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Gaudete et Exsultate and the Unfinished Agenda of Vatican II

One of the unfinished agenda of the Second Vatican Council is the democratization of holiness.

In Lumen Gentium – a compromise document – there remains, as the late Sr. Anne Patrick had
pointed out, the tension between a two-tiered and a more egalitarian unified approach to holiness.
While LG 11 affirms the universal call to holiness, LG 42 undermines this with statements on
how persons with the gift of celibacy “can more easily devote their entire selves to God alone
with undivided heart”and with their vow of poverty, they “more closely follow and more clearly
demonstrate the Savior’s self-giving” and through the renunciation of their will, they “liken
themselves more thoroughly to Christ in His obedience.” In his recently released apostolic
exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis intends to “repropose” the call to holiness in our
times. My focus in this brief discourse is to analyze the extent Gaudete has addressed the
unfinished agenda of Vatican II toward a more unified approach to holiness.
Gaudete et Exsultate seems to have gone beyond the two-tiered view of holiness, that is
based on dualism and subordination (i.e. of earthly values to heavenly values; of action to
prayer), that enables the clergy and religious to lead “holier” lives. Pope Francis, in GE 14
qualifies that “To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious.” The day-today
concerns of lay people are not “distractions” to holiness. One does not need to flee from ordinary
concerns to be able to pray more (GE 27). “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with
love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.” This is reinforced
in GE 26 that states, “We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action…”
The two-tiered approach to holiness tends to narrow as well the moral life to matters of
sexuality. Chastity – understood as abstinence from all nonmarital sexual thoughts and actions –
was considered as the pinnacle of perfection. In sexual sins there is no smallness of matter. It is
thus noteworthy that there is no mention, not even once of the virtue of chastity in the Papal
In contrast, the virtue of justice was referred to 21 times and mercy 23 times in the
apostolic exhortation. Noting the danger of a very broad definition that identifies justice to
“faithfulness to God’s will in every aspect of life,” the Pope adopts instead a liberationist
definition that links it to a preferential option for the poor: “ [I]f we give the word too general a
meaning, we forget that it is shown especially in justice towards those who are most vulnerable:
“Seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is 1:17). (GE 79)
Pope Francis cautioned against two “ideologies striking at the heart of the gospel.” On
the one hand, are those whose social engagement are stripped of a personal relationship with
God. On the other hand, are those “who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as
superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist.” (GE 101) In an indirect critique
of groups, also present in the Philippines, who are focused only on a single issue – oftentimes
against artificial contraception or abortion – while ignoring other issues that “kill” such as
corruption, poverty, and other forms of injustice, the Pope noted how for them “the only thing
that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend.”

In a seeming response as well to critics of Amoris Laetitia’s focus on mercy, the Pope
warns of new forms of elitism or hierarchical thinking fostered by false forms of holiness: a
gnosticism or intellectualism that is bereft of mercy (GE 37) and a Pelagianism or a rigid
orthodoxy devoid of a need for God’s grace and of love (GE 57-59).
Significant too in its thrust toward democratizing holiness is the exhortation’s recognition
of models of holiness from other faiths (GE 9): “But even outside the Catholic Church and in
very different contexts, the Holy Spirit raises up ’signs of his presence which help Christ’s
Yet, despite the movement in this document toward a more egalitarian unified approach,
it retains traces of a tiered view of holiness. While it recognizes the holiness of the “saints next
door” such as the sacrifices of parents to raise and support their families, calling these faith
responses as “the middle class of holiness” (GE 7) reeks of hierarchical thinking, implying an
upper and a lower class of holiness. Furthermore, the models of holiness mentioned in the
apostolic exhortation are also overwhelmingly priests and/or religious. Except for Mary and
Joseph, Monica, and Thomas More, the rest of the lay saints fall under “companions,” “martyrs,”
and “saints next door.”
The reference to a feminine style of holiness is likewise confounding. It is as abstract as
the term “feminine genius”! The exhortation cites as example women saints who engaged in
church reform implicitly suggesting that those who intend to do so must employ a “feminine
style.” It is not clear though how the saints mentioned exhibited a distinct feminine genius. On
the one hand, if femininity is the “capacity for the other,” then everyone is called to manifest
this. As the CDF, in the document “On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and
in the World,” underlined: “But in the final analysis, every human being, man or woman, is
destined to be for the other.” (14) On the other hand, if there is indeed a feminine style, why is
there no reference at all to a corollary masculine style of holiness?
A two-tiered holiness that is gender-based is also implicit in Pope Francis’ stronger
identification of gossiping with women (GE 16). For the Pope, gossiping is a form of
“terrorism,” one of the “worst enemies of harmony,” that threatens to destroy the Church from
within. In his audience with nuns in Lima, Peru, he even compared, albeit jokingly, gossiping
nuns with terrorists!
Overall, in terms of numerical representation, the apostolic exhortation named 13
individual women saints/blessed (mentioned a total of 16 times) compared to 22 individual men
(mentioned a total of 41 times), thus continuing to reflect the largely gendered modeling of
holiness within the Catholic church.
Indeed, we find in Gaudete et Exsultate elements of a movement forward toward an
egalitarian and unified approach to holiness…though this still remains wanting in other respects!

De la Salle University Manila, Philippines