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.
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.)