The Christian is called to bear the message of Christ in the world; but as with a man who bears a weight using only one side of his body, so too with the Christian bearing the Gospel message one-sidedly: he totters and falls! Such is the message of Pope Francis in the fourth chapter of his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
What is the one-sidedness against which we must be on-guard in our efforts to evangelize? Ignoring the “social dimension” of the Gospel. The Scriptures make clear that we must be concerned with the welfare of others, having “zeal for living the Gospel of fraternity and justice.” We are called to love the “God who reigns in our world,” making the kingdom “at hand” for others. The kingdom is pursued in tandem with righteousness, which is the reign of God within us; and when we seek the reign of God both within ourselves and within the world, “all these things will be given... as well”: “universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.” In all this, we are concerned with “all dimensions of [human] existence” in our efforts of evangelization.
The Church's social teachings are a rich treasure of wisdom for living in right relationship with our fellow men and women. Yet these teachings cannot be restricted to the “private sphere” but must inform all “aspects of life 'related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.'” Because the Church is in the world, she “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice,” but “must show concern of building a better world.” While Evangelii Gaudium cannot address all the many “grave social questions” which plague the world today, Pope Francis wants us all to focus on two fundamental social issues: the inclusion of the poor in society, and peace and social dialogue.
The inclusion of the poor in society
“Our faith in Christ... is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society's most neglected members”: so begins Pope Francis' reflections on the first fundamental issue related to the social dimension of the Gospel. In solidarity with the poor, Christians everywhere are called to prioritize people over things, working to change the “structural causes of poverty” and to “promote the integral development of the poor.” Civil rights and private property are legitimate, but are not sacrosanct with regards to ensuring “general temporal welfare and prosperity” of all peoples. We must resist being overtaken by a “new self-centered paganism” which tempts us today; like St. Paul we “should not forget the poor”: this is a key criterion of true devotion to God.
“God's heart has a special place for the poor.” Indeed, the poor are mentioned throughout the Scriptures. The Church, in turn, holds an “option for the poor”: a “theological category” which emphasizes that to the poor belongs God's “first mercy.” Thus, the Church must be “poor and for the poor.” Christians should be surrounded by the poor, for “in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ” and we must be “evangelized by them.” The Holy Spirit does not mobilize in us “an unruly activism” but “loving attentiveness” to the poor. Thus, the “option for the poor” is not an ideology but an accompaniment of the poor “on their path to liberation,” translating principally into a “privileged and preferential religious care.” No one is exempt from this call despite their particular vocation.
“Inequality is the root of all social ills.” All are called to contribute to resolving the structural causes of inequality. A concern for the “dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good” must permeate our economic policies and business pursuits. “Justice requires more than economic growth,” and the Pope prays for politicians that they might turn to God for guidance so that “openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset.”
Church communities, too, must be open to the pursuit of justice for the poor; otherwise they “risk breaking down.” Christians are called to care for the most vulnerable, and must recognize the many peoples who need their help: migrants, those victimized by human trafficking, and women. We must attend to the protection of creation also lest our laxity “affect our own lives and those of future generations.” As regards the issue of abortion, Pope Francis emphasizes that “defense of unborn life is closely linked” to defense of human rights, in general, and that it is not “'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”
The common good and peace in society
Peace is a fruit of the word of God. What is peace and how can a peaceful society be pursued? Peace is not “the mere absence of violence,” nor is it merely caring for the symptoms of poverty amongst us. Indeed, “[a] peace which is not the result of integral development will be doomed.” Peace will not be achieved principally through politics, but through “the growth of a peaceful and multifaceted culture of encounter.” Pope Francis offers Christians “four principles” which can “guide the development of life in society and the building of a people where differences are harmonized within a shared pursuit.”
First, “time is greater than space”: we must “work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results.” This demands of us patience and the willingness to work for lasting development, not “immediate results” yielding “short-term political gains”: “evangelization... calls for attention to the bigger picture.” Second, “unity prevails over conflict”: conflict must be faced, but without losing “our sense of the profound unity of reality.” We must seek “communion amid disagreement,” avoiding “syncretism” but seeking a resolution of differences which “preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.” We must have faith that the Holy Spirit “can harmonize every diversity.”
Third, “realities are more important than ideas”: we must not allow ideas to “mask” realities, doing violence to truth. The principle of reality is the word made flesh, and our evangelization must be grounded in this reality. The word is made “fruitful” through “works of justice and charity.” Fourth, and finally, “the whole is greater than the part”: our work is grounded in local realities, but we must work with an eye towards the “larger perspective” of the whole world. This calls for a “convergence of peoples,” no matter their differences, for the sake of pursuing the common good. This principal of “totality” evokes the totality with which the Gospel embraces all peoples.
Social dialogue as a contribution to peace
“Evangelization... involves the path of dialogue.” To “promote full human development,” the Church needs to be involved in dialogue in three areas: “dialogue with states”; “dialogue with society,” including with “cultures and the sciences”; and “dialogue with other believers who are not part of the Catholic Church.”
As regards dialogue with the state, the Church affirms her desire to cooperate with all civil authorities in safeguarding the “Gospel of peace” which she proclaims. She encourages the state “to safeguard and promote the common good of society.” The state must operate on the “principles of subsidiarity and solidarity,” and in “working for the integral development of all” the state must operate with “profound social humility.” The issue of “religious freedom” is also relevant (see at the end of the chapter): religion should not be “privatized” in order to reduce it to “the quiet obscurity of the individual's conscience or... the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques.” Pope Francis calls for more respectful treatment of believers by leaders and opinion-makers who are sometimes led to making “crude and superficial generalizations... due to the myopia of a certain rationalism.”
The Church also holds dialogue between “science and faith” to be of utmost importance. The Church calls for a “synthesis” between the empirical sciences and other forms of knowledge “such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself” for the sake of elevating us all to the mystery of God. Evangelization must be “attentive to scientific advances” and should aim to inform the sciences, encouraging them to remain “respectful of the centrality and supreme value of the human person.”
There are many forms which the Church's dialogue with non-Catholics can take. The first is through ecumenical dialogue with non-Catholic Christians. Jesus desires that “they may all be one” (Jn 17:21), and the credibility of the Christian faith would be strengthened if “the fulness of catholicity” were realized. The divisions amongst Christians are a “counter-witness” to the Gospel, and commitment to substantial unity “which helps [others] to accept Jesus Christ [is] an indispensable path to evangelization.” The Church also dialogues with the Jewish people as part of Christian discipleship: we share with one another a love for the Hebrew Scriptures, and share many common values related to the human person. Finally, the Church dialogues with religious communities holding to non-Christian faiths. Christians and non-Christians may pursue “conversation about human existence” and share in the “joys and sorrows” of each others' lives. Yet we must not allow dialogue to devolve into “facile syncretism,” ignoring the “essential bond between dialogue and proclamation.”
Pope Francis has laid out a vision of evangelization which takes proper account of its “social dimension.” It is up to Christians everywhere to respond to this exhortation, putting their faith into action through pursuing justice for the poor in concrete ways and engaging in dialogue with others. As Christians work for true and lasting peace, their lives will shine forth as beacons of God's grace, attracting others to the kingdom of God.