Caring for migrants and the poor is as holy a pursuit as opposing abortion, Pope Francis declared in a major document issued by the Vatican on Monday morning.

Pushing back against conservative critics within the church who argue that the 81-year-old pope’s focus on social issues has led him to lose sight of the true doctrine, Pope Francis again cast himself, and the mission of the Roman Catholic Church, in a more progressive light.

“The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” Pope Francis wrote in an apostolic exhortation on the subject of holiness issued Monday morning. “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned.”

The pope’s vision of holiness explicitly highlights migrants, whose plight he has sought to elevate to global attention perhaps more than any other issue.

The pope’s 103-page document — an apostolic exhortation titled “Gaudete et Exsultate,” or “Rejoice and Be Glad” — is less authoritative than a papal encyclical, but is nevertheless an important teaching pronouncement. At its outset, Francis makes clear that it is not meant “to be a treatise on holiness” but to “re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time.”

As he put it elsewhere in the document, “Seeing and acting with mercy: That is holiness.” That statement is a distilled expression of Francis’ vision of the church, which is consistent with a view articulated by Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago who died in 1996, and who called for a “consistent ethic of life” that wove issues of life and social justice into a “seamless garment.”

When asked if the document on holiness was a response to Pope Francis’s conservative critics, the panelists at the Vatican news conference on Monday, including Archbishop De Donatis, looked uncomfortably at one other for several seconds before giving a roundabout answer.

But some of the passages seemed intended as a rebuke to the canon lawyers and archconservative cardinals leading the opposition to Pope Francis.

In the document, the pope excoriates Christians taking the path of “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige.” They should instead be passionate about “seeking out the lost,” he writes.

He is also withering in his criticism of the hostile tenor that often reverberates throughout the conservative Catholic blogosphere.

“Christians, too, can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet,” Francis said, citing vicious examples of defamation in some Catholic outlets where “people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others.”

The pope has been less critical of his liberal interlocutors, including those who sometimes put words in his mouth. One favorite, if infamously unreliable, narrator of the pope’s conversations, recently caused a controversy when he asserted that the pontiff did not believe in hell.

But in “Rejoice and Be Glad,” Francis indicated that he had no doubt the devil is real.

“We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea,” he writes. “This mistake would lead us to let down our guard.”

In the devil’s arsenal is the spreading of gossip, which the pope disdains, but he also expresses an intolerance for the intolerant and close-minded.

In another poke at conservative critics inside the Vatican hierarchy, he bemoans those who would prefer a self-righteous and orthodox minority to the tough work of spreading peace by embracing “even those who are a bit odd, troublesome or difficult.”

“Sowing peace all around us,” he writes. “That is holiness.”

Full story at The New York Times.