Pope Francis – Introduction to his theological thinking

On March 13, 2013, the previous Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected Pope and took the name „Francis“. Since then, his person has enjoyed uninterrupted public interest. In Germany, this quickly focuses on keywords such as „curial reform“ and „pastoral ministry of mercy“, as well as the unconventional style of the pope. There are reports of his symbolic actions such as the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday or his visit to Lampedusa and his impressive sermons. A pope who appears to constantly criticize the Church and its representatives and who consistently violates Vatican practice inevitably attracts attention. In the meantime, however, the critical voices are also increasing: Will Francis really be a reform pope? Do his announcements also result in concrete implementations? Will the Pope really change doctrine and organization? The more or less well-informed Vaticanisti, who see the Pope in a power struggle with the Curia (a pattern that was already used with pleasure for John XXXIII. or Paul VI.), have long since spoken up. On the other hand, Vatican insiders emphasize that Francis is in full continuity with his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. can be seen and seamlessly continue their tradition. Which interpretation is correct? In other words, “How does Pope Francis think”? What to expect from his pontificate?

Beyond the journalistic pope-bestsellers, the calendar of sayings, interviews and newspaper reports, one thing is striking: the extensive silence of the theologians. So far, at least in the German-speaking world, there have only been a few publications that deal with theological hermeneutics, i.e. with the development of the theological foundations on which Jorge Bergoglio’s thinking is based, apart from certain current partial questions. It seems that there is a certain helplessness about this. There are reasons for this helplessness:

Firstly, little is known about the theological writings of the Jesuit priest and later Bishop Bergoglio. In stark contrast to his predecessor, his Vita does not show any relevant academic work. As head of the Jesuit seminary and the San Miguel College in Buenos Aires, he only published a few articles in the company’s own magazine, Stromata. His doctoral dissertation, which he began in 1986, is never completed, and even little of his sermons and speeches from his time as a bishop has been recorded in writing.

The second reason for the helplessness lies in the unfamiliarity with his Argentine theological environment. While in Germany the liberation theology of South America is known and intensively discussed through the writings of Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez, through Oscar Romero, Dom Helder Camara or Ernesto Cardenal, the Argentine branch of the so-called „teologia del pueblo“ remains rather unknown.

Thirdly, in his teachings, in his countless speeches and interviews, Pope Francis constantly mixes content and genres, which is unusual for Western European traditions, so that it is difficult to distinguish what is didactic, what is catechetical, what binding and what is non-binding.

So how does Pope Francis think? During the writing of my dissertation, I became aware of this question when I tried to reconstruct theologically the Pope’s image of the Church. In doing so, I came across the leading representatives of the Argentine „teologia del pueblo“ and also the central documents of the Latin American episcopal assemblies. In my opinion, these sources shed a little more light on the attested darkness. As part of this article, I would therefore like to present a few basic insights that I gained during my research work. I will do this in two parts. First, I would like to acquaint you with a few insights from the teologia del pueblo. Then I will go into a few basic lines in the theological thinking of the current pope. The question: “How does Francis think” can of course only be answered by Francis himself. But I hope to be able to give at least a few suggestions for a better understanding of the Pope.

Teologia del pueblo – some insights

In the search for formative theological influences, Daniel Deckers‘ biography of the Pope, which is well worth reading, refers to three Argentine personalities with whom Jorge Bergoglio obviously feels very connected: Lucio Gera, one of the founding figures of the theology of liberation is also considered the father of the „teologia del pueblo“, its specifically Argentinian expression. Cardinal Bergoglio awarded Gera the honorary title „Maestro de teologia“. Bergoglio met Rafael Tello for the first time at a faith course for young people. At that time, Tello was the spiritual companion of the „Catholic student youth“ and in 1958 became a professor at the theological faculty in Buenos Aires. In a dispute with the archbishop at the time, he gave up his priestly office and his teaching activities and continued to develop the approaches of the „teologia del pueblo“ as a private citizen. As a bishop, Bergoglio is committed to his rehabilitation and is more likely to meet Tello more often for private conversations. A long-standing friendship connects Bergoglio with the philosopher and confrere Juan Carlos Scannone. They work together in San Miguel. Some far-reaching thematic affinities between Scannone’s writings and those of the Pope suggest a close exchange of content between the two.

The basic approach of the „teologia del pueblo“ is developed by Lucio Gera. In Gera’s understanding, theology is not a purely speculative science. It is always tied to a specific place and time and has a pastoral purpose: how can the Christian message be communicated in the context of its life, in the life of the “people” and what are the practical consequences of this? Theology does not start from universal philosophical principles, but begins with the perception and reflection of the situation in which the theologian is placed. Successful pastoral care begins with the concrete circumstances. As Walter Kasper makes clear, liberation theology as a whole differs from a theology of European character through this basic feature. An aversion to “pure” thinking, in which theology develops from philosophy, i.e. theoretically, which is also pre-influenced by the experience of the colonial past, is consistently formative for the Latin American approach. Theology always arises against the background of the experience of the concrete context of life and the lived faith. Theology is never an end in itself, but serves practical application. The aim of church action is the evangelizing and socially active, as well as socially changing practice of the church and the individual Christians. At Gera, too, the perception of the concrete reality of life and faith is at the beginning. In Gera, the established “folk religiosity” stands for the latter. The reflection of what is perceived leads to the differentiation (“discernimento”) of its inherent values and deficits. The ever new challenges that the Church has to face over time challenge her creativity and willingness to change, without however forgetting the core of her faith and her own tradition. Belief is the first norm in the process of discerning and evaluating popular religiosity. In addition, not only the religious actions in the narrower sense are to be observed, but also their connection to daily life in all its facets. For this it is necessary not only to observe the people, but to share their way of life. An “affective identification” is required, which makes real understanding possible in the first place.

This means that a key keyword, namely “popular religiosity” or “popular wisdom” has already been mentioned. In his reflections, Juan Carlos Scannone starts from the category of “culture”. Culture is the basis on which the Christian message is understood and lived. Human culture, i.e. their values, beliefs and way of living and organizing the community, has a historical and a social side. For Latin America, according to Scannone and Tello, this means that its culture has evolved from the mixing of the indigenous populations with their cultural values and the culture of the European conquerors and immigrants. This is where Latin America differs from other cultural areas. As specifically Latin American, Scannone characterizes a deep-rooted sense of nature, a reverence for the sacred, and a strong sense of family and community. From this often unconscious cultural rooting springs certain commonly shared values, cultural practices, narratives, and a kind of natural religiosity. This can be called „folk wisdom“. In Latin America, the Christian faith is organically combined with the cultural background. It is precisely the simple people who particularly absorb the elements of faith that correspond to their cultural background. Popular religiosity, in which, for example, the idea of the motherly earth is combined with a pronounced devotion to Mary, testifies to the living Christian faith. The task of theology and the Church is to organically combine the lived and experienced wisdom of the people with the message of Holy Scripture and the Church tradition. It helps to reflect in a Christian way what was known beforehand and to make it conscious. In a circle, popular wisdom also repeatedly questions the Church’s proclamation, so that evangelization is not a process from above, in the sense of imparting knowledge, but a process of mutual listening, reflection and practice. Now, however, the “folk wisdom” is under threat. Scannone, but also Tello, distinguishes between those who preserve the cultural identity of the people and those who want to destroy it from the outside. They distinguish between „pueblo“ and „anti-pueblo“. Accordingly, all tendencies that attack the natural relationship to creation, religion and community are destructive for South America. These include uninhibited capitalism and consumption, individualism, environmental destruction, exploitation or ideas that question the family and solidary community. Against these tendencies, cultural unity must be defended and preserved.

For Rafael Tello, the fight for liberation is essentially a fight for the values of an original culture of the people. Only in it does the Latin American Christian find his ancestral place. A real evangelization under the auspices of „modern culture“ that has lost touch with the people and their values is out of the question. Tello is also critical of what he calls “ecclesiastical culture”, the creation of internal church spaces. In them, the central concern of evangelization is limited to their own clientele. This is a third central aspect of the „Argentinian school“. She is always concerned with the evangelization of the entire culture, of the entire people, not with an internal church project.

For Tello, there are basically three forces or principles for evangelization. On the one hand, the principle that “the people evangelize the people” works. Passing on the inculturated faith to future generations creates a grassroots “self-evangelization” that can evolve and change over time. As a second principle, Tello understands that „the Church evangelizes the people“. In this way of acting, the evangelizing activity emanates from the Church and meets the people as „recipients“. In the third principle, the „Church helps the people in evangelization“. In doing so, the church orientates itself on the existing religious resources of the people and supports them in carrying out “self-evangelization”. The role of the Church is therefore to be at the side of the people and learning from them, helping them in the process of evangelization through reflection, Christian communion and theological mediation. The „people’s pastoral care“ arises from intensive contact and an unconditional devotion to the people in their concrete situation. Since the work of evangelization is culture-dependent, the church, as a universal entity, must take cultures into account. It errs when it takes one particular cultural model as the yardstick for all others.

The approach of the Argentine „teologia del pueblo“ with its keywords „culture“, „evangelization“ and „folk wisdom“ characterizes the final document of the Latin American Bishops‘ Assembly of Aparecida in 2007. The main editor of the text is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Aparecida’s document forms the blueprint for the later apostolic exhortation „Evangelii gaudium“ and for parts of the encyclical „Laudato sii“. That brings us to Pope Francis.

Pope Francis

tarting from the „Argentine school“, I would like to point out three characteristic features of Pope Francis‘ thought. At the same time, I would like to draw your attention to some misunderstandings that can arise when transferring the Latin American approach to the European context.

The first point concerns the idea of „folk wisdom“. When Francis, after his election, addresses his first words to the assembled crowd in St. Peter’s Square on the loggia, he makes a much-noted gesture. Before he blesses the people as bishop, he allows himself to be blessed by the assembled people. This gesture not only emphasizes the bishop’s communion with the people, but also has another meaning. Francis is concerned with the bishop learning from the people and the people learning from the bishop. In the sense of „folk wisdom“, the lived faith of the people is a source of knowledge for theology and thus also for the „pastoral service“ of bishops and priests. However, and this seems to me to be a common misunderstanding, this has nothing to do with a Western understanding of „democracy“. It is not about the current opinions and positions of believers to be determined in elections, votes and sociological surveys, to which theology and magisterium then adapt. Rather, it is about the original content of a Christian culture. The „teologia del pueblo“ trusts that people intuitively grasp and live the true cultural values. Something like a natural theology is supposed to result from them. As a reminder, the Argentine school distinguishes between a natural culture and a hostile counterculture. Pope Francis is exactly in this line. On the one hand he has respect and admiration for the life lived and the religiosity lived by the believers, on the other hand he sharply attacks the signs of the „counterculture“. This can be found in almost all of his writings. Criticism of capitalism, of environmental destruction, of the lack of solidarity in society, of consumption and individualization belong exactly in this direction, as does his criticism of gender philosophy, for which he received so much incomprehension in Germany. He sees the central task of the church as taking a stand in the distinction between culture and counterculture. He therefore criticizes the leading organs and people of the church particularly sharply if, in his opinion, they have adapted too much to the hostile counterculture and worry too much about their own free time, the clerical separation from normal believers, about power or consumption.

In his speech to the European Parliament, he makes the cultural question particularly clear using an example: The „School of Athens“, Raphael’s famous fresco in the Vatican Museums, shows Plato pointing to heaven and Aristotle pointing to earth in the middle of the picture . Aristotle stands for the contemplation of earthly reality, Plato for the human ability to transcend. Reality must be interpreted in the light of human transcendence in order not to fall into a false and harmful momentum. “Thus, to speak of the transcendent dignity of man is to appeal to his nature, to his innate ability to discern good from evil, to that ‚compass‘ written in our hearts and which God imprints on the created universe God has enabled man to recognize what a good culture that does justice to man must be like. Europe, as the Pope puts it, is in danger of losing its original cultural character to the evil spirit of a counterculture. In doing so, he basically continues the critical assessment of European development that also shaped his predecessors.

The second point concerns the conspicuous pastoral aspect of the Pope’s preaching. In many controversial issues, whether it is about contraception, homosexuality or divorced people remarried, the pope never answers with a clear „no“ or „yes“, but always starts from the concrete situation and then indicates that there is a or other case there may be exceptions to the rule. As the fire letter from four cardinals on the interpretation of “Amoris laetita” recently showed, this behavior is interpreted as if the pope wanted to change the teachings of the church. As is further speculated, he does not yet dare to make clear regulations for some reason. I suspect this is also a misunderstanding. One of the tenets of the „Argentine School“ is the synergy of pastoral care and teaching. It is about two principles:

a) Concrete life cannot be grasped in all facets due to the clarity of church regulations. The pope repeatedly evades those who, in the good German tradition, want clarity by pointing to the gray area of concrete pastoral questions. It is therefore possible that certain situations cannot be answered by rules alone. Precisely the pastoral tact allows the pastor to dispense with the strict application of theological principles and rules in the interests of promoting evangelization. However, this does not mean that these are therefore invalidated.

b) The Pope refers to the hierarchy of truths. Everything the Church does is subordinate to the goal of successful evangelization. In order for faith to grow, other questions of morality or law can take a back seat in cases of doubt.

The third point concerns the „reform“ complex. A reform of the curia and more leeway for the local bishops and bishops‘ conferences are part of the standard repertoire of liberal criticism of the church in Germany. But I don’t think the Pope’s primary concern is a redistribution of power and influence. His endeavor is probably more related to the question of culture. As we have seen, one of the basic ideas of the „teologia del pueblo“ is that the respective culture, or also the cultural area, is the dispositive, i.e. the basic condition on which evangelization occurs. It is not about shaping individual believers in a Christian way, but entire peoples and cultures. That is why the transmission of faith is only possible effectively in the interplay of culture, “popular religiosity”, pastoral work, theology and church practice. The reform of the Church has only one goal: „that all become more missionary“, as the Pope says in „Evangelii Gaudium“. In order to achieve this, it is particularly important, with a view to the whole church, that the plurality of cultural areas come into play. In a scientific article from 1984, Jorge Bergoglio deals with this question. It applies to him to avoid the extremes of a dead unity as well as an unrestrained pluralism. For him it can be said that the incarnated truth of Christ remains open to different interpretations. Because divine love is inexhaustible, a “maximum of unity” in the church also requires a “maximum of differences” among its members. The truth is symphonic. For Francis, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to enable “unity in diversity”. The image he uses for this type of entity is the „polyhedron“. It stands for the contribution of as many people as possible, even if this contribution is at different distances from the center of truth. Thus, it also includes the still imperfect perspectives, especially those of the poor, who can also make their contribution. In Scannone’s reading, the image of the polyhedron is at the same time an expression of the Pope’s view of the universal Church. The one people of God is culturally polyform.

For Francis, reform primarily means enabling the greatest possible participation. For him, the image of a church is participatory and evangelizing. It needs the contribution of all parts and organs of the church. It is therefore questionable whether Pope Francis is able to prescribe binding regulations for the whole Church under these conditions. He probably doesn’t even want to. His theological thinking is different from what we are familiar with in Europe.




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