As we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the election of Jorge Bergoglio to the Holy See of Rome, I’d like to look back on some of the major contributions of his pontificate to date. I’ve identified seven: dialogue and synodality, pastoral accompaniment of remarried and LGBT Catholics, the consistent ethic of life, tightening up doctrine on the death penalty, tightening up just war theory, creation and ecology, and restricting the unreformed Latin Mass.
Dialogue and synodality
Perhaps more than anything else, Pope Francis has emphasized dialogue and synodality as the modus vivendi of the Church. The Church is not just its pastors, but the whole People of God. As such, pastors need to listen to one another, to the laity, and to the broader world in which we live (see John 17:16; Gaudium et Spes 1). This is synodality—walking together— the subject of the upcoming synods of bishops. As with the rest of his papacy, Francis is implementing the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (see Lumen Gentium, chapters 2 and 3).
Dialogue and listening feature prominently in Francis’s first major teaching document, Evangelii Gaudium (the joy of the Gospel), which has served as a blueprint for his papacy. The reigning pre-conciliar theology saw the Church as a “perfect society,” entrusted with all saving truth. It was the Church’s duty to proclaim this truth without wavering or compromise, “in season or out of season” (2 Tim 4:2) to a sinful and ignorant world. The Church was the teacher in the mode of a lecturer; it was everyone else’s job to listen and obey. Further, in this overly hierarchical view, the Church was virtually identified with bishops and priests.
Following the lead of Vatican II and Pope St. Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (To Proclaim the Gospel), Pope Francis inverts this pyramidal structure by emphasizing the laity. Far from minimizing the proclamation of saving truth, this approach encourages it. The truth is the Person of Jesus Christ: “The truth of faith is not an abstract theory, but the reality of the living Christ” (General Audience, Oct 6, 2021; cf. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est 1) The reason God has gathered his Church in the first place is to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom. This proclamation is the task of all the baptized, not just ordained priests. We laypeople are also priests (1 Peter 2:9; Lumen Gentium 9-10). We proclaim the truth of Christ, not with speeches and sermons but with the witness of our lives. As St. Paul VI said, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 41).
A good teacher dialogues with their students. Dialogue includes both speaking and listening. As such the teaching Church must also be a listening Church. Internally, this means that priests, bishops, and even the pope himself (the bishop of Rome) need to listen to the laity. They should not pretend that they have all the answers (see Gaudium et Spes 16; 33). We live in a constantly changing world. The hierarchy needs the expertise of professional laypeople, such as lawyers, doctors, teachers, theologians, bankers, musicians, architects, and so on. They should delegate responsibility and authority for governance wherever and whenever they judge it useful. In his nine-years-in-the-making reform of the Roman Curia, Pope Francis has now allowed laypeople to head offices (Praedicate Evangelium 5). This listening, crucially, also means listening to criticism and complaints from laypeople, which Pope Francis has said he welcomes.
Synodality and dialogue are particularly important for the college of bishops. Under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, the bishops are collectively responsible for overseeing the Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium 22). The Vatican does not have all the answers, nor does it know local situations. The role of the Roman curia is not to lord over the bishops of the world, or even to direct them, but to assist them. Bishops’ conferences play an important role. This is why, for example, Francis empowered them to approve liturgical translations on their own, without needing Vatican approval (Magnum Principium).
Synods are a particular manifestation of synodality. These are gatherings of bishops, priests, and/or laity, at which everyone listens to “what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:22). Synods only make sense if one does not assume everyone already has all the solutions to every problem and question. Synods are a chance for bishops from different regions, with different experiences and charisms, to listen to one another as well as the laity. The goal is for more informed and better decision making. God’s Holy Spirit has been powered out over all the faithful, distributing different gifts to different members for the upbuilding of the one Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12).
Pastoral accompaniment of remarried and LGBT people
Pope Francis has taught that remarried Catholics can “in certain cases” receive the sacraments (Amoris Laetitia 305, note 301). This decision was the culmination of a years-long synodal process of discernment. Cardinal Walter Kasper, at the pope’s direction, suggested that some remarried Catholics could be formally re-admitted to Holy Communion without receiving an annulment. Although many bishops agreed with this, many others did not. It was the German-language group of bishops at the second synod on the family that came up with an “internal forum” solution to which both sides agreed. Canon law would not be changed, because the Church teaches that people in objectively adulterous unions (even if partially or completely inculpable) cannot receive Holy Communion because “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (Familiaris Consortio 84).
Nevertheless, a case-by-case pastoral discernment, within the context of spiritual direction and the sacrament of penance and confession, can recognize certain situations of conscience in which the spouses are subjectively inculpable, or at least not fully culpable (see Amoris Laetitia 298-308). The underlying theological principle here is gradualism, which means that people make moral progress slowly and not all at once. Frequent reception of Holy Communion helps us in this process, as we move ever closer to the objective demands of the Gospel and moral law. As Pope Francis (citing St. Ambrose) loves to say: the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (Evangelii Gaudium 47). We are all unworthy of Holy Communion because we are all sinners (cf. Romans 3:23). That’s why we say at Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy.”
Francis’s accommodation of civilly remarried Catholics also extends to LGBT Catholics. He has made many remarks on this subject. He desires to embrace them and remind them that they are part of the Church. This does not at all require us to change our teaching that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Pope Francis made his position on the inclusion of LGBT people in the first year of his papacy when he said:
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. (A Big Heart Open to God)
One recent example of Pope Francis’s outreach to the LGBT community is when he said that parents must not shun their children who are gay. They should embrace their LGBT children with love, as Jesus embraced all. He also recently stated that homosexuality is not a crime.
The consistent ethic of life
An error has grown up in some parts of the Catholic Church, which says that abortion is the “preeminent” sin against human life. Protecting human life is indeed the preeminent issue of social justice for which the Church must fight. Abortion is one of several grave offenses against life. Francis has repeatedly stressed in no uncertain terms that Catholics must advocate for the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. This includes working to restrict and reduce abortion. It equally includes protecting the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. It includes stopping wars. It includes the global abolition of the death penalty. This is the consistent ethic of life and is the authentic doctrine of the Catholic Church, as taught by Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. A single quotation from Francis states the teaching clearly:
Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm, and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.
We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? (Gaudete et Exsultate 101-102)
No educated Catholic can credibly claim to be “confused” by this teaching, given how clearly and emphatically it has been stated by the papal magisterium.
Closing of the death penalty loophole
Part of the consistent ethic of life is the Church’s call for the abolition of the death penalty. John Paul II taught against the death penalty in his groundbreaking encyclical Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of life), in which he paired it with abortion and war. So profound was John Paul II’s contribution to the development of doctrine on this point that it required the corresponding section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2265-67) to be completely rewritten.
Francis furthered this doctrinal development in 2017 and 2018. His main contribution was to refocus opposition to the death penalty on the growing recognition of the intrinsic and inviolable dignity of all human life. While that theme can also be found in John Paul II’s teachings, his main point was that modern methods of punishment render the death penalty unnecessary. This created a “loophole” whereby some people claimed that particular instances of the death penalty were somehow “necessary” and therefore compatible with Catholic doctrine. While these arguments rang hollow, they provided cover to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty. Francis closed this loophole by stating explicitly and unequivocally that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This teaching is found in the now twice-revised paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Refinement of just war tradition
Similarly, Francis has narrowed the criteria for just war. While it’s often been speculated that Pope Francis will write a document endorsing Christian pacifism, he has never done so. On the contrary, his most recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti affirms just war theory. In doing so, however, he narrows it, making it clear that war is almost never just: “It is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war.” Never again war!” (Fratelli Tutti 258) The cry “Never again war!” was famously said by Paul VI in his address to the United Nations.
Specifically, Pope Francis teaches that redressing an injustice is not a valid cause for war. In the traditional theory, any sufficiently grave violation of justice could fulfill the requirement that a war have a just cause. This would not automatically allow for a war, but it was one of several necessary criteria. For Francis, self-defense is the only legitimate reason to engage in war. For example, if one country invades another, the invaded country has a just cause to fight back to liberate themselves. The other criteria, such as proportionality and ius in bello also still apply.
Creation and ecology
Another prominent theme of Francis’s papacy has been care for creation. He wrote a whole encyclical about it, Laudato Si’ (Praised be). Francis teaches that we all have a moral obligation to take care of the world, because it is “our common home.” When God tells Adam in Genesis 2:15 to “till the earth and keep it,” it symbolizes a command to all of humanity. We must both “till” the earth, which means to cultivate it to create food and get what we need to survive, but also “keep” it, that is, protect it, preserve it, and save it from exploitation (Laudato Si’ 66-67). “Our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” (ibid. 116). “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations” (ibid. 67). Exploiting the natural environment for pleasure, profit, or luxury is a sin. The gravity of the sin increases when it hurts other communities. It is always the poor, such as the communities of the Amazon, who suffer the most from the indifference and greed of wealthy nations.
Francis has said that the Catechism should be revised to include ecological sins. These include excessive use of air conditioning, forms of pollution, throw-away culture (constantly throwing out good things because we want something newer), food waste, deforestation, and overuse of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. Francis’s concern for the environment is not centered on trees and animals – though these are also part of God’s glorious plan (Laudato Si’ 33) – but our poorer brothers and sisters. They are the ones most severely and unjustly affected by climate change, pollution, and other ecological sins.
Suppression of the Tridentine Mass
Finally, Pope Francis has become (in)famous for his suppression of the pre-Vatican II Mass. He abrogated Benedict XVI’s decree Summorum Pontificum, which allowed any priest to celebrate the old Mass. Essentially, Francis declared this a failed experiment. Instead of leading to the mutual enrichment of two different forms of the Roman rite, the older form was being abused as a rallying point for opposition to the Second Vatican Council. Francis rescinded Benedict’s permission, reverting to the status quo under Paul VI and John Paul II: each bishop can decide — within the authority granted to them by the Church’s universal norms — to what extent to allow the older form, and even then only in chapels, not parish churches. Francis’s stated goal is to have all Latin Rite Catholics worship together with the reformed Roman Rite called for by Vatican II. This reformed Mass, he teaches, is “the unique expression of the lex orandi [law of praying] of the Roman Rite” (Traditionis Custodes 1). While the severity of his decision surprised almost everyone, Francis’s reasoning is solid. He feels it is his duty, as Bishop of Rome, to ensure the full implementation of the Second Vatican Council. The Council demanded, for good theological reasons, that the Church’s rituals be reformed (Sacrosanctum Concilium, chapter 1).
Pope Francis has done many important things, but I think these seven represent his most important contributions to the Church so far. Happy anniversary, Holy Father! Ad multos annos!
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Dr. Rasmussen is a Religious Studies teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, MD. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).