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Pope Francis’s new major document: Caring for migrants and the poor is just as important as preventing abortion

Pope Francis makes the sign of the cross during his weekly general audience at the Vatican in 2017. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

To answer God’s call to holiness, Christians must care for the poor, the sick and the immigrant just as they care for preventing abortion, Pope Francis wrote in his latest major guidance to the Catholic Church, published Monday.

The document, titled “Gaudete et Exsultate” (Latin for “Rejoice and Be Glad”), is Francis’s latest major publication in his five-year papacy, following works on the environment and the family that each made waves in the church. This apostolic exhortation takes up a broader theme, holiness, but some church scholars quickly read the new work as an implied response to the pope’s conservative critics.

Francis’s first encyclical, on the environment, is a deep dive into climate science

Francis writes of what it means to be holy in the modern world, with many specific examples: viewing a person sleeping on the street not as an obstacle or a political problem but as a human being; refraining from gossip in the grocery store and impatience with our children; reading the Bible even in a time of constant online distractions; avoiding being “caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet.”

Francis’s vision of holiness is expansive, touching on the actions of everyday people in situations from family life to politics. “It goes back to Genesis, which says all of us, all of creation, all men and women, are made in the image and likeness of God. What Pope Francis is trying to say is: Do we really believe that?” said the Rev. William Graf, chair of religious studies at St. John Fisher College in New York. “Do we see God present in the immigrant? Do we see God present in the gay person?”

Conservatives in the church, in particular a small group of U.S. cardinals who have written about their concerns with Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation that gestured toward a more forgiving stance on divorce and remarriage and other issues regarding families, will probably not be appeased by the new document.

“It will not make liturgy traditionalists very happy,” said the Rev. James Bretzke, a theologian at Boston College. Bretzke sees Francis’s discussion in the new document of contemporary thinkers who fall into age-old errant patterns of thought known as gnosticism and pelagianism as a rebuke of the conservative cardinals. “He’s saying to these people that they might be falling into contemporary versions of ancient heresies.”

Francis’s family document: Offering hope to divorced Catholics while saying no to gay marriage

Bretzke said that Monday’s document seemed to implicitly reply to the dubia — doubts — published by the conservative cardinals. “Their question is, ‘Do we still believe in an objective moral order?’ … That’s always been the Christian conundrum. If God is perfect and holy, shouldn’t we be absolutely perfect and absolutely holy?” Bretzke said. “What Pope Francis [responds]: God is everywhere. God is in Syria. God is in the Sunday church. God is in an abortion clinic. God is with the immigrants. When you try to find God there, then you’re going to be cooperating more effectively with God. Holiness doesn’t mean being just pure and away from the world and away from other people. Holiness means being whole, and you can only be whole as a human person in a community of persons.”

Pope Francis issued a controversial document on the family. The D.C. archbishop has a pioneering plan to implement it.

Reading Francis’s new writing Monday morning and comparing it with the pope’s first major writing, his encyclical on the environment, Graf noted that the pope devoted a large portion of this new work to the Beatitudes, the famous passage in Matthew that says the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted are blessed.

Francis concludes that “the great criterion … on which we will be judged” is found at the conclusion of the Beatitudes: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Graf said that Francis seems to be positioning this famous line of scripture, with its emphasis on personal care for the physical needs of suffering people, as “the ultimate judgment on whether or not we’re holy.”

In what is likely to be one of the more controversial segments of the document, Francis emphasized the importance of caring for migrants, an issue he has frequently talked about, and said in comparison that some Christians focus too much on only the issue of abortion.

“Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life. … Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection,” Francis writes.

He also writes several times about the dangers of distraction due to the Internet, and the malicious discourse that often takes place online.

“He’s over and over again calling people to be in the moment, be present, really engage, really see one another,” said the Rev. Mark Morozowich, dean of the school of theology and religious studies at Catholic University of America. “Oftentimes, when someone reads these papal encyclicals, they don’t understand how they apply to their lives. … This was written very much to a common parishioner in the parish.”