Debate: Pope Francis on Doctrine, Truth, & Evangelizing

Debate: Pope Francis on Doctrine, Truth, & Evangelizing December 16, 2019

vs. Dr. Eduardo Echeverria

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University of Amsterdam and his Licentiate in Sacred Theology (S.T.L.) from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. His publications include Berkouwer and Catholicism: Disputed Questions (2013), Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, Revised and Expanded Section Edition (2015, 2019), Divine Election: A Catholic Orientation in Dogmatic and Ecumenical Perspective (2016), and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma (2018).

I enthusiastically recommended the first edition of his book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, but it seems that since that time, he has become quite critical of Pope Francis: largely (?) because of the controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia.

I am responding to his article, “Pope Francis on Faith’s Knowledge of God, Doctrine, Truth, Ideology, and the Law of Evangelization” (December 2019). His words will be in blue. The words of Pope Francis will be in green.


The Nature of Faith
What is the nature of faith, according to Pope Francis? The Apostle Paul calls us to believe with one’s heart and to confess what one believes (Rom 10: 9). This is a twofold Christian imperative — the creedal and confessional imperative — that is at the root of creeds and confessions of faith. Faith involves both the fides qua creditur (“the faith with which one believes”) and the fides quae creditur “the faith which one believes”).
If I understand Francis correctly, his emphasis is on the former; faith as it is experienced, encountered, and lived. [my bolded emphasis of one word]
Dr. Echeverria correctly notes, in my opinion, in his first paragraph, that this is the Holy Father’s “emphasis.” Unfortunately, as he continues in his article, he winds up asserting that in emphasizing one thing, Pope Francis allegedly denies the other; that is, he (so it is claimed) strongly urges “heart-belief,” while denying the importance — indeed the necessity also — of “head-belief.” I shall argue that this conclusion is unwarranted and insufficiently proven from the statements of Pope Francis that Dr. Echeverria produces. It’s a false dichotomy.
My view is quite the opposite: I think what the pope is teaching in this regard is wonderful and perfectly consistent with the Bible (particularly, St. Paul’s methodology), the historic Catholic faith, and Vatican II. This was also the view of Dr. Echeverria in the first edition of his book on Pope Francis, where he wrote:

Pope Francis has been created in the image of many one-sided receptions of his thought by both liberal and traditional Catholics. Both sides of this reception share the view that Pope Francis’s novelty is best represented by words like break, rupture, and indeed, revolution. Of course they differ in their assessment of his novelty; the former embrace it, and the latter reject it. . . .

[T]he narrative that has taken hold in the mind of many people is, indeed, false . . . it is clear from Francis’s own theological writings that his theological thinking is fully coherent with the teachings of Vatican II and that of his two immediate predecessors. (pp. xiii, xvi)

In Francis’ concluding homily of the Synod of Bishops dedicated to young people, he states, “The faith that saved Bartimaeus did not have to do with his having clear ideas about God, but in his seeking him and longing to encounter him. Faith has to do with encounter, not theory. In encounter, Jesus passes by; in encounter, the heart of the Church beats. Then, not our preaching, but our witness of life will prove effective.” This contrast between “encounter” and “theory, ” between “preaching” and “witness” is puzzling.

Why is thispuzzling? Again, Dr. Echeverria has unnecessarily created a false dichotomy, when in fact, the pope himself has not done so. He misses the forest for the trees and has — one can only say — misrepresented the pope’s clear intentions. Did the pope deny that doctrine is also important and necessary? No!, for he also said in the same homily:

Faith passes through life. When faith is concerned purely with doctrinal formulae, it risks speaking only to the head without touching the heart. And when it is concerned with activity alone, it risks turning into mere moralizing and social work. Faith, instead, is life: it is living in the love of God who has changed our lives. We cannot choose between doctrine and activism. We are called to carry out God’s work in God’s own way: in closeness, by cleaving to him, in communion with one another, alongside our brothers and sisters. Closeness: that is the secret to communicating the heart of the faith, and not a secondary aspect. [italics in original, bolding my own]

Is it not quite obvious: the point that the pope is making? He’s not denying in any way, shape, or form, “doctrinal formulae” or “doctrine.” Rather, he is denying that the doctrine should be isolated from a living, active faith, and conversely, that this sort of faith could or should be separated from doctrine. The point is: keep them always together (orthodoxy and orthopraxy). It’s essentially the famous argument that St. James makes in his epistle (that Luther struggled so much to understand, because it was contrary to his faith alone doctrinal novelty): 

James 2:14, 17-18, 20-26 (RSV) What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? . . . [17] So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. [18] But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. . . . [20]  Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? [21] Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? [22] You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, [23] and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. [24] You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. [25] And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? [26] For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

When Pope Francis was commenting upon Bartimaeus, he was merely noting that his particular faith in that specific moment of time, was not doctrinal in nature. Nor did it have to be. It says nowhere in the Bible that doctrine and heartfelt faith must always be present at absolutely every instant of time: only that both are necessary in the overall picture (i.e., one or the other may manifest itself in particular instances).

So Bartimaeus cried out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47). It wasn’t a “doctrinal” utterance. He didn’t cite John 3:16 (which I was actually asked to do in an early altar call at age 11 or so in a Baptist church that we visited). He simply cried for mercy. This was heart-faith. He could learn the doctrine in due course. That’s why we have catechisms and RCIA classes. It’s why, in the early Church (for many centuries), the deepest truths of the faith were kept from new catechumens until they reached a more advanced level and were about to be baptized. But at first, the cry for help is sufficient. And so the pope beautifully comments on this incident:

Jesus takes his time; he takes time to listen. This is the first step in helping the journey of faith: listening. It is the apostolate of the ear: listening before speaking. . . . 

He gets personally involved with preferential love for every person. By his actions, he already communicates his message. Faith thus flowers in life. . . . 

Let us realize that the Lord has dirtied his hands for each one of us. Let us look at the cross, start from there and remember that God became my neighbour in sin and death. He became my neighbour: it all starts from there. . . . 

The journey of faith in today’s Gospel ends in a beautiful and surprising way when Jesus says “Go; your faith has made you well” (v. 52). Yet Bartimaeus had made no profession of faith or done any good work; he had only begged for mercy. To feel oneself in need of salvation is the beginning of faith. It is the direct path to encountering Jesus.

Does Pope Francis have a pastoral emphasis? Yes, he does, and I think it’s fabulous and something very much needed in our time. But does he depart from historic orthodoxy or even the prior understanding of evangelism and apologetics. Nope (as I have recently documented at length) . . .

The latter contrast and the attendant claim made by Pope Francis that “witness” not “preaching” will prove effective is rejected with good reason by Pope Paul VI in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi §22, “All Christians are called to this witness, and in this way they can be real evangelizers. ” Nevertheless, contra Francis’ position, Paul VI adds, “this [witness] always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called always having ‘your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have’ [1 Peter 3:15] – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.” (emphasis added)

The problem here is that — having already drawn a false conclusion from what the pope stated in that homily, Dr. Echeverria goes on to assert that it contradicts previous teaching. It does no such thing. He did not set witness against preaching at all. He stated exactly what Pope St. Paul VI wrote above. Again, here it is, plain as day:

When faith is concerned purely with doctrinal formulae, it risks speaking only to the head without touching the heart. And when it is concerned with activity alone, it risks turning into mere moralizing and social work. . . . We cannot choose between doctrine and activism[italics in original, bolding my own]

What is truly “puzzling” is how a man of Dr. Echeverria’s great abilities and accomplishments can miss the context (one of the cardinal sins of research). We shall see if his further suggested examples in his article, of the pope’s supposed departure from tradition and precedent, succeed any better than this one did, for the purpose of proving his thesis.

Missing from the evangelical encounter in Pope Francis’ thought is Paul VI teaching described above as what I will call “integral evangelization.” The latter includes explanation and justification of Christian beliefs, with the aim of persuasion, by the power of reason and arguments. It also involves claiming that one asserts, affirms, and holds certain beliefs to be true. Why is this aspect of integral evangelization missing from Francis’ understanding of witness/evangelization?

Since this is a blanket claim, and not a specific one about a particular passage in one of the pope’s homilies, other speeches, or writings, I shall answer generally. I strongly deny that this is the case. And I do so because of these sorts of statements from Pope Francis:

Proclaiming the Gospel message to different cultures also involves proclaiming it to professional, scientific and academic circles. This means an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences with a view to developing new approaches and arguments on the issue of credibility, a creative apologetics which would encourage greater openness to the Gospel on the part of all. . . . 

A theology – and not simply a pastoral theology – which is 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. The Church, in her commitment to evangelization, appreciates and encourages the charism of theologians and their scholarly efforts to advance dialogue with the world of cultures and sciences. I call on theologians to carry out this service as part of the Church’s saving mission. In doing so, however, they must always remember that the Church and theology exist to evangelize, and not be content with a desk-bound theology. (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 11-24-13; sections 132-133; my bolding and italics)

Start from your own identity in order to dialogue, but a dialogue is not doing apologetics, although sometimes you must do so, when we are asked questions that require an explanation. (Meeting with the Clergy: Palatine Chapel in the Royal Palace of Caserta, 7-26-14; my bolding)

Do I pray for my brother, for my sister who is in difficulty because they confess and defend their faith? (General Audience, 1-25-13; my bolding)

[T]he Apostle “defended the doctrine, he was a great defender of the doctrine, and the annoyance came from these people who did not tolerate the doctrine”. Which doctrine? “The gratuitousness of salvation”. . . . This, Pope explained, was “the struggle that both Jesus and Paul faced in order to defend the doctrine”. (Morning Meditation, 10-15-15; my bolding)

[See also:

Did Pope Francis just say that evangelization is “nonsense”? 8 things to know and share  (Jimmy Akin, National Catholic Register, 10-1-13)

Did Pope Francis just diss apologists? 9 things to know and share (Jimmy Akin, National Catholic Register, 3-9-14) ]

Witness/Evangelization versus Proselytizing

The brief answer to this question is that Pope Francis thinks, inexplicably, that explanation and justification of Christian beliefs, with the aim of persuasion, by the power of reason and arguments is proselytizing. As a rule, Francis distinguishes witness/evangelization from proselytizing. Unfortunately, he never defines what he means by proselytizing. Yes, he insists that it is bad. However, he does not tell us why. Nor does he distinguish between unethical and ethical means of proselytizing.

This is simply untrue. I provide several examples of the pope clarifying what he means, again and again, in the second half of my paper, Is Pope Francis Against Apologetics & Defending the Faith? See also, “Pope Francis on ‘Proselytism’ (Jimmy Akin, Catholic Answers, 10-21-13). Dr. Echeverria commits a very basic error in argument and rhetoric: the assertion of sweeping negative (“he never defines what he means by proselytizing”). All one has to do is provide a single example of the pope doing so, in order to refute such an ambitious claim. I’ve done so (and much more). So has Jimmy Akin. And we have both provided sufficient answer to the other charges above. I’m not going to post all that here. Readers may simply consult the linked articles. I love links . . . it saves one so much trouble.

As a rule, Francis seems to think that it is unethical, indeed, unchristian to try to convince or persuade others in the initial evangelical encounter of the rationality and truth of the Christian faith. He wrongly conflates that aspect of integral evangelization involving rational persuasion with force or pressure.

This is also untrue. While he exhibits a consistent strong emphasis on the pastoral, initially non-doctrinal evangelistic encounter, he does not deny the necessity of eventually moving onto doctrine as dialogue progresses. First things first. We do one thing first in the order of time, and then the other. So, for example, Pope Francis teaches:

The example given by the Pope was from the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus (Acts 17:15-22, 18-1) proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ among the worshipers of idols. It is the way in which he did this, said the Pope, that is so important: “He did not say: Idolaters! You will go to hell… ”. No, he “tried to reach their hearts”; he did not condemn from the outset but sought dialogue. “Paul is a Pope, a builder of bridges. He did not want to become a builder of walls”. Building bridges to proclaim the Gospel, “this was the Paul’s outlook in Athens: build a bridge to their hearts, and then take a step further and proclaim Jesus Christ”. Paul followed the attitude of Jesus, who spoke to everyone, “he heard the Samaritan woman… ate with the Pharisees, with sinners, with publicans, with doctors of the law. Jesus listened to everyone and when he said a word of condemnation, it was at the end, when there was nothing left to do”. But Paul, too, was “aware that he must evangelize, not proselytize”. The Church “does not grow by proselytizing, as Benedict XVI has told us, but grows by attracting people, by its witness, and by its preaching”. Ultimately, “Paul acted because he was sure, sure of Jesus Christ. He had no doubt of his Lord”. (Morning Meditation: “Jesus excludes no one”: 5-8-13; my italics and bolding)

Francis cites Revelation 3:20 to make his point : “Look, I am at the door and I am calling; do you want to open the door?” In a gloss on this verse, Francis says, “He does not use force, he does not break the lock, but instead, quite simply, he presses the doorbell, knocks gently on the door and then waits.”

Yes, Jesus waits (Rev 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”). He allows — even encourages — the factor of human free will in the overall process of salvation. And He does that because He doesn’t want us to be robots. Robot obedience would be meaningless. The pope, in this particular homily in Ecuador (7-7-15), made this point. It backs up what he is contending. It doesn’t logically follow that he therefore supposedly denies all necessity for doctrinal discussion or gospel preaching. It’s absurd to draw this unwarranted conclusion from this homily. Simply because someone is emphasizing one thing at a specific point in time, doesn’t mean that they deny something else.

It would be like saying, “Dave Armstrong is sitting and typing an article in reply to Dr. Echeverria on a Saturday afternoon; therefore, he is opposed to playing chess, reading Chesterton by a fire, or listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” The two types of activity (typing this paper vs. various enjoyable pastimes) have nothing to do with each other. If indeed, Pope Francis opposes all (what we might call) “doctrinal evangelization,” then it would be simple enough to produce clear and undeniable proofs that he did so. It’s not “proven” by arguments from silence, false dichotomies, and cherry-picking brief quotations that appear only at first glance to support one’s position, while ignoring context and the overall thought of the person in question.  

Dr. Echeverria insinuated above, by citing Pope St. Paul VI, that Pope Francis would deny the necessity of “preaching” and “proclamation” of the “Good News.” It’s quite odd, then — if indeed these charges are true — that in the same homily, Pope Francis also states: 

Our cry, in this place linked to the original cry for freedom in this country, echoes that of Saint Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). It is a cry every bit as urgent and pressing as was the cry for independence. It is similarly thrilling in its ardor. Brothers and sisters, have the same mind as Christ: May each of you be a witness to a fraternal communion which shines forth in our world!

Where is the beef here? Once again, the very example from Pope Francis that Dr. Echeverria cites, doesn’t come within a country mile of establishing what he is contending. It expressly contradicts his understanding. He picks out one portion and ignores the rest of the same homily. According to legal reasoning (and it works well in theological debate also): a partial truth (as opposed to “the whole truth” of the oath that court witnesses swear by) presented is little better than a falsehood. If one presents one theme in Pope Francis (even if it is a prominent one) and ignores other themes, while acting as if these other ones are altogether absent, this is misrepresentation and shoddy research.

Encounter versus “Theory”

Let us turn now to the contrast Francis draws between “encounter” and “theory.” He insists, “Being a Christian is not adhering to a doctrine. . . . Being Christian is about an encounter.” He seems to think according to a scheme wherein faith begins with the personal encounter with Christ, and subsequently, as a secondary matter, ends with doctrinal beliefs, convictions. This scheme is evident in the contrast Francis draws between “encounter” and “theory.” This contrast raises a question, in particular, that Francis does not address, but which is crucial to understanding the integral place of beliefs that one holds to be true, affirms, and asserts in the life of faith. Are the truths of faith expressed in the creedal statements of Nicaea and Chalcedon, more particularly, orthodoxy, constitutive of the message of the Gospel, that is, of that initial evangelical encounter? Alternatively, is orthodoxy mere “theory,” just “ideas,” mere thoughts or mere sets of words, altogether separate from God, not conveying or grasping divine reality itself, the truth about that reality, fulfilling the truth-attaining capacity of the human mind to lay hold of divine reality?

Francis does not say. What he does say leads me to think that, according to Francis, “orthodoxy” is mere theory, just ideas or words, etc. Indeed, one of Pope Francis’ first principles is, “realities are greater than ideas.” “Ideas,” says Francis are “conceptual elaborations.” It is not at all clear of what they are conceptual elaborations.

Dr. Echeverria — for whatever reason —  often cites Pope Francis without documentation in this article. Blessedly, Internet search methods allow me to locate what he is referring to. In this instance, ironically, I tried to locate the text cited in the second sentence above, and wound up finding words expressing almost precisely the same thing: in Pope Benedict!:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. (Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, 12-25-05, Introduction)

It seems to me that this is a great blow to Dr. Echeverria’s thesis of Pope Francis’ alleged alarming departure from Catholic precedent and tradition, if it is seen that here he is almost echoing the words of Pope Benedict XVI: and in an encyclical, no less.  Now Dr. Echeverria has to include Pope Benedict in the same criticism. And that is a rather uncomfortable position for a Francis-critic to be in.

But the similarity of thought presumably accounts for the Pope Emeritus’ strong and enthusiastic support for Pope Francis. He sees no radical break or rupture; Dr. Echeverria, alas, does. Readers know whom I will follow in such a circumstance. And I certainly won’t be convinced otherwise by reasoning as inadequate as what we have observed so far in this article.

“Encounter” seems to almost be considered a dirty word in the above excerpt from this article. Yet Pope Benedict in this encyclical uses it 19 times. Here are some examples (my bolded emphasis):

Faith, worship and ethos are interwoven as a single reality which takes shape in our encounter with God’s agape. (14)

Saint John’s words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God, . . . (16)

Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. (28)

Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. (31)

I did another search and ran across the reference. It was an address in Morocco (3-31-19). At first glance, it may seem as if the pope is denying the importance of doctrine. In my interpretation (considering context), I think he is merely expressing that doctrine is not all there is to being a Christian (which is a self-evident truth):

I believe we should worry whenever we Christians are troubled by the thought we are only significant if we are the flour, if we occupy all the spaces. You know very well that our lives are meant to be “yeast”, wherever and with whomever we find ourselves, even if this appears to bring no tangible or immediate benefits (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 210). For being a Christian is not about adhering to a doctrine, or a temple or an ethnic group. Being Christian is about an encounter, an encounter with Jesus Christ. We are Christians because we have been loved and encountered, and not as the result of proselytism. Being Christian is about knowing that we have been forgiven and knowing that we are asked to treat others in the same way that God treated us. For “by this everyone shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).

I have defended Pope Francis now 150 times. And I notice that he often makes statements that seem (to many, and with some justification) absolute or too strong when he is emphasizing something else. It’s the extreme contrast, which is actually a technique that Jesus often used as well (“unless you hate your mother and father you cannot follow me” etc.). In this situation he was speaking to priests and religious in Morocco where the Christian minority is only 1% of the population (almost all being Muslim). So he was underemphasizing “doctrinal evangelism” because it would almost never succeed in those extreme, hostile circumstances.

Sometimes (I readily agree with many papal critics in this respect), I think it would be better, and would prevent many misunderstandings, if the pope qualified some of his statements, making that much more clear what he is saying. That said; in this instance, I think my interpretation is strongly implied in context. He’s discussing the totality of being a Christian, which includes more than just doctrine. But it would have been arguably better (and I wouldn’t have to do this analysis) if he had said, “being a Christian is not only about adhering to a doctrine.” I see his statement here as intended in a way that is similar to what St. Paul wrote:

1 Corinthians 13:1-2 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. [2] And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

St. Paul is not denying the importance of “mysteries” and “knowledge” (which would include doctrine and theology) at all. He is doing what Pope Francis frequently does — drawing the strong contrast: “If I have all this knowledge and faith, but not love, I’m but a noisy gong, and in the end I am nothing.” I think that is what the pope was driving at in this talk, in a particular context of a tiny group of Christians in an overwhelmingly Muslim culture. One can also find analogous scriptural statements that essentially define what a Christian is, while not mentioning doctrine or theology. For example:

1 John 2:4-5 He who says “I know him” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; [5] but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him:

1 John 3:24 All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us.

Other times in the Bible, doctrinal considerations are made the criterion of being in the fold, while not denying the importance of love. For example (one of many):

2 Thessalonians 2:10-12 and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. [11] Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, [12] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

Both sorts of utterances are partial expressions of the whole. We don’t say that St. John couldn’t care less about doctrine because he said keeping the commandments made one sure of one’s Christian status. Nor do we say that St. Paul denied one aspect or the other. He expressed the centrality of love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 and the necessity of doctrinal truth in 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12. Neither one implies (let alone necessitates) a denial of the other. The same reasoning (which we see is eminently biblical) is what — I submit — Pope Francis was also doing in this instance.

Pope Francis rejects propositional revelation. He says, “God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.” Who thinks that divine revelation is a “compendium of abstract truths?” Is this a straw man?

Many people get into the habit or “game” of thinking that Christianity is merely a set of abstract beliefs and principles and rules, rather than a lived reality, grounded in the historical incarnation and sacraments and regular corporate worship and good works originated in God’s grace and the enabling power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. How this self-evident observation amounts to rejecting propositional revelation is, I confess, beyond me.

It’s curious because Dr. Echeverria readily admits that the statement itself is unassailable: so much so that he thinks it is being utilized as a straw man. But then he uses the obvious statement to draw an extraordinary and sweeping conclusion that doesn’t follow at all. The overall context makes it quite clear (again!) what the pope was driving at. The article provides one small snippet, yanked out of context. Here it is, presented in its proper context:

When I insist on the frontier, I am referring in a particular way to the need for those who work in the world of culture to be inserted into the context in which they operate and on which they reflect. There is always the lurking danger of living in a laboratory. Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths. I am afraid of laboratories because in the laboratory you take the problems and then you bring them home to tame them, to paint them artificially, out of their context. You cannot bring home the frontier, but you have to live on the border and be audacious.”

I ask for examples from his personal experience. . . . 

“The frontiers are many. Let us think of the religious sisters living in hospitals. They live on the frontier. I am alive because of one of them. When I went through my lung disease at the hospital, the doctor gave me penicillin and streptomycin in certain doses. The sister who was on duty tripled my doses because she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. The doctor, who really was a good one, lived in his laboratory; the sister lived on the frontier and was in dialogue with it every day. Domesticating the frontier means just talking from a remote location, locking yourself up in a laboratory. Laboratories are useful, but reflection for us must always start from experience.”

The Holy Father was talking about the intersection of personal faith and life experiences: faith and works: living out one’s convictions in a consistent way. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with this. It was a constant emphasis in both Our Lord Jesus and St. Paul. But Dr. Echeverria gets out of these observations, that Pope Francis “rejects propositional revelation”? Huh?! It’s such a weak argument that I will devote no further ink to it.

What I am saying is that Francis ’s rejection of propositional truth and the corresponding realist idea of truth underpinning it, and hence propositional revelation, would imperil the entire character of Christian faith and theology. 

If in fact he was doing that, I would readily agree. The problem is that nothing whatsoever has been submitted that would suggest to the slightest degree that that is what he is doing, or seeks to do. It’s like the theological equivalent of the Mueller Report: a big nothing-burger. Dr. Echeverria pulls out a line here and one from over there, appears to ignore the context of all of them, then makes grandiose conclusions from them that simply do not logically follow. 

The Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (11-24-13) is then cited:

At the same time, this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism. [233]

Nothing new, radical, shocking, or innovative is present here. It’s faith and works again. It’s the main argument of the epistle of James and a constant motif in St. Paul. If someone wants to insist that Pope Francis is out of line, he or she must also demonstrate how Paul and James are not wrong, because they teach the same thing.

Dr. Echeverria then proceeds into very deep theological waters, with weighty citations from Berkouwer and Lonergan, which are perfectly irrelevant, since he is presupposing, in producing them, false premises as to imaginary beliefs of Pope Francis, which have by no means been established in the previous argumentation.

It’s a house of cards or a house built upon a foundation of sand. One has to master arithmetic and algebra and geometry before moving on to trigonometry and calculus. In a court case, it has to be established that a person was present at location x at time y in order to prove that he or she committed the crime that is known to have occurred at location x at time y. The second can hardly be argued without the first being demonstrated.

In the Apostolic Constitution, Veritatis Gaudium, Pope Francis states in the first part of the second sentence, “For truth is not an abstract idea, but is Jesus himself.” Now, we might think that Francis is rightly insisting that truth itself must be authenticated existentially — that is, experienced, lived out, practiced, carried out — and hence cannot be reduced to propositional truth — to being merely believed, asserted, and claimed. Perhaps he is merely saying, as John Paul II once said, “No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!” However, the contrast in this first sentence is between abstract truth and reality rather than between two complementary ways of understanding truth, propositional truth and existential truth.

Since this is explicitly biblical way of expressing things, I don’t think it deserves any further rebuttal:

John 14:6 . . . “I am the way, and the truth, and the life . . .”

Ephesians 4:21 . . . the truth is in Jesus.

1 John 5:7 And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. [the Holy Spirit also being God, as Jesus is]

Veritatis Gaudium (1-29-18) also mentions “doctrine” 26 times, “theology” 55 times, “teaching” 35 times, “gospel” 24 times, “tradition” 8 times, “revelation” 20 times. This is hardly some anti-propositional truth treatise.

Dr. Echeverria cites one of the notorious interviews with the atheist Eugenio Scalfari, to suggest that Pope Francis denies “absolute truth.” This is the same guy who claimed that the pope denied the existence of hell (and heaven and purgatory), as well as the divinity of Christ, His bodily resurrection, and the incarnation. Everyone knows by now that Scalfari is a 95-year-old atheist who transcribes words from these “interviews” by memory. I got a special kick and chuckle about the supposed denial of the incarnation, seeing that the pope makes constant reference to it in his recent apostolic letter regarding nativity scenes (Admirabile Signum, 12-1-19):

The depiction of Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. (1)

. . . the humility of the God who became man . . . (1)

Coming into this world, the Son of God was laid in the place where animals feed. Hay became the first bed of the One who would reveal himself as “the bread come down from heaven” (Jn 6:41). (2)

The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. (2)

In a particular way, from the time of its Franciscan origins, the nativity scene has invited us to “feel” and “touch” the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation. (3)

It was to answer these questions that God became man. (4)

 It is the humble and the poor who greet the event of the Incarnation. (5)

The presence of the poor and the lowly in the nativity scene remind us that God became man for the sake of those who feel most in need of his love and who ask him to draw near to them. (6)

“Life was made manifest” (1 Jn 1:2). In these words, the Apostle John sums up the mystery of the Incarnation. The crèche allows us to see and touch this unique and unparalleled event that changed the course of history, so that time would thereafter be reckoned either before or after the birth of Christ. (8)

Really radical and heterodox stuff, that. Is all this a denial of the “propositional truth” of the incarnation and divinity of Jesus Christ? After more (in my opinion) baseless wild speculation, Dr. Echeverria writes:

[W]ith the denial of the unique and absolute status of the Christian faith is Francis implicitly denying the fullness and completeness of God’s  revelatory presence in Jesus Christ such that God is present in Jesus in a unique, absolute, and unparalleled way?

Obviously not, judging by the statements above from a papal Apostolic Letter released less than two weeks ago, as I write. It’s an outrageous insinuation, set forth without one iota of proof. I’m well-used by now to unwarranted attacks on this pope (I know their weakness firsthand, because I have dealt with them myself — and, if I do say so, refuted them — over 150 times now). But when folks start accusing the Holy Father and supreme head of the Catholic Church of things like a denial of the incarnation and divinity of Christ (vainly trying to “soften” the extremity of such charges with words like “implicitly” and qualifying question marks), it’s far too much to take. Enough is enough

I’ve spent enough time on this article, having now reached almost 7,000 words. I trust that open-minded readers may perceive by now its many and various shortcomings, and its failure to prove what it set out to prove.


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Photo credit: Eduardo Echeverria [Coming Home Network]

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