Argentina: A Brief Introduction to the Theology of Pope Francis

Argentina: A Brief Introduction to the Theology of Pope Francis February 20, 2019

Continuing his discussion of the theology of Pope Francis, Dan Amiri writes:

Guardini is not the only influence on Pope Francis, of course.  Pope Francis’ theology seems heavily influenced by his pastoral work in Argentina. That is to say, Pope Francis’ theology is pastoral in nature, and it is also shaped by his experiences in Argentina.

Pope Francis’ biography on the Vatican website is eager to mention that Francis is a “simple pastor.” Like St. John Paul II, he has an acute awareness of and sympathy with the difficulties of the laity trying to do their best in everyday life. St. John Paul II was able to write Love and Responsibility and the Theology of the Body, rooted as they are in a deep philosophical and theological tradition, not because he simply reasoned to it, but because he understood deeply what makes relationships work through many hours of counseling and pastoral support to engaged and married Catholics.

Similarly, Amoris Laetitia is written from the unique perspective of a pastor who has journeyed with people through seemingly impossible situations.  When Francis writes, therefore, he is not writing merely to educate or elucidate, although there is plenty of that. Rather, Francis writes to guide and direct, to provide encouragement and sometimes a kick in the pants.

The most “pastoral” examples of his are, of course, Amoris Laetitia and Gaudete et Exsultate, in which in several places the Pope addresses directly to “you.” Akin to his very personal theology, Francis takes a very personal approach in his writing. He writes,

You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you. Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received. Allow the Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world.

Amoris Laetitia created waves by some of its more difficult-to-accept pastoral directives. However, the bulk of the document is written with a special concern toward family life, even mundane as it is sometimes. He writes in a style that is serious about the problems facing families but also celebratory of of their love and devotion to each other.

In the family, three words need to be used.  I want to repeat this! Three words: ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Sorry’.  Three essential words!”. In our families when we are not overbearing and ask: ‘May I?’; in our families when we are not selfish and can say: ‘Thank you!’; and in our families when someone realizes that he or she did something wrong and is able to say ‘Sorry!’, our family experiences peace and joy”.  Let us not be stingy about using these words, but keep repeating them, day after day.

These small examples may be kitschy, but what I am arguing for goes beyond style. Rather, his pastoral approach  represents a deep orientation to each person as an individual who is living his own Christian journey. As discussed in my other article about Romano Guardini, I believe this relates to a personal conviction of the pontiff that life is a series of “I-Thou” relationships, in which people extend themselves to others and receive others in return, saying, “It is good that you exist.”

It would be the wrong time to get into a full treatment of liberation theology here, but it cannot be omitted either. To what extent did the young Francis agree or disagree with liberation theology? What impact did it have on his theology?

On the one hand, Francis very much takes seriously the Church’s “option for the poor.” Francis writes,

For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy”. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind… which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5).

On the other hand, the option for the poor, in Francis’ vision, is incompatible with philosophies which would deny the “other.”

Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilizes is not an unruly activism, but above all an attentiveness which considers the other “in a certain sense as one with ourselves”. This loving attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for their person which inspires me effectively to seek their good. This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, and in their ways of living the faith…. [Emphasis added]

The emphasized phrase in the above quote is one area that sets Pope Francis markedly apart from the principles of liberation theology, which is inherently skeptical of popular forms of piety. Instead, what Pope Francis appears to espouse is the “theology of the people.” Whereas one criticism of liberation theology has been to accuse it of being a type of cultural imperialism that seeks to read the plight of the Latin American poor through a foreign–namely Marxist–lens, the theology of the people values and exalts personal and communal piety and honors people as rooted in places, families, and communities. The theology of the people is a fundamentally positive and culturally appreciative way to express the preferential option of the poor, especially as it sees each individual as not an object but as a cooperative part of God’s plan. 

More here.

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