Theology of Pope Francis

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Pope Francis
Papacy began13 March 2013
PredecessorBenedict XVI
Ordination13 December 1969
by Ramón José Castellano
Consecration27 June 1992
by Antonio Quarracino
Created cardinal21 February 2001
by John Paul II
Personal details
Birth nameJorge Mario Bergoglio
Born (1936-12-17) 17 December 1936 (age 82)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
NationalityArgentine with Vatican citizenship
Previous postProvincial Superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina (1973–1979)
Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires (1992–1997)
Titular Bishop of Auca (1992–1997)
Archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998–2013)
Cardinal-Priest of St. Roberto Bellarmino (2001–2013)
Ordinary of the Ordinariate for the Faithful of the Eastern Rites in Argentina (1998–2013)
President of the Argentine Episcopal Conference (2005–2011)
MottoMiserando atque Eligendo
Mercifully choosing him
SignaturePope Francis's signature
Coat of armsPope Francis's coat of arms

Theology of Pope Francis is a description of his pronouncements and statements on Christian beliefs and practices. This article deals with salient features, what has been most noted during his pontificate as distinct from his time as Jesuit provincial or as archbishop in Argentina. He is the first member of the Society of Jesus to be appointed Pope of the Catholic Church, elected on 13 March 2013.

Francis has been described as being in close continuity with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). With Vatican II, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "the monopoly exercised by neo-Thomists in the church collapsed" and Christianity increased its appeal to non-Western cultures.[1] He has been popular with people across religious lines[2] from the start of his papacy.[3]

Through much of Francis' thought there is an insistence on retaining contrasting notions in tension, such as Church doctrine which "must constantly be re-rooted in pastoral realities".[4] The new balance he has struck in Church teaching can be seen in his emphasis on God's merciful love for all people, regardless of religious belief, and his intolerance of triumphalism and smugness in the Church. It appears in the way he handles the various polarities that arise in topic after topic, as regards the Church's mission and leadership, pastoral sense and liturgy, and charity as the foundation for morality and motivation for environmentalism today. Francis has also become known for his "sharp and unscripted remarks".[5]

The apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, released eight months after his election, has been described as his programmatic, "a core document of this pontificate",[6] in his own words "pointing out new paths for the Church's journey for years to come".[7]

Vatican II revisited[edit]

It is suggested that the pontificate of Pope Francis will be looked back upon as the "decisive moment in the history of the church in which the full force of the Second Vatican Council's reformist vision was finally realized".[8]:178 Francis returned to the Vatican II theme of ressourcement, making the church "more faithful to the original sources in scripture and early traditions than to the social, political, and cultural aspects of more recent times".[9]:54 In contrast to John Paul II who emphasized continuity with the past in Vatican II's teachings,[10][11] and reconciling discontinuities, Francis' papacy from the start emphasized discontinuities: a "church that is poor and for the poor"; "disposal of the baroque trappings" in liturgical celebrations; revision of the institutional aspects of the church, and emphasizing mercy; the need to go into the margins of the world, with a bias toward appointing cardinals from the southern hemisphere; and implementing "one of the original proposals of Vatican II" in constituting a council of eight cardinals who would be above the Roman Curia.[9]:32–33

Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick, sees Francis' priorities as: formation of the clergy and laity to be capable of warming peoples' hearts, walking with them, dialoguing, and mending their brokenness; solidarity and collegiality; being in a permanent state of mission, with a maternal heart; and speaking up on social justice issues, for the improvement of society.[12]:97,98

According to the editors of a collection of essays on Francis, "the essence of Francis' theology is formed by a commitment to the poor and the marginalized, and unwillingness to pass moral judgment on others, a dislike of legalism and decrees from on high, and a distrust of monolithic institutions."[12]:xviii Francis is very much at home with Dostoyevsky's phrase, "Beauty will save the world". "He's encouraging the Church to live joyfully in the power of Christ's presence, open to the wisdom of the Spirit."[12]:204–205

The Church's mission[edit]

In Chapter One of Evangelii gaudium on “The Church’s Missionary Transformation”, Pope Francis speaks of his dream of "a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs ... and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation" (EG 27). For Francis, "missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity” (EG15) and it is “the entire People of God which evangelizes” (EG 17), called by their baptism to be missionary disciples (EG 120).[13][14] They should be troubled in conscience that so many, our brothers and sisters, live without the sense of purpose and consolation that come from knowing Jesus Christ and without a faith community for support (EG 49), with a church "too distant from their needs, ... a prisoner of its own rigid formulas".[15] His emphasis on joy (Joy of the Gospel, Rejoice and be glad) "is an antidote to the disenchantment and melancholy of the world today", the joy of "doing good with the aim of reviving the spirit of the church".[16]:15,17

Francis was schooled in the Spiritual Exercises of the Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola[17][18] which immerse one in the life of Jesus to gain “an intimate knowledge of our Lord, ... that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely.”[19]

As regards the Catholic's approach to those of other faiths, he says that "the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes: 'I am talking with you in order to persuade you' ". He calls for dialogue that allows for mutual growth, by attraction.[20] He quotes Vatican II on the Church's continual need for reform (EG 26). He speaks of the Church as "a mother with an open heart", constantly in need of communicating better, becoming "weak with the weak, ... everything for everyone" (1 Cor 9:22).[21]

It never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness. ...In discerning the paths of the Spirit, ... it always does what good it can, even if in the process its shoes get soiled by the mud of the street. (EG 45)

He repeats what he told the Church in Buenos Aires, that he prefers a Church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security, ... caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures” (EG 49).[22] In Evangelii gaudium he wrote: “In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization” (63). In line with this he has said: "When the church does not emerge from itself to evangelize, it becomes self-referential and therefore becomes sick. ... The evils that, over time, occur in ecclesiastical institutions have their root in self-referentiality, a kind of theological narcissism."[23]

In October 2018, Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor at large of National Review, responded to conservative criticism of Francis by observing: "Pope Francis didn’t start the fires that divide the Catholic Church. Under Francis, they are out in the open more, at the highest levels. There is certainly sunlight that is being shone on things that have been previously in the dark. ...He may just trust the Holy Spirit more than the rest of us to sort it out."[24]

Church leadership[edit]


Francis argues for “sound 'decentralization'. ... It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory” (EG 16). He finds little progress in finding a new way of exercising Papal primacy as requested by John Paul II (EG 32) in continuity with the desire of the Bishops at Vatican II.[25] He seeks to give episcopal conferences "genuine doctrinal authority", and foresees decentralization as facilitating Church life and missionary outreach (EG 32).[26] Francis decries the imbalance that can occur “when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word” (EG 38).[27][28]

He speaks of consensus building through more open dialogue in synods of bishops,[29] and calls for attention to the sensus fidei or "instinct of faith" especially of the poor (EG 198), whereby the Catholic faithful discern what is of God through a connaturality or intuitive wisdom (EG 119).[30][31]


Francis emphasizes that the "hour of the laity" has arrived and decries clericalism as rife in the Church, saying that it "leads to the functionalization of the laity, treating them as 'messengers' ".[32] And through clericalism a priest "can become seduced by the prospect of a career, ... turning him into a functionary, a cleric worried more about himself, about organizations and structures, than about the true good of the People of God".[33] He speaks of the "eighth sacrament" that some priests would create – the "pastoral customs office" that would close doors on people instead of facilitating their reception of the sacraments.[34]Addressing apostolic nuncios, who recommend to the pope good candidates for episcopal appointment, he said:

In the delicate task of carrying out inquiries for episcopal appointments be careful that the candidates are pastors close to the people, fathers and brothers, that they are gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life, that they do not have the psychology of "Princes”.[35]

Francis wants "a church based not on fancy vestments and infallible pronouncements, but on love of God and love of others."[12]:xx He is critical of a church that is preoccupied with small-minded rules and is a museum for the saintly few rather than, with missionary zeal, being a place of welcome for the many.[12]:32 For the church's clergy he sees "the need to hold both action and contemplation in creative tension", to be leaders who are led by God's grace, contemplatives in action.[12]:109 He has castigated and taken action against clerics whom he sees as living a princely life.[36][37] Francis said clergy should be shepherds looking after the people, but knows they can be tempted and corrupted by power. When they take from the people instead of giving, simony and other corruption can follow. Love between the clergy and the people is destroyed.[38]

Francis fears some clerics "become wolves and not shepherds; ... careerism and the search for a promotion [to the hierarchy] come under the category of spiritual worldliness", deceitfully trying to appear holy. Francis is known for his "snarky" remarks.[39][40] He said of clerical vanity: "Look at the peacock; it's beautiful if you look at it from the front. But if you look at it from behind, you discover the truth. ...Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them".[41] He admonished 138 newly-appointed bishops not to surround themselves with "courtiers, climbers, and yes-men" but to bring people the Gospel that makes people free.[42]

Speaking to 120 superiors of religious orders, Francis kept up his campaign against clericalism, that seminary formation must be “a work of art, not a police action” where seminarians “grit their teeth, try not to make mistakes, follow the rules smiling a lot, just waiting for the day when they are told ‘Good, you have finished formation’. ...This is hypocrisy that is the result of clericalism, which is one of the worst evils”. Priestly formation "must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps”.[43]

Picking up on Bishop de Smedt's much-quoted remark at the Second Vatican Council, that the Catholic church was suffering from triumphalism, clericalism, and legalism,[44] Francis described the Church’s “temptation to triumphalism, ... a Church that is content with what it is or has – well sorted, well organized, with all its offices, everything in order, everything perfect, efficient”. But this, he said, is “a Church that denies its martyrs, because it does not know that martyrs are needed”. A healthy Church, on the other hand, recognizes “triumph through failure – human failure – the failure of the Cross”.[45]


Austen Ivereigh, in writing a biography of Francis, describes him as having the rare combination of "the political genius of a charismatic leader and the prophetic holiness of a desert saint", the later being a characteristic of his theology.[46]:357 But those who say that Francis "speaks to the emotions and not to the intelligence ... don't know Bergoglio, who has had an impressive formation in many fields".[47] For his dissertation work Francis studied Romano Guardini's idea of holding conflicting notions in tension in a multicultural world; to respect "polar tensions" without negating any of them or reducing them to a higher synthesis; to respond to each in the light of the gospel.[46]:20

Francis has given encouragement to theologians[48] who at times found themselves in an adversarial relationship during John Paul's papacy,[49] a time when, according to Jason Horowitz of the New York Times, the conservative wing of the church dominated,[50] and when there was a revival of the importance given to scholastic philosophy.[51] Francis calls for openness to “differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology, and pastoral practice",[52] saying that being "in dialogue with other sciences and human experiences is most important for our discernment on how best to bring the Gospel message to different cultural contexts and groups". Francis wants a more "welcoming church" and "has decried a church that is inward-looking and self-referential. ... (It) must be prepared to go out to the peripheries, to encounter others in dialogue."[8]:104 The word "dialogue" occurs 59 times thorughout Evangelii gaudium. Francis has also reached out to the Pentecostal churches, "a new and heretofore scarcely imaginable step forward".[53]:58 [46]:389

Francis has not continued the attacks on secularism that were common during Benedict's papacy,[54] Francis said:

The complaints of today about how "barbaric" the world is, these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today. ...God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history.[55]

To find God in today's world, Francis frequently calls for “discernment”, an important notion from the Jesuit founder’s Spiritual Exercises. The word occurs twenty times in Evangelii gaudium. Francis says that by discernment one could “avoid a kind of legalism” and help people conform to the image of Christ.[56] He mentions the need for discernment to adapt the sign of Christian initiation to each cultural context (EG 166) – to see Christ in endless diversity (EG 181) and in all others whoever they may be (EG 179), in the particularity of each situation in which we are to deliver God's call to people (EG 154). This requires “rethinking of goals, structures, style, and methods” (EG 33) and "deeper discernment about our experiences and life itself" enlightened by the Gospel (EG 77). Francis is saying that "ultimately people have responsibility for their own lives and salvation", that "he does not have all the answers", and "that he can live with doubt. He often points to the importance of discernment. ... He is critical of 'those who today always look for the disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security'. ... He is steering Catholics away from the dogmatism and legalism of the past and the old-time religion and proposing a more nuanced approach to morality".[12]:75 He is seen as following a more inductive rather than deductive approach to situations arising, following the “See-Judge-Act” method in applying Catholic social teaching.[57]

Time magazine selected Francis "Person of the Year" in the first year of his papacy, writing:[3]

What makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), “the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed”. In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church – the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world – above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors.

Important role of women[edit]

In God's merciful love, the Spirit draws us together as God's people, and it is as a people that we expand the circle of those living out the joy of the gospel. We are all called to missionary discipleship, ruling out clericalism or the partitioning off of women.[53]:38–39 Francis does not see women being ordained to the ministerial priesthood, but says: "Our great dignity derives from Baptism. ...When we speak of sacramental power 'we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness' " (EG 104). And he says:

Many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families, and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church ... in the various other settings where important decisions are made. (EG 103-104)

Looking ahead, he said that many women are well prepared to contribute to religious and theological discussions at the highest levels, alongside their male counterparts.[58] It is more necessary than ever that they do so,[59] "because women look at reality with a different, a greater richness".[60] In the first six years of Francis' papacy "the profile of women, especially women religious, at Vatican events has risen sharply."[61]

Married priests[edit]

The Church does not require married clergy who are converts to cease their ministry if it considers their ordination valid. And celibacy has never been regarded as a divine law for priests. Francis expressed his openness to consider having some older married men ordained, especially in mission areas where there is an extreme shortage of priests.[62][63] Consistent with his idea of collegiality, he chooses to wait for the conferences of bishops to request this in the light of local situations.[64]

Pastoral sense[edit]

Francis in the Philippines

In Evangelii gaudium, Francis quotes a passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church which stands out in his own thinking: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors”. He goes on to distinguish between the "evangelical ideal" and the "stages of personal growth".[65][66] The confessional, he says,

must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best. A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. (EG 44)

He quotes St. Ambrose: the Communion bread “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47). Such talk led a few cardinals in the church to speak of an impending schism.[67]

Francis decries self-absorption and failing to find God in every human being (EG 92). He finds this happening with those who observe "certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism" (EG 94).[68] This he decries as

spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, [and] consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being. It is what the Lord reprimanded the Pharisees for: "How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" (Jn 5:44). It is a subtle way of seeking one’s "own interests, not those of Jesus Christ" (Phil 2:21) ... [and] is based on carefully cultivated appearances. (EG 93)

To overcome worldliness it is necessary that "the Church constantly go out from herself, keeping her mission focused on Jesus Christ, and her commitment to the poor” (EG 97), and he adds that "the Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel." This requires all its members to learn the “art of accompaniment, ... to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5)", and that the Church itself be constantly evangelized by the Good News (EG 114, 169, 174).[69] Francis teaches that we serve the church's heritage best "not by wielding the doctrine of the church as a club" but by meeting the people "'in the streets', listening to their concerns and attending to their wounds", and so knowing "through a pastoral 'connaturality' how the church's doctrine can best be employed to announce God's solidarity with the poor and suffering of this world and the profligate mercy of God.[8]:138

The Church's liturgy and devotions[edit]

The editors of Go into the Streets! write that "Pope Francis inherited a Church which in many ways had moved away from the vision of the Second Vatican Council."[8]:87[11] John F. Baldovin, S.J., describes Francis' motu proprio Magnum Principium (3 September 2017) as

certainly a significant change in direction with regard to who has responsibility for liturgical translations. The pope has changed Canon 838 in two important ways. The weight of responsibility now falls much more on the shoulders of the various episcopal conferences. … Those conferences which have been experiencing tension with the Vatican over revised translations, like the French-speaking and German-speaking, now have much more breathing room in deciding what is best for translating liturgical texts.[70]

This effectively countered the efforts of those who under pope John Paul II had required that "the liturgy conform as closely as possible to the original Latin texts".[71] In his motu proprio Francis said: "the vernacular languages themselves, often only in a progressive manner, would be able to become liturgical languages, standing out in a not dissimilar way to liturgical Latin for their elegance of style and the profundity of their concepts with the aim of nourishing the faith".[26] This was seen by Jason Horowitz as the end of the “reform of the reform” movement that sought to overturn the principles of liturgical reform proposed by the Second Vatican Council,[72] or, as Francis expresses it, “to speak of ‘the reform of the reform’ is an error!”[73] Earlier Francis had written: "We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history" (EG 118). And he had distanced himself from the previous popes who gave broad permission for reversion to the Mass in Latin.[74] Also, Francis speaks against efforts to encourage priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem[75][76] and calls "the altar, the centre toward which our churches focus attention."[77]

Of the Eucharistic celebration he says: “A sacrament is not 'a magical rite' but rather the instrument God has chosen in order to continue to walk beside man as his travelling companion through life”.[78] In a brief address to liturgists on the anniversary of Musicam sacram, Francis mentions eight times the importance of the peoples’ active participation in song.[79] In an address to charismatics he reemphasizes this.[80] He said that since he had the upper portion of his right lung removed, he is too short of breath to sing the Mass.[81]

Reflecting on the deep meaning of the Communion bread, he draws on Paul's epistles that point to oneness as Christ's body, where all suffer together and are honored together (1 Cor 12:26).[82] Communion, he says, is not "a private prayer or a beautiful spiritual exercise" but a means of one's transformation, one's taking on the heart of Christ: peaceable, forgiving, reconciling, in solidarity with all.[83]

Francis explains how sacraments are means or instruments, not ends in themselves.[84] He goes on to say that true disciples encounter the Lord in the sacraments and receive the power to follow Jesus' teaching. One cannot cover up injustice, dishonesty, and uncharitableness against one's neighbor with prayers and devotions.[84] In his encyclical Gaudete et Exsultate, his emphasis on good works as a means to holiness is such that Alan L. Anderson observes: "I find it curious so little attention is paid in His Holiness’s exhortation to the pivotal role played by the sacraments in attaining holiness. Indeed, to attempt holiness without them would be, well, to flirt with neo-Pelagianism".[85]

Devotional practices[edit]

Francis remarks how religion has become privatized and purely personal through the secularization of society (EG 64). In this atmosphere a Catholic's devotional life can fall into sentimentality, bringing personal comfort without encounter with others or an evangelizing spirit (EG 78).[86] He criticizes people who promote such privatized devotion while neglecting the formation of the laity toward the advancement of society (EG 74).[87] As regards the relationship between private piety and public life, Francis was the first pontiff to suggest automatic excommunication for the Mafia, at an outdoor Mass in Calabria: "Those who in their life have gone along the evil ways, as in the case of the mafia, they are not with God, they are excommunicated".[88]

Regarding pilgrimages, Francis says peoples' journeying together to shrines manifests a thirst for God and a working of the Spirit. It enable people to witness to their belief and to feel a part of the Church. Bringing one's children or inviting others is an evangelizing gesture (EG 122-6).[89]

Primacy of charity[edit]

Francis has said: "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, ... even the atheists. Everyone! ... We are created children in the likeness of God ... and we all have a duty to do good”.[33] He points to the Last Judgment scene in the Gospel of Matthew as proof of how God judges: what we do for the poor, the hungry, the indigent, the outcast, those who suffer and are alone, Jesus regards as done to himself (25:37-40). And he points to the Beatitudes as showing what gives deep happiness, what Catholics should strive to live up to every day: being poor in spirit and meek and humble of heart, merciful and peacemakers, hungering and thirsting for righteousness.[90] He devotes most of a chapter in Gaudete et exsultate to explaining these Beatitudes as the way to holiness for everyone (63-94).


Pope Francis with the U.S. President Barack Obama

Author Elisabetta Piqué, a close friend of Francis, writes: "Francis wants to break down the wall between the North and South of the world ... (in) the new 'cold war' that he must win over selfishness".[47] While Christian ethics has always taught that the earth's richness is meant for the common good, Francis has been called a Marxist for his demand for more equality. Francis has "put the poor, the problems of inequality and structural injustice, at the heart of the church's mission, and therefore at the heart of Christian spirituality and living".[12]:92 He calls inequality "the root of all social ills" and places on economic and government leaders the responsibility to address its structural causes and to assure all citizens access to education, dignified work, and healthcare. He finds this essential to solving any of the world's problems (EG 202, 205).[91][92]

An Italian journalist finds that Francis' comments on capitalism in Evangelii gaudium "hit the mark", provoking a host of prominent spokespersons for capitalism, and added: "Pope Francis is not afraid to proclaim to the world the limits, obvious to everyone after the 2008 financial debacle (in the United States), of an economic model that, left to itself, is likely to overwhelm the world".[93] Francis is looking for long-term intervention by political entities for the improvement of economic systems, not for the overthrow of these systems. His long-range view is consistent with church tradition and with recent pontiffs [94]:ii and with his prioritizing of “time over space”.[94]:157 “People live poised between each individual moment and the greater, brighter horizon of the utopian future as the final cause which draws us to itself. Here we see a first principle for progress in building a people: time is greater than space” (EG, 222-225).

Francis says that Catholics must say “no to a financial system which rules rather than serves. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God” (EG 57). He calls it “increasingly intolerable that financial markets are shaping the destiny of peoples rather than serving their needs, or that the few derive immense wealth from financial speculation while the many are deeply burdened by the consequences”. He adds that speculation in agricultural commodities is “a scandal which seriously compromises access to food on the part of the poorest members of our human family”.[95]

Francis has criticized the trickle-down theory which claims that economic growth from capitalism leads to widespread prosperity, as has at times been maintained by the Republican Party in the United States.[96] He characterized this as never confirmed by the facts and sacralizing the economic system with a "crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power" (EG 54). Francis took the occasion of his address to the US congress in 2015 to acknowledge the benefits of capitalism and to clarify that he is not advocating Marxism. His critique of capitalism is consistent with that of Pope John-Paul II in Centesimus Annus.[97]

Option for the poor[edit]

In his first meeting with the media, the new pope explained his choice of the name "Francis" in terms of his being "a man of poverty, a man of peace, a man who loves and safeguards creation, ... (who) would like a poor church for the poor".[46]:5 Richard L. Clarke, Anglican Primate of All Ireland, has said that while Francis' "insistence that the poor of the world are Christ's deepest concern" may not be new, his "simplicity of lifestyle ... has undoubtedly conveyed a new impetus and purpose for all Christians"[12]:122 "Attention for the poor has become the trademark of Francis's pontificate",[1]:3 the most visible priority of his papacy. He believes that "poverty for us Christians is ... a theological category". His leadership reflects his conviction that "good leadership looks like Jesus in action" and as he says: "Jesus made himself poor to walk along the road with us".[98] For him, the church should be "poor and for the poor" (EG 198), with "creative concern and effective cooperation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone". Without this all the religious practices and talk of social issues will be just a camouflage (EG 207). He expects some to be offended by his words but would help "those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent, and self-centred mentality, to ... bring dignity to their presence on this earth" (EG 208).[99] In addressing the Community of Sant'Egidio on its 50th anniversary, he commended its "mission to communicate the Gospel through personal friendship; to show how life truly becomes human when it is lived beside the poor; a mission to create a society that considers no one a foreigner. It is the mission to cross borders and walls, to join together.[100]

Francis has been in the forefront of insisting on the importance of helping refugees.[101] When visiting the US-Mexican border he said: "A person who thinks only about building walls – wherever they may be – and not building bridges, is not Christian."[102] His later suggestion “to not raise walls but bridges"[103] was also widely interpreted by the media as addressed to President Trump,[104][105] and it was repeated by Francis with regards to Trump's immigration policy.[106] Francis has said that “to speak properly of our own rights, we need to broaden our perspective and to hear the plea of other peoples and other regions than those of our own country” (EG 190).[107] More broadly he is concerned that "a globalization of indifference has developed; ... the culture of prosperity deadens us; ... those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us" (EG 54).[108]

Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. Our challenge is not so much atheism as ... a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others. Unless these people find in the Church a spirituality ... summoning them to fraternal communion and missionary fruitfulness, they will end up by being taken in by solutions which neither make life truly human nor give glory to God. (EG 88-89)

He suggests that Jesus can be found in others' faces, voices, and pleas that constantly call us to live in fraternity (EG 91). After hosting successful negotiations for a reconciliation between Cuba and the United States, Francis was praised by President Obama for showing "the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is".[109] He calls on lay ministers in the Catholic church to go beyond serving their own communities and show genuine commitment to transform every aspect of life in society with values according to Jesus (EG 94). Only in this way do they respond to the evangelical mandate that God's love potentially holds for them, if they do not refuse help to all those in need (1 Jn 3:17 in EG 187).[110]


By issuing Laudato si' , Francis lifted environmentalism to the high level of teaching of a papal encyclical,[111] even as other Popes wrote encyclicals to argue for the common good in the moral crises of their day.[112] But as with other issues Francis does not shy away from introducing to the Church a controversial stand, in this case focusing on the human causes of global warming.[113] He addresses Chapter One to all peoples, on our common home, citing "the results of the best scientific research available today" (15). While returning to arguments for this larger audience in chapters three through five, in chapters two and six he addresses largely believers, pointing out that "the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures" (68).[114] He speaks of "the rhythms inscribed in nature" through sabbatical years and the jubilee year which give rest to the land (71). Among his references are: "The earth is the Lord’s" (Ps 24:1); to God belongs "the earth with all that is within it" (Dt 10:14); humans are to "till and keep the garden of the world" (cf. Gen 2:15).

Francis observes that developed countries exploit the non-renewable resources of poor countries and are lax in assisting them to sustainable development,[115] though these poor areas are least able to adopt new models that reduce environmental impact (Laudato si', 52). This returns to the topic of the option for the poor (above): Catholics should discern the impact on the poor and on integral human development before launching any project (Laudato si', 185). Francis argues for the common destination of the earth's goods, preserving these for the good of all (Laudato si', 158). For this Christians must move away from consumerism to a more Christian concept of quality of life, where they can be "grateful for the opportunities which life affords us ... and appreciate the small things" with a certain detachment based on their Christian philosophy of life (Laudato si', 222).[116]

Morality as a vehicle of God's mercy[edit]

For Francis, "mercy is the greatest of all the virtues" (EG 37) and, according to Cardinal Walter Kasper, "the center of the Gospel, ... the key word of his pontificate, ... (while) Scholastic theology has neglected this topic and turned it into a mere subordinate theme of justice".[46]:31–32 In his encyclical on holiness for everyone, Gaudete et exsultate, mercy is the focal theme: "What is Pope Francis’ overall summary of holiness? It’s based on the Beatitudes: 'Seeing and acting with mercy'."[117] "Francis’s watchword is mercy, but mercy adheres, first, not in alterations of doctrine but in the new way that Catholics are invited to think of doctrine", in pastoral practice in conformity with what "Jesus wants – a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness".[118] Francis emphasized this by washing the feet of prisoners,[119] which was for some people a shocking gesture.[120]

Francis chose for his motto miserando atque eligendo, literally "by having mercy and by selecting", which refers to Jesus' selection for apostleship Matthew the tax collector who was considered unclean by Jewish law. He mentions God's mercy 32 times in Evangelii gaudium and says: "God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy" (EG 3). Francis declared 2016 a yearlong celebration of God's mercy, and describes mercy as fundamental to the pastoral sense which he enjoins on all those who would exercise ministry in the Church (see above). He writes that in becoming flesh God's Son "summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (EG 88), mentioning "tenderness" 11 times in Evangelii gaudium,[121][53]

He said that “Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy, or a catalogue of sins and faults. Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others, and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others” (EG 39).[122]

Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few”. Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation "so as not to burden the lives of the faithful" and make our religion a form of servitude, whereas "God’s mercy has willed that we should be free”. (EG 43)[118]

He warned against "codification of the faith in rules and regulations, as the scribes, the Pharisees, the doctors of the law did in the time of Jesus. To us, everything will be clear and set in order, but the faithful and those in search will still hunger and thirst for God". He went on to describe the Church as a field hospital where people should come to know God's warmth and closeness to them.[123]

Application to specific issues[edit]

Regarding gay people, Francis quoted the Catechism, "that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally". But he goes further and says:

I believe that the church not only should apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended, but has to apologize to the poor, to exploited women, to children exploited for labor; it has to ask forgiveness for having blessed many weapons.[124]

While strongly advocating openness to migrants and refugees, Francis acknowledged that the right to migrate must be regulated. Refugees from war or other intolerable situations must be received with greater openness.[125] HIs very first trip as Pope was to draw attention to the refugees on the island of Lampedusa, where he criticized the European community's lack of solidarity and globalized indifference. He says the word "solidarity" frightens the developed world.[53]:79

Speaking of those who cannot satisfy their basic needs for food and health care, Francis calls on all nations to show "a willingness to share everything and to decide to be Good Samaritans, instead of people who are indifferent to the needs of others".[126]

Francis acknowledged that he carried his emphasis on mercy too far when he reduced the penalty of a pedophile priest from imprisonment to a lifetime of prayer and being barred from saying Mass or being near children, along with five years of psychotherapy.[127] He said of the case: "I was new and I didn't understand these things well, and before two choices I chose the more benevolent one. ...It was the only time I did it, and never again".[128]

Sexual morality as Good News[edit]

Argentinian Archbishop Víctor Fernández has explained controversies that have arisen over Francis' words: "The problem is that the fanatics end up converting some principles into a lifelong battle and deliberately discuss only those issues. ... There are other issues that are non-negotiable: love your neighbor, do justice to the oppressed, ... ."[16]:33,34 The scholastic-philosophical approach to morality stemming largely from Thomas Aquinas was used during the papacy of John Paul II to give attention to the "intrinsic evil" of abortion. But M. Cathleen Kaveny writes, in America, that she believes it is incorrect to apply the term to determine the gravity of an evil, nor should intrinsic evils be so narrowly delimited.[129][130] In 2013 Massimo Faggioli wrote: "The Catholicism of movement 'to the margins' announced by Pope Francis also means trying to take leave of the political culture of neoconservative and neoliberal Catholicism, ... a return to a Catholicism that is in search of 'common ground', such as that of the Cardinal of Chicago Joseph Bernardin." This is a departure from the neoconservatism among Catholics in the United States that had reigned since the Reagan era, based on an "anti-abortion stance that was isolated from the 'social question' " of market regulation.[9]:81 At the same time, while Francis may be a "radical reformer", he believes that "the task of the papacy is the preservation of the doctrine handed down by Jesus Christ". This means preserving the church's doctrine, as on abortion and artificial contraception, where he does not respond to specific misinterpretations of his words but uses later opportunities to clarify his orthodoxy.[46]:385–6

Francis has criticized those homilies "which should be kerygmatic but end up speaking about everything that has a connection with sex, ... whether or not to participate in a demonstration against a draft law in favor of the use of condoms". He adds: "We end up forgetting the treasure of Jesus alive, the treasure of the Holy Spirit present in our hearts, the treasure of a project of Christian life that has many implications that go much further than mere sexual questions".[81]

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. ...The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.[55]

The Church's teaching on artificial contraception, in Humanae vitae, has been very poorly received in the living tradition.[131] Francis speaks freely to reporters on the plane during his travels, and while defending natural family planning he commented: “Some people think that in order to be good Catholics we have to breed like rabbits, right?"[60] He scolded an Italian woman who had eight caesarean sections. However, he attributes the sad condition of the poor to a "culture of waste"[60] and to the world economic system.[132]

In the Extraordinary General Assembly of Bishops in 2014, in preparation for the Synod on the Family of 2015, Francis recommended "true spiritual discernment, ... to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families". The survey Francis called for before the synod revealed that in Germany "huge percentages of the people (as many as 97% on some questions) had been ignoring the church's teachings in these areas (related to sexuality, remarriage, birth control, ...)".[133] In the 2015 Synod, the question of Communion for divorced Catholics living in a civil marriage became heated. Francis' successor to the archiepiscopal office in Argentina writes of him: "He recommends that we never stop reading the words of St. Ambrose and St. Cyril ... which invite us to not be rigid in administration of the Eucharist".[16]:53 As archbishop Francis had said Mass among the poor of Buenos Aires, and "in a shanty town, 90 percent of your congregation are single or divorced. You have to learn to deal with that. Communion for the divorced and remarried is not an issue. Everyone takes Communion."[8]:88 "He is always finding traces of God in everyone, ... especially those we misguidedly judge to be unworthy of sitting at the table of the Lord."[12]:85 He led people "to make room for the marginalized in the life of the local church. lead by example and to encourage people who are struggling."[12]:180 This is the pope who had the task of writing Amoris laetitia, a summation of the synods on the family. He followed the line of progressives at the synod and suggested that bishops must move church practice closer to the real life situations, and to accompany people in “discernment” and an examination of conscience, "to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations."[134] He wrote that beyond that he left the matter to the local bishops' conferences, in the spirit of collegiality that he had been promoting.[135] Following this, bishops in Germany wrote that “Catholics who have been remarried under civil law after a divorce are invited to go to church, participate in their lives, and mature as living members of the church,” offering "no general rule", not insisting that priests give Communion to divorced people but calling for “differentiated solutions, which are appropriate to the individual case”. A similar directive had been given by the bishops' conferences in Argentina and in Malta.[136] A 25-page letter accusing Francis of spreading heresy through Amoris laetitia bears 62 signatures from Catholics such as clergy and religious, but Richard Gaillardetz of Boston College says that all the signatories are "marginal figures".[137][138]

In a book of his own reflections, Francis has written: "Scholars of the law represent the principle opposition to Jesus; they challenge him in the name of doctrine."[139] The fear of losing "the sheep who are already safely inside the pen ...(is) the logic of the scholars of the law. ... The logic of God ... welcomes, embraces, and transfigures evil into good. ... He teaches us what to do, which logic to follow, when faced with people who suffer physically and spiritually."[139]

Liberation theology[edit]

Gustavo Gutierrez attended a conference in Petrópolis in 1964, that is considered to have given birth to liberation theology. At that conference Lucio Gera spoke on "The Meaning of the Christian Message in the Midst of Poverty and Oppression". Gera had been a teacher of Bergoglio, who as Archbishop of Buenos Aires showed his esteem for Gera by allowing him to be buried in the crypt of the cathedral. Argentinian liberation theology, more so than in other parts of Latin America, focuses on the culture of the people, emphasizing not antagonisms but harmony, peace, and reconciliation.[46]:16

Walter Kasper points out that in line with the paradigm shift of Vatican II, Pope Francis's method "is not deductive but rather inductive in that it proceeds from the concrete human situation. ... The neighbor is for you the exposition of the concrete will of God".[46]:35 This is in accord with the Jesuit practice of "discernment", whereby one begins with the concrete situation, what Vatican II called discerning the "signs of the times" interpreted in the light of the gospel, rather than beginning with church doctrine. This also appears in the method of "see, judge, and act" that is characteristic of liberation theology and is reflected in the report of the Latin America bishops' conference at Aparecida, where Bergoglio chaired the editorial committee.[46]:11,12

The conservative-progressive divide among bishops in Latin America is apparent in the question of how involved the clergy should be in politics.[140] Óscar Romero was appointed bishop in San Salvador as a conservative, but moved toward the progressive perspective just 17 days after his consecration as bishop, at the assassination of Father Rutilio Grande. Pope Francis gave his clear support to the progressive perspective[141] by moving forward the causes of canonization of Grande and Romero which had been on hold under the previous pontiffs.[142][143] And he chose to promote for canonization along with Romero Pope Paul VI, who was described as similar in his care for the poor and for social justice.[144]

The decline of base communities during the episcopacy of Pope John Paul II has been attributed to his appointment of hundreds of new bishops, some 300 in Brazil alone, "and almost all of those new bishops have been more conservative than their predecessors."[145] Under Pope Francis, base communities have been making a comeback,[146] with his encouragement and blessing.[146]

See also[edit]

Chief source[edit]

EG: Evangelii gaudium, an apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis on evangelization, 24 November 2013.


  • Borghesi, Massimo (2018) [Italian original, 2017], The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio's Intellectual Journey, translated by Hudock, Barry, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, ISBN 978-0-8146-8790-1


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