The Ecumenical Impact of Pope Francis’ Exhortation on Holiness

May 09, 2018

On March 19, 2018, the feast of St. Joseph, Pope Francis signed the Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate, On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World”. The document was published by the Vatican on April 9, 2018.

L’Osservatore Romano immediately pointed out its ecumenical impact (see ORLF, April 19, 2018) in an article signed by Marcelo Figueroa. Indeed, the papal document declares:

Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church. But even outside the Catholic Church and in very different contexts, the Holy Spirit raises up ‘signs of his presence which help Christ’s followers’. Saint John Paul II reminded us that ‘the witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants’. In the moving ecumenical commemoration held in the Colosseum during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, he stated that the martyrs are ‘a heritage which speaks more powerfully than all the causes of division’. (§9)

 These remarks seem to claim that there is holiness outside the Catholic Church, and that it would be petty to point out the factors of division between the Churches or Christian communities when non-Catholics are dying as martyrs for the Name of Jesus.

It is true that divine grace can sanctify even outside of the visible society of the Catholic Church and even lead souls to martyrdom, which is indeed an act of heroic virtue. Only in Heaven will we be able to see the marvels God has produced outside of the normal framework of salvation He instituted when He founded the Church. 

But if we stop there, we are implying that what the Protestants or Orthodox are lacking is not so important, and that they have everything they need to be holy. This would be an unacceptable error for at least two reasons. 

Outside of the Church There Is No Salvation

In the first place, dogmatic errors lead to moral disorders. It is a remarkable fact that only the Catholic Church can still preach and provide all the means for observing the precepts of natural law, especially with regards to marriage. She is the only one that fully upholds the laws of nature regarding generation and condemns unnatural unions, divorce, abortion, birth control, etc. If therefore there is holiness outside of the Catholic Church, it can only be a special case, an exception. Even Pope Francis insists in his text upon the fact that holiness is not acquired in solitude but “in community” (§141). And the Catholic Church is the only community that provides all the means for this sanctification. Such an exception, therefore, is a miracle. Of course, we readily believe in miracles, but they have to be duly proven!

But there is an even more profound reason. Holiness implies a relation of deep friendship with the Savior, Whom we know in the person of Jesus Christ. Is there room for lies in such a relation of friendship? An example will help us to see clearly.

In a maternity ward in the 1950’s, all the newborns were taken for an immunization. Unfortunately, the medical staff forgot to mark the identity of each baby. Imagine the confusion for the nurses when it came time to return each baby to his family! Can we imagine anyone saying, “It doesn’t matter if each mother gets her own baby, as long as they each get one!” Friendship – and all the more so maternal love – requires the truth and accepts neither approximation nor subterfuge.

 If a soul’s friendship with Jesus is true, it should naturally seek an exact knowledge of who Jesus is, and burn with zeal for all that He taught. This zeal is what lead an Anglican like John Henry Newman to convert to Catholicism after thoroughly researching the writings of the Fathers of the Church.

Outside of the Church There Is No Truth 

In these conditions, whether holiness is in truth or error doctrinally speaking and whether it respects the divine constitution of the Church is anything but irrelevant. But when he insists upon the fraternal charity that is characteristic of true holiness, unlike the intellectualism that he calls Gnosticism (chapter 2) and that is a caricature of holiness, Pope Francis does not once mention that holiness normally seeks to know the truth about Jesus Christ. Nor does he say that fraternal charity can offer more to one’s neighbor than delicate acts of kindness (paragraph 144’s “little details”) or greater material or human help; it can offer the most important spiritual goods, all of which are contained in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. What greater good can we offer our neighbor than that of knowing the Savior? Only at the very end of the papal document, in paragraph 170, is spiritual discernment mentioned: it “leads to the wellspring of undying life: to know the Father, the only true God, and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ (cf. Jn. 17:3).” 

In other words, he never once says that there is no true and authentic charity without the divine and supernatural Faith, the Catholic Faith.

Thus, while Pope Francis’ version of holiness does include contemplation and prayer (§29, 147) – although it is wary of an attraction for the liturgy (§57,106) –, it ignores the holiness of the doctors. Recall St. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy: “I charge thee, before God and Jesus Christ, who shall judge the living and the dead, by his coming, and his kingdom: Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables.” (2 Tim. 4:1-4)

The zeal for the truth that animated St. Paul was certainly not the intellectual pride of the neo-Gnostics that Francis reproves in his Apostolic Exhortation (chapter 2). It came from his zeal for souls; even more importantly, it came from his zeal for the person of Jesus Christ. When the Savior was about to entrust the care of the entire Church to St. Peter, the question He put to him three times was not: “Do you love My lambs and My sheep?” It was, “Simon son of John, lovest thou Me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15). 

Once this condition is met, holiness can be summed up in the words of St. Paul: “Now the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of one mind one towards another, according to Jesus Christ: That with one mind, and with one mouth, you may glorify God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 15:5-6) 

Only in this spirit can the mercy the pope calls for, sometimes in touching terms, be truly Catholic.