In God’s gift of faith, a supernatural infused virtue, we realize that a great love has been offered us, a good word has been spoken to us, and that when we welcome that word, Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, the Holy Spirit transforms us, lights up our way to the future and enables us joyfully to advance along that way on wings of hope.
Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei
It has been suggested before that Pope Francis is “not a theologian,” likely due to the stark difference in style while speaking or writing as compared to his predecessors, namely Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. While answering a question about his relationship with the Pope Emeritus, Pope Francis himself admitted that he is “not a theologian.”Perhaps what he is referring to is that he is not a “systematic theologian,” especially vis-à-vis Benedict, which appears demonstrably true.
However, when others say that Francis is “not a theologian,” they usually mean to imply a lack of academic training–in fact, he received several years of academic training–and it also implies that Francis himself is not as smart or capable, theologically speaking, as his predecessors. (See here this article in which Francis is the denied the epithet “intellectual” shortly after the author denies he is a theologian.)
But this too appears to be groundless, even if the question itself is irrelevant to the legitimacy or effectiveness of his papacy. As Elise Harris’ helpful article from the Catholic News Agency reveals, Pope Francis was not too far removed from obtaining his doctorate and, in fact, was a brilliant, well-rounded student. However, before he could complete formal academic study, he was called to serve the Church in various leadership and administrative posts.
On the basis of the above, perhaps we can say that Francis has not devoted himself primarily (certainly not exclusively) to pursuits of the mind. But, even so, we should at least admit that Pope Francis is thoughtful, well-educated, and well-read. It is likely that Francis is not winging his theology while serving as the Vicar of Christ or writing and speaking without regard to various Catholic theological traditions. Assuming, therefore, Pope Francis has actually spent some time developing his own comprehensive worldview, we can and should ask the question: where does Pope Francis stand, theologically speaking?
As an 82-year-old man approaching the 50th anniversary of his ordination, capturing every possible influence on Pope Francis would be impossible. From Wim Wenders’ documentary, for example, it’s clear that personal interactions have and continue to have a marked impact on his life. Here, I’m thinking specifically of the young terminally ill boy whom Francis called shortly before his death. In his writings, he’s cited previous popes, previous councils, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas à Kempis, Thérèse of Lisieux, Augustine of Hippo, Bonaventure, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and so on. He cites Bishop conferences from around the world and remains close to a trusted Argentinian theologian, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez.
And so, to answer the question of where Francis stands, here in these essays that will follow, I wanted to identify at least three major spheres of influence, of which there could be many more. These three are chosen not because they are entirely comprehensive, but because together these very different influences are likely to reveal deeper insights into Francis’ rich theology.
He often cites these figures, but I must acknowledge that Pope Francis’ exposure to these various theological traditions may have come primarily through indirect sources. For example, if Pope Francis inculcated the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and St. Paul VI, he would necessarily share many views in common with Romano Guardini, even if he had little familiarity with him directly. (He does, of course.) The point here is to acknowledge that Pope Francis is a unique figure within the Church, but also, as all Christians do, that he leans heavily on the contributions of those who have come before.
I’m gonna link this series over the next few days because so much of the “faith conservative Catholic” press is so utterly committed to a poisonous and prosecutorial coverage of the Holy Father that it is very difficult to find takes on the theology and practice of Francis that are not simply a hunt for evidence for the prosecution. The brainwashing of “orthodox” Catholics in the US is already very far gone. But for those of good will, Where Peter Is does a good job of treating Francis intelligently, charitably, and in accord with the Church’s teaching.