Pope Francis often makes a clear distinction between what he sees as a cold recitation of the Church’s doctrine and a vibrant encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. One of the clearest statements along these lines was in Amoris Laetitia, in which Francis wrote, “Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would ‘indoctrinate’ that message, turning it into ‘dead stones to be hurled at others’.”
Francis continues this theme in Christus Vivit 209-215, where he explicitly contrasts the joy of kerygma with formational meetings on “doctrinal and moral issues, the evils of today’s world, the Church, her social doctrine, chastity, marriage, birth control and so on.” The rigidity of meetings with “fixed times” and that are “properly planned,” in the experience of Pope Francis, does not satisfy the needs of youth who need an “opportunity… for experiencing a shared encounter with the living God.” Because of these meetings, “young people get bored” and “they lose the first of their encounter with Christ and the joy of following him.” To avoid any confusion, however, he asserts later that, “Any educational project or path of growth for young people must certainly include formation in Christian doctrine and morality.”
There’s a lot of nuance here, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the CliffsNotes summary of this section of the Exhortation would simply say, “Don’t kill their joy!” Francis quotes himself in Evangelii Gaudium, reiterating his vision that all of what we do to catechize and form others into the Catholic faith is absolutely rooted in that kerygma, “the foundational experience of encounter with God through Christ’s death and resurrection.”
Francis’ fear would seem to be that, without proper consideration of this encounter with Christ in our teaching, we suck the life out of the Church’s doctrine. When we neglect the joy of the Gospel, we can easily give the impression that the Catholic faith is, primarily or at its core, about knowing things or living a certain way rather than the free gift of God’s mercy. Once we relegate mercy to second place or a supporting role, we pervert the faith, cripple the joy in young people, and stifle growth.
Francis refers to the writings of Romano Guardini, whose writing is instructive for understanding Francis’s vision. He quotes, “[W]hen we experience a great love… everything else becomes part of it.” Said another way, doctrine and formation are a part of God’s plan of love for us and they only make full and complete sense as an expression of that love. As an example, the Church’s teachings on birth control, as painful as they can be sometimes, are rooted in the love and mercy of God. To the extent that the Church (myself included) have failed to make that connection, we have failed to both catechize and evangelize.
Our Israelite ancestors had a unique encounter with “doctrine” in the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law. It is worth contemplating why the Israelites would ever follow the law, literally given from on high, that restrained their ability to do as they pleased. In simple terms, they did so because the Lord already demonstrated his faithful love to them when he released them from their Egyptian slavemasters. Not only that, but he continued to promise good things to those who keep his law.
Scripture scholars note, in the giving of the law, how the authors of scripture borrowed heavily from common “covenants” of the age, as in the contract or treaty one nation might make with another nation, particularly a stronger nation with its vassals. But unlike in those typical covenants, God, even though he is the vastly stronger party, does not make one-sided demands of the Israelites but instead binds himself to them, promising his generosity. Accordingly, the Israelites understood the law as an expression of God’s love for them and the Scriptures themselves make explicit connections between the “benefits” of the law and the giving of the law. This is the immediate context:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:4-6)
Obedience to the law was the means by which Israelites would come to know God and enjoy his benefits. But in Jesus Christ, who is the fulfillment of the law (cf. Matthew 5:17-20), God went even further. He made our joy contingent on absolutely nothing except for the acceptance of God’s free gift of love and mercy, made manifest on the cross. In Lumen Fidei, the work of both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, they write about cross and how it demonstrates God’s ultimate love. Jesus is the “complete manifestation of God’s reliability.” Francis writes:
Christians… profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
The story of God’s free gift and boundless generosity, thoughtfully considered, gives rise to a joy which itself is limited only by human weakness. The cross is the singular reality to which the entire history of the Israelites pointed. It is the reality in which we begin our journey as Christians and which we remember with gratitude on the way.
In this context, it becomes clearer what Pope Francis has been saying with regard to doctrine and mercy. It’s not that doctrine or the “law” is unimportant. Rather, when we preach without “grateful remembrance,” when we try to instill knowledge without hope or virtue without grace, we risk robbing others, particularly young people who are still growing into the faith, of their joy. We make it seem like the gift of God’s salvation is contingent on knowing the right things or acting a certain way, when in reality it is God’s gift which makes it possible in the first place for us to “bear fruit for God” (cf. Romans 7:4-6).
In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis exhorts us to find better ways to communicate this truth of God’s love to young people, “incarnating the kerygma in the language of today’s youth.” First, we must teach them love, first we must “awaken and consolidate the great experiences of Christian life.” Only then can the Church’s teachings make full and complete sense. “Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma.”