[EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview of Dr. Rodrigo Guerra by Miroslava López originally appeared in Vida Nueva Digital. This is WPI’s translation of the original Spanish. It has been translated and published with permission. —ML]
As we celebrate the eighth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, we are compelled to try to understand its significance, beyond the media noise.
We interviewed Rodrigo Guerra, Mexican academic and founder of the Center for Advanced Social Research (CISAV), recently appointed as an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, to help shed light on some of the lessons that we have learned during this pontificate.
QUESTION—Is it possible to evaluate the pontificate of Pope Francis eight years after his election?
RODRIGO GUERRA—My impression is that taking stock of Francis’s pontificate is usually just pyrotechnics for those of us who give our opinions on questions of Church life, rather than a thoughtful exercise and the fruit of mature reflection. Of course, anyone can give their opinion, but do we distance ourselves enough to be able to take a truthful and fair look at the lights and shadows? Are we able—when sizing up this papacy—to look at Peter’s ministry as primarily supernatural, rather than as a position of power amid a web of worldly interests? I believe caution is necessary. Not long ago, my friend Massimo Faggioli suggested in an article that this pontificate was entering into its decline and would very possibly not provide many new surprises. Then some surprises immediately happened: Fratelli Tutti was released, Francis announced a year dedicated to the family and focusing on Amoris Laetitia, a woman was appointed to a voting position within the Synod of Bishops, he took the trip to Iraq, and many other things. My personal assessment is that, as always, we have a providential Pope for the time in which we live. The Holy Spirit does not assist the Successor of Peter intermittently but constantly. This is a certainty of faith rather than an analytical assessment of his decisions.
Q—Isn’t there a risk of falling into some kind of “papolatry” if it is affirmed that the Spirit constantly sustains the Successor of Peter?
RG—The word “papolatry” etymologically means to give worship of latria to the Roman Pontiff. In a strict sense, that does not apply to what I am saying. The Constitution Lumen Gentium teaches us that the pope is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful. It could not be a “perpetual foundation” if it was not sustained permanently by God himself. Obviously, this does not imply a kind of impeccability or absolute inerrancy. What it means is that God, through the fragility of each Successor of Peter, leads the Church, much to the scandal of those of us who are used to looking at things under the Pharisaic prism—that is, from the perspective of those who are scandalized when Jesus heals on the Sabbath and defends the adulterous woman when she is about to be stoned.
Q—Pope Francis has unsettled many from the moment of his election. Many have claimed to be disturbed by him. And this claim has turned into open dissent for others. What are the true causes of this phenomenon?
RG—I have the impression that what most disturbs some people is that Francis is reforming the Church. Everything would be easier if the Vicar of Christ did not question my social status, my comfort zone, or my position of power. Cardinal Ratzinger liked to quote a phrase from Lutheran thought that is very applicable: “Ecclesia semper reformanda!”, The Church must always be in a state of reform. This state of reform does not spring from the pope’s fondness for process reengineering, Protestant tendencies, or some modern fashion (however pertinent they may be). Jesus Christ and his Spirit are the great reformers. The more faithful a pope is to the deposit of faith, the greater a reformer he is. Jesus Christ is the source of eternal newness and conversion in our lives. Accepting this fact is accepting that no one is totally converted and that we are all in need of constant “metanoia.” True personal conversion leads to pastoral—and eventually synodal—conversion. The pope, like Christ, wants us to be holy. That is why he never stops working for the renewal of the entire Church in Jesus way.
Q—Does the reform of the Church happen through synodality?
RG—The reform of the Church occurs through the recovery of synodality. Synodality is not an idea that suddenly occurred to the pope, but is a constitutive dimension of the Church. Jesus founded the Church by asking us to “walk together.” In a certain sense, the most authentic ecclesiogenesis rests here: the Persons of the Trinity summon us to live within their Mystery, to learn and relearn how to be and act in communion. For this reason, the synodal “Ecclesiae forma” is not the result of democratization or sociology, but emerges from the communio of the Triune God. The Church is a true mystery of communion when it emerges every day as a synodal experience. The main purpose of synodality is to reactivate the awareness of the responsibility of all, including the lay faithful, for the fulfillment of the mission of the Church. From this point of view, episcopal collegiality is a way of living synodally. But synodality is something even greater than that, and within it even collegiality should be reconsidered.
Q—A more synodal Church, what does that imply?
RG—A synodal Church implies broader and deeper spaces for participation and fraternal listening so that the “sensus fidei fidelium” is given attention and enriches the one body of Christ, the Church. It implies the rejection of clericalism, which is so widespread today. It is very easy to say we do not like clericalism while continuing clericalist practices and styles of pastoring. For example, some still fear the idea of the lay faithful, consecrated or non-consecrated women, and other groups within the Church expressing themselves and participating in processes of listening and making proposals within the Church. “Synodality” might be on our lips and in our words, but now it needs to be in our minds and live in our hearts. Francis invites us to listen to the People of God so that we can have better pastors, nourished by the voice of the flock and by the Spirit who is manifested in that voice. No one should fear this if we place more trust in the Holy Spirit who truly leads the Church. No one should fear the idea of heartily embracing the ecclesiology of Vatican II. Or—let me put it another way—our fear about these issues is directly proportional to our lack of faith.
Q—In the social sphere, what has been Francisco’s greatest contribution so far?
RG—The pope educates us with his teaching and with his example. In the area of teaching, Francis proposed in Fratelli tutti that we rediscover fraternity as a way to collaborate and build a post-ideological society. Extremism on the right and the left—both secular and ecclesial—tears apart the fragile fabric that allows us to coexist. The only way to correct the ideologization of the mind and the heart is to become a neighbor to the most fragile and needy, to the most wounded and hurt. You might say that the diseases of egalitarianism (on the left) and liberalism (on the right) can only be corrected by the forgotten spirit of fraternity, which unites equality and freedom through a supportive embrace and rebalances their roles.
In the area of example, Francis educates us with experiences such as his visit to Iraq. The United States chose the logic of military occupation to try to address the reality in that region. The results have been very unsatisfactory, obviously. The Holy Father shows us during his visit that there is another way: one of encounter, dialogue, and compassion. Furthermore, Francis showed through rapprochement with an Ayatollah that a new beginning is possible. Freedom is a mystery. After the papal visit, nothing is assured. But now everything has been questioned and we are invited to embark on a new path. And that, in the current context, is very significant.
Q—One issue where Pope Francis has recently been questioned is vaccines. There are individuals and groups who have deliberately spread misinformation and confusion, both scientific and doctrinal. Can the Pope and the Church clearly articulate the reasons for the Church’s teaching in this area?
RG—It is understandable that some consciences are somewhat perplexed about the issue of vaccines in the context of the pandemic. Some vaccines use cell lines from fetuses that were aborted several decades ago in their testing or production process. The HEK 293 cell line was produced from cells taken from an aborted fetus in 1972. And PRC.C6 originated from cells from another abortion carried out in 1985. The perplexity is also explainable in light of the strong campaign carried out by some against the Holy Father and the Magisterium of the Church. Successfully teaching the Church’s doctrine on this subject rests on whether we can patiently explain the difference between formal and material cooperation with evil, as well as the question of proximate or remote cooperation. These are very traditional questions in moral theology. There is no innovation whatsoever here. Regarding the science, some have been saying quite odd things—for example, that the vaccine will change us into “transgenic” beings, or that the vaccines should not be used because they are still in the “experimental” phase. It is a good thing to resolve all these doubts with charity and clarity. However, quite often, even after explanations, there is still resistance because deep down there is another problem going on, in the heart.
Q—What is the problem you are referring to?
RG—If in order to follow the Church’s moral teaching on vaccines, we all had to reach a degree of expert knowledge in biomedical science and moral theology, we would be in trouble. The Church does not ask for that. The Church provides space for expert scientific advice at the highest levels in the world to help us understand complex phenomena such as the pandemic. For example, there is the constant work of the Pontifical Academies. However, it is clear that developing scientific or theological arguments require a great deal of study. The teaching of the Church—although it is the fruit of years and years of patient study and research—demands our obedience for another reason: because Jesus made Peter the rock of his Church. He gave him the keys and instituted Peter as Shepherd of all the flock. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles is part of the foundation of the Church and is a matter of faith. It is a matter of fidelity to Jesus and of fidelity to the way Jesus founded the Church.
Q—Why is it so hard to follow Pope Francis? Many Catholics that once followed and defended him are the ones who sometimes attack and criticize him today. What’s going on?
RG—In previous conversations I have dared to say that weak thinking, irrationality, and nihilism have entered into the Church and that today this particularly inhabits the ultra-conservative sectors of the Church. The radical conservatism of our times has created a pseudo-orthodoxy that is not in communion with the Church and the Pope. This pseudo-orthodoxy is anti-sacramental, that is, it is contrary to sensible concreteness.
It fails to look at the concrete flesh of the real Church, at the People of God who walk in history, the mystery of Christ. It fails to see in the providential Pope Francis the true Universal Pastor, preferring pseudo-prophets—dissident bishops, private revelations without Church approval, or video-preachers who proclaim the apocalypse every third day. There will be a moment when this false orthodoxy breaks down and hits rock bottom.
Q—How will it hit rock bottom?
RG—Normally those who attack Francis take refuge in the pre-conciliar Magisterium. They often believe that the popes of the past are safer, more assertive, and clearer than the pope of the present. It seems that it would be good to remind them that Saint Pius X, referring to himself and his successors, said:
“When we love the Pope, there are no discussions regarding what he orders or demands, or up to what point obedience must go, and in what things he is to be obeyed; when we love the Pope, we do not say that he has not spoken clearly enough, almost as if he were forced to repeat to the ear of each one the will clearly expressed so many times not only in person, but with letters and other public documents; we do not place his orders in doubt, adding the facile pretext of those unwilling to obey – that it is not the Pope who commands, but those who surround him; we do not limit the field in which he might and must exercise his authority; we do not set above the authority of the Pope that of other persons, however learned, who dissent from the Pope, who, even though learned, are not holy, because whoever is holy cannot dissent from the Pope.” (Pope St. Pius X, Allocution Vi ringrazio to priests on the 50th anniversary of the Apostolic Union, quoted here).
This paragraph does not encompass the entire theology of the Petrine ministry. It is very brief. It might even seem authoritarian. It should be enriched with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. However, these lines do explain something very well: the pope, whoever he is, is the Successor of Peter. If you love the Church, you love the pope. Not the “papacy” in the abstract, but the current pope in particular. Following a pope who is in alignment with my interests is very comfortable. Following a pope who corrects and educates me is more difficult, but it is better. He is the true Vicar of Christ.
Q—What, then, do we celebrate on each anniversary of the election of a Pontiff?
RG—I think that fundamentally what we should celebrate and be grateful for is the providence of God. He gave us Jorge Bergoglio, even though we don’t deserve him. The Holy Father is a “Kairos,” a moment of grace, for the universal Church. His fatherhood is an eloquent sign of how much patience God has for us and how much future lies ahead—for all, and especially, for the poorest who look to him as an authentic witness of Jesus Christ. Likewise, celebrating the anniversary of an election is celebrating Mary. She especially supports each Pope in his ministry, as Hans Urs von Balthasar explained in his book The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (1974) a book that is necessary to return to from time to time.
Image: Pope Francis, © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk. Via Flickr Creative Commons.