Pope Francis was in the news this past week because of his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii gaudium.” The Pope criticized the widespread “throw-away culture” that not only discards massive amounts of food and materials daily, but also discards people who are judged to be non-productive or non-essential to the growth of economies. The Pope also criticized the growing wealth gap in countries around the world, in which a very few people earn more and more, and growing numbers of people earn less and less. Some political commentators have interpreted the Pope’s words as an attack on free-market capitalism or on the American way of life.
If the Pope’s exhortation is solely about ethics or politics or economics, then it is no different from any other manifesto or program of social reform or autocratic decree; it is merely one opinion about what’s wrong with the world, and how that is to be remedied. What would happen, however, if we read “Evangelii gaudium” as being primarily about faith? One has only to look at the Pope’s own words. “Being Church means being God’s people, . . . It means proclaiming and bringing God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope and strengthened on the way.” (#114)
The Pope is not suggesting that the Church impose a particular ethics on world societies and economies. Rather, he is encouraging the Church to be a sign to the world of an authentic faith in God. The fact that, upon reading the Pope’s words, so many people run immediately to ethical arguments and issues is a sufficient sign of the absence of faith in the world. More ethics, or more talk about ethics, or more argument about what is ethically appropriate, will never make up for a lack of faith.
I don’t want to denigrate the importance of humane ethics; there is certainly a dearth of ethics in our world. I am suggesting, however, that we consider the question of why there is so much injustice around us. Everyone worries about ethical issues. Everyone has an opinion about how to promote ethical behavior in others. Thus far, our worrying and problem-solving have produced no lasting fruit. Why is this? I propose it is not because we lack the repentance that leads to an ethical life, but that we lack the repentance that leads to a life of faith.
Humane morality always results from authentic faith, but faith cannot be produced by morality. John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel reading, made this same statement when he said, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” (Matthew 3:8) Repentance, in this case, was not a turning away from immorality, but a turning away from faithlessness. The one who turns to a life of faith will produce the “good fruit” of humane morality “as evidence of . . . repentance.”
When I saw the criticisms of the Pope that were made by political commentators I was reminded of an episode of a very funny weekly broadcast called “Car Talk” on National Public Radio. It’s hosted by two brothers who own and operate a car repair business in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On Saturday mornings the two brothers take phone calls from people who have car-related problems. Recently, a man called about a car that required a multiple step process, and the help of a second person, in order to be started in the morning.
The car was over ten years old. In the morning, when the engine was cold, the engine would crank over, but not run. To get the car to run the owner had to lie on his back, and strike the fuel pump with a wrench while the starter was being engaged. As the fuel pump was at the rear of the car, it took two people to perform the starting ritual: one to hold the ignition switch in the start position, and another (the owner), to strike the fuel pump.
The owner had been to several mechanics and auto dealerships. He had replaced the fuel pump, and other parts, all to no avail; the problem was getting worse and worse. The owner’s call was memorable because of the comment he made at the end of the description of the car’s woes. He described his daily routine of finding a neighbor to operate the starter switch while he lay on his back under the rear of the car, striking the fuel pump. He commented, “This is not the life I want.”
If we are attentive to the world around us, and honest with ourselves, we might well admit that “this is not the life we want.” There is a great deal of injustice in the world. One in every eight people in the world goes to bed hungry. Almost eighteen million families in the United States struggle on a daily basis to find enough food for their survival. Every twenty seconds a child, somewhere in the world, dies as a result of poor sanitation. More than sixty million school-aged children worldwide have no schools to attend. These are staggering numbers. They are the rationale behind Pope Francis’ exhortation “Evangelii gaudium.”
If you perceive criticism about the injustice, hunger and poverty in the world as being an attack on your way of life, bank account or mailing address, perhaps you can try to see those issues as not being only about ethics or politics or economics. Perhaps, you could try to see them as being invitations to the kind of repentance that leads to embracing and proclaiming the good news of salvation.
If we’re honest about it, we would admit that the life we’ve made for ourselves isn’t the life we want. The efforts of countries and individuals around the world have created political systems that exploit the weak, deny basic necessities to hundreds of millions and engender a fear of losing precious luxuries; the world’s best political and economic systems leave much to be desired. More effort on our part will produce only more of the same moral failures. Today’s Gospel describes how to get out of this self-defeating rut. Matthew wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” (3:3) We should take note that it is the Lord’s path to us that is being made straight rather than the path we try to make by our own efforts.
The answer to the world’s moral issues is first an answer to the world’s faith issues and, until faith is embraced, morality will elude our grasp. “Evangelii gaudium” echoes the Gospel’s invitation to try to set things right in our world by first setting things right in our own hearts. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! . . Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” (Matthew 3:2-3)
Will anyone believe us if we say that God is making a straight path into the world? They will believe if we believe, if we have lives that embody the salvation all of us want. “The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” (Evangelii gaudium 88)