While well-educated and academically trained, it can be said that Pope Francis does not belong to any one “school.” He is not strictly an “Augustinian” or a “Thomist,” though he cites Aquinas quite liberally. However, one person to whom we can likely grant a place of honor is Romano Guardini, to whom Francis devoted his doctoral studies. Guardini, of course, was one of the great thinkers of the early 20th century whose work heavily influenced the theology underlying the Second Vatican Council and many other prominent Catholic theologians.

Italian-born, Guardini grew up in Germany where he had a special role in the formation of young Pope Benedict XVI. Coincidentally, therefore, Guardini’s influence can be felt in both Pope Benedict’s and Pope Francis’ writing. Many of the contributions Francis has made to the Church are substantively in continuity with this school of thought that can be traced from Benedict and Communio through Paul VI and Vatican II to Guardini.

Three main themes from Guardini’s writings that can be found in the thought of Pope Francis are the importance of individual relationships (“I-thou”); theonomy; and the locus of faith being the Church.  

(I apologize in advance for the lengthy and frequent quotations. My goal here was to show development and overlap, not write a book. I hope the selected passages help to illustrate for the reader some commonalities between Pope Francis and Guardini. In various places, I’ve added commentary to explain or show how Francis’s teachings are supported by the underlying theology.)  

Like Guardini, Francis understands the human person in terms of “I-Thou.” As he writes in Laudato Si’, if we get relationships right, then, and only then, can we get the world right (cf. LS, 119). Ultimately, this means never “weaken[ing]… the transcendent dimension of our openness to the “Thou” of God.”  But it also means recognizing the inherent dignity in each person, “each of whom is a ‘thou’ capable of knowing, loving, and entering into dialogue.”

Dr. Robert A. Krieg, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who has published several books on Roman Guardini, writes,

[In Guardini’s view] to be a human person is to be one who relates to oneself and at the same time enters into mutual relationships with other human beings and God. These two aspects of human life are united, Guardini said, as a person lives in an ‘I-thou’ relationship with God. Each human being, he asserted, is called to discover that “my being an ‘I’ has come about because God is my ‘Thou’.

God’s invites us to recognize that he is the author of our life; he is the one who created us to be an “I”. Or in the words of Francis:

The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a “Thou” who addresses himself to another “thou”. The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object.

Dr. Krieg extends his discussion on Guardini’s understanding of “I-Thou” to include theonomy (placing authority in God), which he explicitly contrasts with heteronomy (placing authority in other secular and merely human institutions or persons) and autonomy (placing authority solely within oneself). Dr Krieg writes,

Guardini enriched Christian humanism by asserting that personal existence must be governed by theonomy. Each woman or man should recognize God as the only absolute authority for human life, and in turn the living God will set each human being free to become a whole person, one who is an ‘I’ within ‘I-thou’ relationships.

Theonomy, therefore, occurring within the context of that “I-Thou” relationship, is not a matter of domination over the individual that would annihilate the “I” but of invitation to deeper relationship. To reject God’s rule, or to supplant God with oneself or other human beings, ultimately means one’s own self-destruction. Accordingly, Pope Francis immediately follows his discussion on relationships in Laudato Si’ with this passage, affirming God’s primacy:

The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things.

Theonomy can be found elsewhere, such as in Amoris Laetitia: “The law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception.” In Amoris Laetitia, specifically, theonomy is something that occurs within the “I-Thou” relationship.

Pope Francis writes:

The International Theological Commission has noted that “natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”. Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.

This passage, to which the infamous footnote is attached suggesting the possibility of the Eucharist and Reconciliation for the divorced and remarried, expresses a fundamental aspect of Francis’ theology: God is working within each person (i.e., within the context of an “I-Thou” relationship) to bring that person into the fullness of his life. The teachings and practices of the Church, and even the natural law, do not exist to define or mediate that relationship between God and man but to help reveal it for the individual and guide it to its perfection in God. Francis writes,

It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.

The teachings and doctrines of the Church point the way and guide our actions; they show what is good and how to live out our salvation (cf. CCC 1955). But God rules us totally and completely in our daily lives with a deep, personal, and sacrificial love.

The law of God that rules us is ultimately the law of mercy, God’s act of reaching out to each of us for our salvation. As Francis writes in Misericordiae Vultus, the bull opening the Jubilee of Mercy:

“We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”

Therefore, the Church’s first and ultimate mission is to extend the mercy of God to each person and to help each make the most generous possible response. Mercy, as given by God through the Church, is the “bridge” upon which we build holy lives. In Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis writes, “Seeing and acting with mercy: that is holiness.”  

Francis, in Gaudete et Exsultate provides further insights, after explaining the Church’s teaching on justification being the free gift of God:  

Only on the basis of God’s gift, freely accepted and humbly received, can we cooperate by our own efforts in our progressive transformation.

The long quote from Dr. Krieg below further develops Guardini’s thought, from theonomy to a faith that occurs within the context of the Church:

Guardini held that theonomy is a way of life undertaken within the Church, which itself is called by God to be a community that safeguards and strengthens the distinct, yet interconnected dimensions of a person’s life. When the Church is true to itself, it nurtures women and men as they become both knowing subjects and social beings. To put it another way, Guardini rejected Sören Kierkegaard’s view that theonomy requires a wholly private act of faith. Although he drew on Kierkegaard’s thought, he could not accept the Danish philosopher’s devaluation of Christian beliefs communal aspect. Guardini maintained that “a person goes to the Father only through Christ, and one sees Christ properly only within the space of the Church as oriented by the Holy Spirit.” But he immediately added, “Of course, the Church is not identical with a single part of the hierarchy, or with a particular theological school, or with a conventional way of doing things. It is much more than this; beyond every individual part, there opens the experience of the Church’s totality and essence.” In sum, if human beings intend to become whole persons, they must participate in the community of believers.  

Pope Francis explicitly calls to mind this very principle in Lumen Fidei, shortly after quoting Guardini. Francis writes,

Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others.

Church is not just the collection of individuals that share similar beliefs. Faith comes from hearing, specifically the Church who has been a witness to the mercy of Christ and who proclaims that “good word” to the world. We have faith because of the Church and grow in faith through the Church.

Similarly, Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium,

No one is saved by himself or herself, individually, or by his or her own efforts. God attracts us by taking into account the complex interweaving of personal relationships entailed in the life of a human community.

While not exhaustive, these are just a few instances in which the rich theology of Romano Guardini, developed over many decades and in response to perilous conditions (e.g., the rise and fall of the Third Reich), overlaps with the thought of Francis. While uniquely his own, Francis’ theology builds on the legacy left by Guardini, especially as expressed through Vatican II and Paul VI. It may be worth a book or a few dozen on how that theology can be traced through time as it has unfolded within the context of modernity and in the papacy of Pope Francis. Bishop Barron gives it a go in a short article, showing how Guardini has specifically influenced Francis with regards to creation.  For here, suffice it to say, Francis is a part of this Vatican II tradition which we may ascribe, at least in part, to Guardini.


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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.

Romano Guardini: A Brief Introduction to the Theology of Pope Francis
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