In God’s gift of faith, a supernatural infused virtue, we realize that a great love has been offered us, a good word has been spoken to us, and that when we welcome that word, Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, the Holy Spirit transforms us, lights up our way to the future and enables us joyfully to advance along that way on wings of hope.

Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei

It has been suggested before that Pope Francis is “not a theologian,” likely due to the stark difference in style while speaking or writing as compared to his predecessors, namely Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. While answering a question about his relationship with the Pope Emeritus, Pope Francis himself admitted that he is “not a theologian.” Perhaps what he is referring to is that he is not a “systematic theologian,” especially vis-à-vis Benedict, which appears demonstrably true.

However, when others say that Francis is “not a theologian,” they usually mean to imply a lack of academic training–in fact, he received several years of academic training–and it also implies that Francis himself is not as smart or capable, theologically speaking, as his predecessors. (See here this article in which Francis is the denied the epithet “intellectual” shortly after the author denies he is a theologian.)

But this too appears to be groundless, even if the question itself is irrelevant to the legitimacy or effectiveness of his papacy.  As Elise Harris’ helpful article from the Catholic News Agency reveals, Pope Francis was not too far removed from obtaining his doctorate and, in fact, was a brilliant, well-rounded student. However, before he could complete formal academic study, he was called to serve the Church in various leadership and administrative posts.  

On the basis of the above, perhaps we can say that Francis has not devoted himself primarily (certainly not exclusively) to pursuits of the mind. But, even so, we should at least admit that Pope Francis is thoughtful, well-educated, and well-read.  It is likely that Francis is not winging his theology while serving as the Vicar of Christ or writing and speaking without regard to various Catholic theological traditions. Assuming, therefore, Pope Francis has actually spent some time developing his own comprehensive worldview, we can and should ask the question: where does Pope Francis stand, theologically speaking?  

As an 82-year-old man approaching the 50th anniversary of his ordination, capturing every possible influence on Pope Francis would be impossible. From Wim Wenders’ documentary, for example, it’s clear that personal interactions have and continue to have a marked impact on his life. Here, I’m thinking specifically of the young terminally ill boy whom Francis called shortly before his death.  In his writings, he’s cited previous popes, previous councils, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas à Kempis, Thérèse of Lisieux, Augustine of Hippo, Bonaventure, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and so on. He cites Bishop conferences from around the world and remains close to a trusted Argentinian theologian, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez.

And so, to answer the question of where Francis stands, here in these essays that will follow, I wanted to identify at least three major spheres of influence, of which there could be many more. These three are chosen not because they are entirely comprehensive, but because together these very different influences are likely to reveal deeper insights into Francis’ rich theology.

He often cites these figures, but I must acknowledge that Pope Francis’ exposure to these various theological traditions may have come primarily through indirect sources. For example, if Pope Francis inculcated the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and St. Paul VI, he would necessarily share many views in common with Romano Guardini, even if he had little familiarity with him directly. (He does, of course.) The point here is to acknowledge that Pope Francis is a unique figure within the Church, but also, as all Christians do, that he leans heavily on the contributions of those who have come before.

Who are these figures and what are these traditions? The three I explore in the following articles are Romano Guardini, his pastoral experiences in Argentina, and St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Perhaps we could characterize Francis’ papacy as a “departure” from previous popes. It’s true, after all, that in the history of the papacy, no one had yet embodied this particular set of influences as Francis has. He is the first Jesuit, the first from the southern hemisphere, the first non-European in over a millennium, the first from the Americas, etc. But what many have interpreted to be indicative of underlying heretical beliefs or sympathies can and should be more accurately interpreted as a particular application of a specific Catholic theological tradition, more humanist than scholastic, that has been underappreciated in modern times. Though we are not used to seeing the Pope espouse these views, they are very Catholic and quite orthodox, frustrating some of his biggest detractors.

For example, while often citing Aquinas in his writings, Francis’ approach is more in line with the Augustinian tradition which sees the will as the primary locus for God’s conforming of the human person into his love. Francis emphasizes, in the Ignatian tradition, an individualized process of prayer and discernment, in which we respond to God’s mercy.

There’s a richness in Francis’ theological approach, which is focused on the beauty of the incarnational Church, is rooted in personal holiness, and which prioritizes the plight of the poor and those on the fringes of society. His papacy has led the Church in a new direction, appropriate for our times, by his call to each of us to break out of our boredom, apathy, and our comfort zones and get “bruised and dirty” doing the work of the Church.

Called by Christ and transformed by the Spirit in the mercy of God the Father, Francis exhorts each Christian to go out into the world and to preach the good news. “What are we waiting for?”

(Well, you’re waiting for the next article, which will be released in the coming days.)

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10 Responses

  1. Lisa M says:

    Thank you Daniel, that’s exactly what Pope Francis is all about.

  2. chris dorf says:

    That Catholics have a difficult time differentiating the types of theological ‘schools’ is putting it lightly. All that matters, really, is that if a person is embarrassed by Jesus and His words and of following Him, them Jesus will be like wize with us.

  3. Peter Aiello says:

    If we are paying too much attention to what Pope Francis says and doesn’t say, we are probably neglecting our own place in the Body of Christ and our own individual guidance by the Holy Spirit.
    Vatican II says: “Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it. On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.” (Dignitatis Humanae 3).

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      Don’t worry. I think the next article on Guardini will be up your alley.

    • Christopher Lake says:

      Peter,

      You are cautioning readers (and, perhaps, authors?) here about, in your words, “paying too much attention to what Pope Francis does or doesn’t say.” You are offering this cautionary admonition on a Catholic blog dedicated to the Papacy (and the thinking and teaching) of Pope Francis. Of course, any spiritual life can get out of balance, and it is unhealthy for a Catholic to become compulsively obsessed with what the Pope does or doesn’t say.

      However, after months of reading your comments and interacting with you here, it pains me to say that your comments on this site often have a lecturing tone, as if you are convinced that you have the correct understanding and balance of the Christian life, and that the authors, and other commenters here, simply need to adopt that understanding and balance. Of course, I do not deny that you have Scriptural wisdom to share here. You do have Scriptural wisdom, and you have shared it. However, at least from what I have read over the months, your comments are so often directly or indirectly critical that it can seem as though you are only coming here to admonish and never to learn (in the sense of positively learning from the site, I mean). Of course, commenters are obviously free to be very critical at WPI and sometimes are! 🙂 I just wonder, do you think that this site has anything to *positively contribute* to your understanding of the Christian life?

      WPI is not perfect, but it is a very thoughtful website. It has quite a bit of Scriptural wisdom, even though that wisdom doesn’t always come in the form of direct Scriptural quotations. (Sometimes, it does, but not always!) I just hope that you are finding more here than a series of perspectives which you perceive to be imbalanced or incomplete in various ways and which must be corrected.

      • Peter Aiello says:

        Many diverse people contribute to the articles and comments on Catholic websites. We all learn and teach when we read and comment. Vatican II makes a remarkable statement about the importance of all of the people in the Church.
        Lumen Gentium 12 says: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (111) [cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27] cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” (8*) [Cf. 1 Cor. 10: 17] they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth.”
        This is quite a statement coming from the magisterium. Our own personal discernment contributes to the whole of Church infallibility. If we have the Holy Spirit, we all have a stake in the infallibility of the Church according to V2, both clergy and laity.
        The V2 reference to 1John 2:20, 27 says: “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things…But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.”
        I was not aware of this teaching during my Catholic upbringing prior to Vatican II. I suspect that this is true for many of those who complain about Pope Francis today. I find that this helps me to navigate within the Church and remain faithful to Christ during this time of change and instability. We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bath water.

        • Christopher Lake says:

          Peter,

          Thank you for the reply. As a fellow Catholic, I affirm all of what you quoted from “Lumen Gentium” and from 1 John. I affirm those quotations, and I also do not interpret them in a vacuum, in ways with conflict with other teachings of the Church.

          In many past comments at WPI, you have strongly criticized Church teaching and practice on Mary and on a number of other subjects. You have consistently pointed out areas where you believe certain Church teachings and practices to be either out of balance or simply incorrect.

          The Church tells us, with historical foundation, that she was founded by Christ. and that Christ has given us a Magisterial authority to guide us in the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition. If you are correct in your interpretations of “Lumen Gentium” and 1 John, and we should simply feel free to dissent from the Church’s Magisterial authority, whenever it differs from our own, personal, private interpretations of Scripture and Tradition, then there is no essential difference between Catholicism and the most radical, subjective forms of Protestantism.

          Cherry-picking Scripture quotations, and/or Church documents, to support conclusions which conflict with teachings of the Catholic Church, is a well-worn practice of the most polemical, radically anti-Catholic, Protestant apologists. It honestly perplexes me that you would engage in such a practice as a fellow Catholic, yet you do so regularly here in your comments. Why is that?

          • Peter Aiello says:

            Attempting to reconcile statements from the Bible, tradition, the magisterium, and individual Catholics, along with our own perceptions of what they all mean and say is unavoidable for a human being. We all have a personal stake in this whole process because we are ultimately responsible for the conclusions of our personal conscience, wherever it takes us. Apparently, our conclusions differ.
            Please review Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae 1, 2, and 3.

  4. Chris dorf says:

    Example:

    “But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’

    9 And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham;

    10 for the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’

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