pope Francis had worded these sections otherwise. If he had said, for example: “Beware, my children, you who believe and follow Christ doctrinally, faithful to the Church’s teachings and norms, beware of the danger faced by the ‘elder son’ of the parable of the Prodigal Son, for you run the risk of sliding into Phariseeism.”

If it had been worded that way, I would have accepted the exhortation in peace, and nodded that this was good medicine, a necessary part of the whole vision as presented in the document. I might even have made an examination of my conscience on these matters (as I often do). And I would have quickly moved on to what I felt was the meat of the document. Perhaps too quickly.

In puzzling over the word-choices and emphasis on the sins of the self-righteous, I have tried to interpret the text this way and that, not to dismiss what the Pope is saying but rather to better understand it and, hopefully, apply it to myself in my own ongoing conversion.

When he wrote those problematic passages was he thinking of South American and African despotic or exploitive regimes, the leaders of which have in the past committed horrors against their own peoples, violating human rights while maintaining a pious private Catholicism (and sometimes public, for show, for PR purposes within their countries)? Was he referring to comfortable prelates who are at home with the powerful and wealthy but who will not disturb themselves to help those exploited by their circle of friends? Add to this the complacency of Western democratic nations, the affluence of which is due in part to the exploitation of the poor in underdeveloped nations. In many such nations social justice is allied with the political left, various kinds of socialism, and in the past with Marxism. Is Pope Francis hoping to break the stereotypes? Is he also recalling his own painful experiences in Argentina, attacks from both “left” and “right”? The attacks on his episcopal authority by the renegade bishop of the Society of St. Pius X in Argentina is an example of precisely the false pietism he describes in the exhortation. 

Catholics living in North America and Western Europe live in a very different ecclesial and social environment. The massive corruption of the Church’s evangelical mission by dissident theologians, and those whom they shape, notably in the “liberal” particular churches of the West, vastly outweighs the faults of the pietistic among us, who are a very small minority—I would say tiny, maybe even microscopic.

Decade after decade we have seen our churches transformed according to a false interpretation of Vatican II, the liturgy often made into a man-centered social ritual, have seen the magnificent teachings of our Popes ignored or mutated or misapplied. We who live at the grass roots level in such nations have experienced the marginalization of the faithful Catholic, have suffered silently under countless vehement homilies against Phariseeism that equate it with orthodoxy, while at the same time we have received little solid teaching from pulpits in a majority of dioceses.

Little by little, with a new generation of apostolic bishops and priests, the situation in some particular churches is improving, though there is a very long way to go before there is a true new renaissance.  Most of us, I believe, strive to offer our sufferings for the very people who cause them, and for the ultimate purification and strengthening of the Body of Christ in our times. We have tried to live both veritas and caritas as a single unified whole, in the midst of both the interior failures of our particular churches and the exterior situation, the hostile social and political environments of our nations, which have largely succumbed to anti-life, anti-family policies. 

As the years and decades rolled onwards, the completely faithful Catholic has increasingly felt like a battered minority, not a self-righteous “elite.” Most of us are loving, non-judgmental people.

I can count on one hand the people I’ve met over the years who resemble those whom the Pope describes. By contrast, I know several hundred deeply loving, heroically sacrificial people who do not judge others but who, by merely being faithful to the teachings of the Magisterium, are seen as an affront to the “unity” of the particular church.

Without provocation, we have often been scapegoats and lightning rods for the fears and malice of others, without retaliating. For the most part, we are the judged. If we have at times protested falsehoods, sacrilege, and disobedience to the Church’s universal norms of worship, it has been done privately and charitably. The Church teaches us that it is not only our right but our duty to do so. Almost always we are met with irrational anger. 

And yet, through all of it we know we are sinners. We know we need mercy too. And because of this we know our need for the fullness of Christ’s Church and the Gospels, our need for authentic spiritual life and sacramental life, for the worship of God which man was created for—and this in order to have the interior strength to love our neighbour as ourselves, both the person next door and all people in the global human community. We too are the poor. We too need good food. And we especially need this good food for our children. 

Thus, the problem of communication—the fracture between the word spoken and the word heard. This demands patience from all of us. It demands a kind of deep listening to the spiritual logos within the Holy Father’s exhortation. It asks of us that we do not overreact or misinterpret. We are all called to move forward in faith, seeking understanding. At the core of the Apostolic exhortation to joy is both a ringing confidence in the ultimate victory of Christ, and at the same time a realistic warning about the dangers inherent in the mission ahead.

The Holy Father is rightly concerned about Phariseeism, that interior condition, blindness, archipelago of distorted attitudes that impede the coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness. For that reason we should soberly reflect on the behaviour and attitudes of the Pharisees in the Gospels, and Christ’s interaction with them.

The passages where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees are in Matthew 23: 1-39; Mark 7: 1-13;  Mark 12: 35-40; Luke 11: 37-54; Luke 20: 45-47 (see also John 9: 1-41). 

Throughout these passages Jesus is, above all, confronting the Pharisees’ hypocrisy—their outward appearance of “holiness,” their inner corruption, greed and evil thoughts. They lay heavy burdens on man while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy and total fidelity to God. These hard sayings of Jesus can only be understood properly in the fullest context: his exhortation to love God above all things, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Mark 12: 30-31). Indeed, justice and mercy combined are loving one’s neighbour as oneself. But such love will be truncated and tend to distortion if it is not founded in total fidelity to God.

In essence, the Pharisees teach men to make peace with sin—hypocrisy, external show of religion while inwardly not truly converted to mercy and justice. In Mark 7: 1-13, Jesus chastises them for their disregard for God’s commandments, while they quibble over man-made fine points of their laws; for example, their allowing a person to neglect the basic needs of his aged parents because he has made a donation to the Temple treasury.  In Matt 23:15, Jesus says the Pharisees make their converts twice as fit for hell as they are. I believe this is also what the Pope was trying to get at in the impediment passages of the Apostolic exhortation. He has very often spoken about mercy towards the sinful, and rightly so. He understands that it is easier to convert a person in sin who knows he is a sinner than it is to convert a person who thinks he is righteous when he is not truly so. 

The overwhelmingly dominant problem within the Church of the West at this time of history is a new kind of Phariseeism, which is connected to corrupt moral theology and disordered ecclesiology, whereby false teachers make people believe that they are the righteous, even if sinning in terms of sexual morality, or by teaching that such sin is not sin.

They thus feel self-justified by their belief in a new Gospel of social justice—and a very selective social justice it is!—reducing the fullness of the Gospels to an either/or choice: you are either a liberal dissident (“loving, compassionate”) or you are a Pharisee (a “dour legalist”). They can make their peace with personal sin because they believe they are helping the poor. And they can always point the finger at the legalistic Pharisees of the Gospels whenever their own new brand of hypocrisies and compromises with personal sin and error are questioned. The fact is, the new Pharisee not only neglects the “weightier matters,” he so often actively undermines them, and in the worst cases contributes to the death of the innocent. He does it, O most grievous of ironies, by appealing to social justice.

None of us are righteous. None. We are all in need of a stringent self-examination and all in need of ongoing conversion if we hope to bear good fruit in the world, the fruit that will last.  We must never cease praying for Pope Francis as he shepherds the flock of the Lord, a flock that has never been as large as it is now, nor as complex. Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia. Where Peter is, there is the Church. The Church has prevailed through many confusions and unceasing trials during the past two millennia, and she will continue to grow and be fruitful in the world, if we keep our eyes on Jesus dwelling within her.

Michael D. O’Brien is a painter, novelist, and commentator on faith, family, and culture. He is the former editor of Nazareth Journal, a Catholic family magazine. He has just published his tenth novel, Voyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel.