Who is Pope Francis?

We have meandered through several blog posts and covered a lot of topics. I have tried to build the case for the following points:

1)      We often characterize the current split in the church as between “liberals and conservatives”, but these terms borrowed from politics may not be fully accurate

2)      It can be shown that political liberalism comes out of a vision of man that we call the “unconstrained vision” (conservatism might be better called the “constrained vision”).

3)      The unconstrained vision is applied to religious ideas would heavily overlap with what St. Pius X called “modernism”; it is a heresy, although poorly named. It tends however ultimately to drift into atheism, similar to what left wing politics does in its fullest expression under socialism or communism.

4)      If one reads his statements in toto and looks at a key Vatican reappointment ( The prefect of the CDF, Archbishop Gerhard Mueller) it is very clear that Pope Francis is not particularly close to having modernist sympathies, and therefore not likely a theological “liberal”. But the question remains what is he ideologically?

So the remainder of this post will try once again to answer this.

First: He is a “Son of the Church”, that is he accepts what the Church teaches as true. He is not a in agreement with the Church “dissenters” , so I would predict that he simply will not reverse any teaching. This is a rather easy prediction to make since as we have said earlier, Popes can not “reverse” teaching.  This is going to be a big disappointment to a lot of people looking for him to  publicly revoke various moral rules that the culture feels are onerous. He has said this multiple times, but more importantly other statements and actions strongly suggest the same. When asked about the possibility of women priests he has stated “That door is closed”.  A very interesting article on this was written in the modernist National Catholic Reporter, by Robert McClory and it can be read in its entirety here . What is fascinating to me about this piece is what it reveals about the modus operandi of the kind of modernist “reporting” the left wing Catholic media engages in. We are told that Pope Francis regards the issue of women priests as definitely closed because of the statement of John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. That seems pretty clear to me, given that Pope John Paul II issued a formulation that was clearly meant to settle the issue definitively, and as such is infallible, as the ordinary magisterium is infallible. The NCR reporter than goes on to say the Pope Francis really himself does not view it this way because he actually believes the issue is settled, but is merely being clever. As McClory goes on to say:

So was that a ringing endorsement of the male-only priesthood or simply recognition of the way things are at present in the church? Was it a betrayal of the hopes of the millions who saw him as the reincarnation of Pope John XXIII or the only thing he could say without arousing the combined fury of one side or the other on this most hot button?

I’m not predicting the priesthood will be officially open to women in Pope Francis’ time. But the kind of things he’s saying and doing may well prepare for that step in a papacy in the not-too- distant future.

Note, finally, that all this talk is about a door, a closed door — not a brick wall, not a barbed wire fence, not a concrete barrier. It’s just a door. Anyone can open the door with the right key. And in the tradition of Catholicism, who holds the keys?

This is obviously the kind of politicized reporting we see in the secular media, by pundits who wish to create a reality by reporting a particular narrative or story that makes a given position seem like it is inevitable. This can work in the secular political world because the people can vote schizophrenically, one day voting politicians for advocate spending cuts and the next day for politicians who promise bigger government programs. Whoever is in power calls the shots. America’s founders would be aghast at this, since the constitutional structure of the United States was to limit this kind of “Democratic Tyranny”, but that is a subject for another day and another blog). What McClory and those like him do not understand is that just as the Constitution is supposed to limit the actions of the political elite the tradition of Church (that is the magisterium and scripture) will limit the actions of any authentic Catholic. The Pope says he is a “son of the Church”, I believe him, and that is why he states the door to women priests is closed. If the door to “women priests” is closed then You can bet the door to a reversal of any number of controversial Catholic teachings is even more tightly sealed as well.  He further suggested he really is a son of the Church by his excommunication of a priest who was heretically rejecting Church teaching in a number of areas, the details can be read about here .

Another clue to Pope Francis is his sympathies with political socialism, which I would argue are not well formed and more of a tendency then an opinion formed by rigorous analysis. Listen to what he says in his now famous (or infamous if you prefer) interview with Eugenio Scalfari about his early exposure to communism…Below is the relevant interview segment with Scalfari’s comments in blue and the Pope’s in red:

Were you aware you had a vocation from the time you were young?

No, not very young. My family wanted me to choose another profession, to work, to earn a little money. I went to university. There I had a teacher for whom I developed a respect and friendship; she was a fervent communist. Often she would read me texts from the Communist Party or give them to me to read. In this way, I also became acquainted with a very materialistic conception of things. I remember that she also let me read the American communists’ communiqué defending the Rosenbergs, who had been condemned to death. The woman I am telling you about was subsequently arrested, tortured and killed by the dictatorial regime then governing Argentina”.

Did communism seduce you?

“Its materialism had no hold on me. But it was useful to me to become acquainted with it through a courageous and honest person. I understood some things, such as an aspect of its social teaching which I then found in the social doctrine of the Church”.

Liberation theology, which Pope Wojtyła condemned, was quite widespread in Latin America.

Yes, many of its exponents were Argentinian”.

Do you think the Pope was right to combat it?

Certainly they gave a political bent to their theology, but many of them were believers with a high concept of humanity”.

I think this suggests that like many individuals, Pope Francis has a vague attraction to socialism. They are attracted to it because of its superficial claim that aims at helping the poor. Remember the will is never attracted to evil as such but always to some aspect of good associated with it. The evil of socialism is not its “concern” with the poor, but the proposed solutions, not to mention its intrinsic atheism and ultimate tendency to degenerate into tyranny. Unfortunately there is a long standing problem within Catholic social teaching that has underappreciated the value of the free market in combating poverty. This was beginning to undergo correction under the Papacy of John Paul II with his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, unfortunately this has not been developed further. This is of course a topic for another day. 

Many of Pope Francis’s actions and comments will thus have this “liberal” flavor since I suspect he will often associate liberal policy solutions with concern for the poor. We also need to realize unlike his two predecessors, he is likely less “ideological”. That is his thought has a less well developed overarching structure, although he has a commitment to remain consistent with the magisterium.  I say this because both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were in addition to being Bishops, both academics, John Paul II being a professional philosopher and university professor, and university chaplain and Benedict XVI a professional theologian.  Individuals in that environment tend to develop organized patterns to the basic ideas which inform their thinking. Pope Francis while also involved in teaching seems to have been much less impacted by university life.  Benedict XVI was steeped in it of course, and John Paul II was also heavily involved in teaching and lecturing University students while a Bishop. In contrast Pope Francis seems to have a bit of disdain for the ivory tower as indicated by his comments during the interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro for the Jesuit magazine “La Civilta Cattolica”. The interview can and should be read in its entirety here.  In this exchange the Pope states the following:

“When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it. There is a brilliant letter by Fr Arrupe to the Centres for Social Research and Action on poverty, in which he says clearly that one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty. The word insertion is dangerous because some religious have taken it as a fad, and disasters have occurred because of a lack of discernment. But it is truly important.”

“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.

In a sense while Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II were driven by “ideas”, while Pope Francis is driven more by experience.  It is analogous to a situation described in clinical medicine. There is a tension between things we know based on the science of medicine, that is the knowledge based on controlled experiments in the lab or large scale clinical trials in which therapies or diagnostic tests are pitted against one another in human experiments, versus the art of medicine, which is the clinical judgment clinicians have based on their experience.  While there is room for both, an excessive reliance on either can be undesirable. In this case an excessive reliance on experience can be dangerous.  Let us return to Pope Francis’s nun dispensing the penicillin based on her own dosing schedule noted above.  Frankly I am not sure I agree entirely with the Pope’s unqualified endorsement of this approach. The nun who tripled the dose based on her “experience” could very well have poisoned someone if given free rein because obviously antibiotics have toxicities that are ‘worked out in the lab”, and these toxicities are dose related. Now my main point is not about antibiotic dosing and infection treatment, but the danger of an excessive reliance on “experience” un-tethered to a structural framework. This kind of thing is how post Vatican II, all kinds of odious ideas seeped into the Church, unconstrained by the prior moral and theological structure worked out over the preceding 2000 or so years. It gave us Priests defending abortion, liturgical dance, and I would argue played a role in the debacle of the abuse crisis. This reliance on experience does not make Pope Francis a “liberal”, but it troubles me nonetheless and it delights the modernist dissenters for the same reasons. It can be made elastic enough that just like our nun working out her own dosing schemes for antibiotics might poison someone, even while meaning well, the modernist can poison the Church.

This danger is made more apparent when we consider something else that Pope Francis tells us about himself. In another part of the interview he tells Fr. Spadaro that is was odd that the Jesuit disciplinary spirit appealed to him, “because I am a really, really undisciplined person.”

Indeed! This suggests that his propensity to shoot from the hip is deep seated and to some extent I suspect the Pope sees it as a mark of authenticity.  

On the other hand this tendency to shoot from the hip is also connected to a sense that the essential truths of the faith are rather fluid in a vague sort of way. In the Spadaro interview the Pope states:

“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists — they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

Quite honestly I have no idea what the Pope is saying here! I think all would agree with the obvious point that no one is beyond God’s mercy. Beyond this, the rest of the statement is opaque. I think if I was to wager a guess the Pope has a vague distaste for a kind of Catholicism that was popular in the 1950s in which the moral manuals would specify very rigorously, and in great detail what things were sins, and the gravity of the sin, using a framework that could get at times perhaps overly detailed and have a bit of a legalistic feel. (Think Herbert Jones manual of moral theology, I book I rather like to tell the truth.) I personally think this version of Catholicism gets a bum rap, as it had the virtue of clarity, but clearly the Pope does not like it. 

We see this kind of thing in another comment, in the same interview, in which the Pope states:

“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.

“When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.”

Again I have no idea what the Pope is thinking about here! One wonders just what decadent commentaries on Thomas he is thinking of.  Still I get the feeling that what Pope Francis is responding to is a style. Pope Francis tends to emphasize his experience and teaching of literature rather than philosophy in the same interview. He apparently does not “like” the technical, precise and abstract reasoning of the neo-Thomists, referring the vaguer, more experiential sort of thing common in the modern Church. Hans Urs Von Balthassar versus Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange one might guess.  My problem with this is if you read both, Von Balthassar is all hazy jargon and Garrigou-Lagrange is while precise, very straight forward. On a practical level when seminarians were reading Garrigou -Larrange, The Church was relatively healthy in the sense that people were practicing the faith, conversions, baptisms, and vocations were increasing, and we basically knew what a sin was. Now? Not so much.

Finally there is a last clue in the Jesuit who Pope Francis claims influences him the most, Peter Faber, who he may canonize.  Perhaps this is the Pope’s model. Peter Faber was very active during the reformation, a time of profound crisis in the Church. Faber’s reaction to this crisis has been recently described in the Online Journal of British Jesuits (“Thinking Faith”) as follows:

“…..fully grasping the breadth of the Reformers’ challenge, he urged friendship, not judgment:Anyone helping the heretics of this age must be careful to have great charity for them and to love them in truth, banishing from his soul all considerations which would tend to chill his esteem for them. We need to win their goodwill, so that they will love us and accord us a good place in their hearts. This can be done by speaking familiarly with them about matters we both share in common and avoiding any debate in which one side tries to put down the other. We must establish communion in what unites us before doing so in what might evince differences of opinion.”

In another passage

“Favre’s apostolic style was based around friendships, engaging in spiritual conversation, hearing confessions and giving the Exercises. He becomes that good shepherd, willing to go out, to travel the highways and byways in search of the ‘lost sheep’. He walks miles between cities, and within cities, seeking out conversation, trusting always that God is at work. He explains how, on journeys, he seeks to be alert to opportunities around him: “While staying in inns, I have always felt inspired to do good by instructing and encouraging people… it is very good to leave in the inns and houses where we happen to stay some trace of good and holy behavior, for everywhere there is good to be done, everywhere there is something to be planted or harvested.

Finally another passage tells us

His manner was warm and open-hearted; he himself describes ‘my old style of embracing much and pressing little’. This approach endeared him to Church and State leaders, and to the general populace as well as those who labored alongside him. Core to Favre’s way of operating in the world is his belief that people are changed more by those who love them in God’s grace than by those who seek to argue, outwit or overcome them. His great gift was in his ability to come alongside people so that they loved him and knew themselves to be loved by him. From this place, and only from there, he exhorted them, pushed them to push themselves; he encouraged them to catch a glimpse of just what God could make of them, if they just allowed him a chance.

The entire article can be found here . (By the way the French renders Peter Faber as Pierre Favre, hence the British article uses the French spelling above.) In reality one might be able to defend this approach. There is nothing intrinsically “wrong” with it, but the question is it the right one for the times we face remains.

So what’s the bottom line?

I think we can say the following Pope Francis is not an ideological “liberal” In the sense that he is not committed to a theologically liberal or rather modernist vision, and in fact he is committed to remaining loyal to the magisterium. No major teaching changes are can or will take place. That’s the good news, and it’s not a surprise, the Holy Spirit is not going to permit a modernist Pope to do modernist things. Matthew Fox and his buddies will need to wait for hell to freeze a little bit more for a repeal of the 6th commandment.

The bad news is this Pope is by temperament, taste, and style not aligned with those of us in the relatively traditionalist camp. That is he is not particularly aligned with those of us who admire the clarity, beauty and strength of the pre Vatican II Church of the 1950s. Who think people like Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange were cool, and who thought that the moral manuals of the 1950s like “Moral Theology” by Herbert Jone made moral rules clear, logical and less, not more burdensome. Those of us who think the Thomas Merton of the “Seven Story Mountain” is a lot more appealing than the Merton who wrote the Asian Journal will find the instincts of this Pope different than our own. This is a big change from his predecessor.

Beyond this it is clear that this Pope views the model of preaching as Peter Faber. Strive for and demonstrate personal holiness, a basic fundamental gospel message, and this will lead the hearers,  person by person, to explore the gospel, whereupon the more difficult moral principles and aspects of faith can be grasped down the road. This is the Pater Faber approach, and Pope Francis tells us this is his model Jesuit. It is more or less what the Pope has been doing. There is probably some underlying validity to this approach. Still the concern is this.. in the time of Peter Faber the basic principles of “natural theology”, what we can know about God and natural law were generally accepted by almost everyone. These form the necessary foundation for faith. A subject we will soon return to. In a society in which the very possibility of a natural theology or the natural law is rejected can the “Peter Faber” approach by the Pope work?

That is who Pope Francis “is”. Only God knows how this will work out. The danger is that the modernists in the Church and the overt atheistic enemies of the Church outside her will use both the temperament and tastes of Pope Francis as well as the “Faber inspired”  non confrontational, approach to create a narrative that the past teachings of the Church can be rejected. It does not matter that the Pope does not believe this himself, because his tendency to avoid defending the truths of the faith intellectually and via direct confrontation is worrisome when you are facing a post Christian culture. As I mentioned above we are worse then the pagans who at least lived in a world shaped by Greek metaphysics and Jewish monotheism. They were prepared to receive the Gospel. Peter Faber may have been a good man, but at the end of the day the Faber was dealing with Lutherans! While very serious theological divisions existed the basic principles of the moral law and significant elements of natural theology were shared. The major dispute with the modern world is not with Protestants but rather with those who are rejecting Christianity, and ultimately theism altogether. I am not sure the Faber approach by itself will fare very well. It may have a place but direct apologetics to defend the faiths has a role as well.  I hope that at some point the Pope recognizes this as well. Peter Faber is fine but a little Robert Bellarmine would be nice too.

Still God has sent us this Pope. We need to pray for him. We need to challenge those who claim he will change the teachings that cannot be changed.  We must pray that his belief that simply being holy and sharing a simple Gospel can “soften” the enemies of the Church enough to grant her a hearing, succeeds even admist our doubts. We need also to recall the Pope is not the only one who can defend tradition. As the baptized this is our job as well. We can take some reassurance that this Pope knows that at the end of the day our real battle is not with mere humans but as St Paul says “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” Ephesians 6:12

St Michael Pray for us


Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium. Ímperet ílli Déus, súpplices deprecámur: tuque, prínceps milítiæ cæléstis, Sátanam aliósque spíritus malígnos, qui ad perditiónem animárum pervagántur in múndo, divína virtúte, in inférnum detrúde. Ámen


3 comments for “Who is Pope Francis?

  1. Matt
    October 30, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Very interesting analysis, thanks. This is pretty much how I’m coming to understand Francis as well. The comparison to Peter Faber (who I didn’t know anything about) is particularly interesting. Those passages sound just like Francis.

    • Michael DePietro
      November 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      I think it would tend to, and again would be surprised if the guys appointed by JP II and Pope Benedict XVI would vote entirely inconsistently with the views of the men who appointed him. The Catholic modernists will continue to claim otherwise however.

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