148. The Intellectual Journey of J.M. Bergoglio, Now Pope Francis

April 1st, 2018

Five years ago, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis. Since then, several biographies have been published to make his life known to the general public. For example, Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York, 2014) sticks out as perhaps the most comprehensive window onto Bergoglio’s life. As he was not a major figure in global Roman Catholic circles prior to his election, let alone in the wider world, these accounts have helped many to better understand the main events of Bergoglio’s personal story before becoming pope.

One recent book by Massimo Borghesi, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Una biografia intellettuale (2017: Jorge Mario Bergoglio: An Intellectual Biography), looks at Bergoglio’s life from a particular angle. Borghesi focuses on the intellectual influences (e.g. books, journals, authors, friendships, networks) that have shaped Bergoglio’s thought. In so doing, it provides a fruitful perspective on the genesis and development of the vision that Bergoglio embodies and promotes as pope. In addition to surveying all of the relevant literature, Borghesi has also worked on a questionnaire that Pope Francis responded to, giving further details and filling in the blanks of previous attempts. According to this well-researched analysis, Bergoglio’s intellectual biography seems to be marked by three main influences.

The French Jesuit Starting Point…

The formative years of Bergoglio as a student in philosophy and theology were profoundly impacted by his reading of French Jesuit intellectuals like Henri de Lubac, Gaston Fessard, and Michel de Certeau. They introduced the young Bergoglio to the Catholic dialectical thought, away from rigid Thomism and towards the dynamic synthesis of embracing opposites and enlarging the overall vision. In this Jesuit school of thought – which, by the way, became the matrix of the theology of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) – what are perceived as oppositions become “tensions”, at times painfully disruptive, but also potentially creative and always to be maintained as such. Bergoglio became persuaded that human thought is always “in tension”, never fixed or stable. He distanced himself from abstract definitions and propositions. He learned to always think in programmatically “open” and “loose” thought forms.

Intertwined with this dialectical tendency was Bergoglio’s early exposure to Liberation theology. Since his first attempts at coming to terms with its growing popularity in Latin America, Bergoglio was not interested in the Marxist ideological and political framework of much of the Liberation theology of those years. He was definitely attracted to the “theology of the people” that is a side aspect of Liberation theology. According to this particular way of theologizing, the people’s concerns, preoccupations, aspirations, etc. need to be the starting point. Rather than considering folk devotions and beliefs as a pre-modern stage that will be overcome by political liberation, the “theology of the people” assumes them as vital and central. Marian devotions and practices become the most appreciated expressions of the people’s heart even if they are contrary to Scripture. Theology and pastoral practice must therefore be developed only in a bottom-up way. In this view there is no sense in which the Bible can be the supreme norm for faith and life. In Borghesi’s terms, the future pope embraced “a liberation theology without Marxism” (p. 71). This is the context of Bergoglio’s important emphasis on the “people” being the principal subject of theology and Church life.

… Mediated Through the Uruguayan Alberto Methol Ferré …

Bergoglio’s early fascination with French Jesuit thought was further consolidated by his reading of the lay Uruguayan Catholic philosopher Alberto Methol Ferrè (1929-2009). From Methol Ferré he learned that human thought is always unstable, mobile, and ever-renewing. This was yet another injection of Catholic dialecticism that moved Bergoglio further away from static and traditional Thomism.

Methol Ferrè is also the intellectual who suggested that with the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church had finally overcome both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. After fiercely fighting them up front (from the 16th century to the 19th century), Rome eventually came to terms with its ability to assimilate and absorb the Reformation and the Enlightenment, rather than opposing them. At Vatican II the Catholic Church took the “best” of both and launched a “new” Reformation and a “new” Enlightenment. They were no longer adversaries, but parts of the “catholic” accomplishment of their positive contributions. This is the background of both Francis’ recent kind words toward the Reformation on the occasion of the 5th centenary and his low-key approach towards controversial lifestyles (e.g. homosexuality) marked by modern individual autonomy. What this basically means is that after Vatican II the Reformation as such is over and has been absorbed within the on-going renewal of the Church of Rome.

… Leading to the Italian-German Romano Guardini

Building on these two important phases of his intellectual life, Bergoglio grew in his conviction that the Catholic Church is the “complexio oppositorum” (the whole that makes room for the opposites). His study of German theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968) corroborated the Catholic dialectical dimension of his thought. Guardini argued that Roman Catholicism is “Weltanschauung”, an all-embracing worldview, the only one that is capable of handling multiple tensions between diverging poles and bringing them to a “catholic” unity. From Guardini, Bergoglio developed his idea of unity as being a “polyhedron”. The polyhedron is a geometric figure with different angles and lines. All different parts have their own peculiarity. It’s a figure that brings together unity and diversity, and Roman Catholicism is the home of unity as a polyhedron. This explains Francis’ commitment to ecumenical and inter-religious unity that downplays differences and concentrates on generic commonalities. In this view unity is not governed by biblical truth and biblical love but by the embracing view of Rome which holds together all angles and lines of life.

On March 13th, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, marking a significant transition in the Roman Catholic Church. What he has been saying and doing since being elected, e.g. his affirming attitudes towards all, his noisy silences over doctrine, his thoroughgoing Marianism, and his lack of clarity on several key issues, has caused many to wonder where his thought came from. Borghesi’s intellectual biography makes it clear that Francis’ pontificate comes from afar. It is the result of a long series of developments within Catholic thought, from Jesuit sources to Latin American influences up to the Vatican II matrix of contemporary Rome, without having being corrected by the Word of God. One needs to immerse oneself in what happened at the Second Vatican Council to begin to make sense of what Francis is saying and doing now. All analyses of Francis being an “evangelical” or a “kerygmatic” pope are simplistic and short-sighted. He is much more than that, in ways that are dialectical, open-ended, and at the service of the Catholic vision to embrace the whole world.

147. Does Mariology Imply A Diminished Role for Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?

March 1st, 2018

One common refrain in ecumenical discourse is that all historical religious traditions (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, various branches of Protestantism) differ in the way they understand salvation (e.g. justification, renewal, deification) and the nature/role of the church and the sacraments, but agree on the tenets of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. While at one level this is formally true – each of these traditions adheres to the Apostles’ Creed – a deeper and closer look shows some cracks in this widespread assumption.

Mariology is a testcase that provides an opportunity to see to what extent the Trinity and Christology belong to the shared faith. In the Roman Catholic tradition, at least, Mary is prayed to and is a venerated person surrounded by a vast array of “Marian” devotions, e.g. rosaries, processions, and pilgrimages. The titles with which she is referred to (e.g. Heavenly Queen, Mediatrix, Advocate) resemble those ascribed to her son, Jesus Christ. Mariology is also the theme of two recently promulgated dogmas (i.e. binding beliefs): the 1854 dogma of the immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of the bodily assumption into heaven. Mariology impinges not only on the doctrine of Revelation, but also on the doctrine of the Trinity.

How Central Is Mariology?

While the outspoken intention of Roman Catholic Mariology is that Mariological doctrines and Marian practices in no way detract attention from Jesus Christ, the reality is that the line that Rome wishes to preserve is indeed crossed in multiple ways. When entire shrines or processions or prayer chains are dedicated to Mary so as to completely shape the devotees’ lives, one finds it hard to attribute it simply to the devotional excesses of poorly educated popular piety. Separating Christian worship duly expressed from cultish practices fraught with paganism is a soft, even liquid border line that is not maintained and safeguarded enough, despite the good intentions expressed in the official teaching. The question is whether or not Mariology as it currently stands, with its dogmatic outlook and devotional pervasiveness, involves an inherent proximity, if not blurring, with what is not biblically defendable. The indisputable evidence of many of these devotional acts and habits indicates that in many people’s lives the centrality of Mary is experienced much more than reverence and obedience to Christ. All this happens not in spite of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches but because of what it explicitly or implicitly endorses.

Mariology Superseding Christology?

Since the dogmatic pronouncement of the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD (when Mary was given the title of “Mother of God”) the Mariological trajectory has been strongly pushed forward in ever-expanding and almost self-referential terms. After Ephesus the veneration of Mary became prominent in devotional practices, doxological patterns, and the religious arts. Christianity went through a Marian shift in terms of liturgy and general orientation. The paradox was that the Council that wanted to re-affirm the full deity and humanity of Jesus ended up promoting a functional heresy. Individuals, groups, and movements began to develop quasi-obsessive Marian interpretations of the Christian faith and Mary became the figure most prayed to in daily life. She was not meant to detract attention from her Son, but her post-Ephesus perception functionally superseded Him in terms of experiential forms of Christianity.

The Son always depicted in the company of the Mother, the Mother often portrayed as bigger than the (baby) Son, coupled with a growing prayer investment directed toward her, contributed to the gradual reconfiguration of Christian spirituality away from Christ (who began to be seen as too distant, too divine, too remote to be approached) and towards Mary with her maternal, tender, and compassionate attitude. Christ’s humanity – which is essential in recognizing his role as a mediator connecting the incarnate Son with us creatures – was progressively rarefied at the expense of His divinity. Christ’s divinity was eventually pushed to the forefront, making Him too far above to be invoked directly.

The balance of the confession in the early creeds of Jesus Christ being “fully God, fully man” was nominally maintained but practically abandoned by the increasingly Marian spirituality of the post-Ephesus church. The vacuum left by the lack of appreciation for the humanity of Christ was filled by the growth of the role of Mary the Mother. The nearness of the Mother of God was the answer to the remoteness of the Son of God and even caused the Son to be perceived further as being too distant to understand and take care of the struggles of life. In other words, perhaps unintentionally, the Mother swallowed the Son. Orthodox Christology based on the Councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) continued to be formally professed and defended; in reality, the appropriation of these Christological truths became a far too abstract discourse and of little spiritual benefit. What was practiced at the popular doxological level was an all-embracing Mariology that accounted for the spiritual needs of the people and whetted further theological development along Mariological lines.

Mariology Obscuring the Work of the Spirit?

There is more than that. In Trinitarian relationships, the work of the Son is strictly connected with that of the Holy Spirit. According to the Bible, the Son’s role as mediator is worked out by and through the Spirit. For example, it is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness by interceding for us in accordance with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). Christ is the Mediator to the Father and the Spirit enables us to come to Him. What happened with the unchecked rise of Mariology? By pushing Christ’s humanity outside of the picture and filling the void with the intercessions of the Mother of God, Mariological development diminished also the role of the Holy Spirit by not recognizing His vital involvement in the mediatoral work of the Son. In becoming the figure nearer to the Son who could be always invoked and felt closer than the Son, Mary practically unraveled the bond between the Son and the Spirit and undermined the relationship between the faithful and the Spirit. The “gain” of Mariology was the “loss” of the Holy Spirit. The impressive growth of Mariology meant the disturbing disappearance of the Spirit.

Marianism then obscured the nearness of the Son and froze the unique contribution of the Spirit. Beyond excesses in devotional practices – which are nonetheless intrinsically related to the nature of Mariology itself – the Roman Catholic view of Mary poses serious questions at the level of its Trinitarian implications.

Formal adherence to the creedal basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ needs to be matched with a coherent spirituality centered on the praise of the Triune God —Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — something that does not happen in Mariology because of its inflated view of Mary and its consequent marginalization of Christ and the Spirit. In spite of the stated intention not to divert attention from the Son, Mariology tends to be an intruder into Trinitarian harmony and an obstacle to a full appreciation of who the Triune God is and what He has done for us.

146. Why Are Younger Evangelicals Fascinated by Roman Catholicism?

February 1st, 2018

Present-day Evangelicalism has a strange relationship with history. On the one extreme there are those who endorse a “gap theory,” whereby their experience of the Christian life has little if anything to do with a sense of historical continuity. On the other, recent fascinations with romantic and selective appropriations of “tradition” show how easy it is to uncritically embrace beliefs and practices that are idiosyncratic with regards to Scripture. What is at stake is the historical nature of Evangelicalism as such.

In his new book In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), Kenneth Stewart wrestles with the present-day discussion on if and what Evangelicalism has to do with history. As a learned historian and acute theologian, Stewart helps the reader come to terms with the diachronic dimension of Evangelicalism that runs through church history, taking different shades and colors but ultimately responding to the same principles of biblical faithfulness and spiritual involvement.

This book is a vigorous and rigorous rebuttal to John Henry Newman, according to whom “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Stewart is convinced that to be deep in history one does not need to turn to Rome (become Roman Catholic) nor to Antioch (become Orthodox). To be Protestant means being rooted in Scriptural teaching first and foremost, as well as to be connected with a historical stream within Christianity throughout the centuries that has always carried an “evangelical” banner.

The book is much needed in times in which the label “evangelical” (mainly in the US context, I should say) is again going through a stress test, being too closely associated with political attachments and too loosely defined by its theological core. As this short piece is part of the Vatican Files series, this is not the place to write a full appreciation of the book. Its scope goes beyond an evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism. Suffice it to overview the book’s final chapter, where Stewart helpfully tackles the question “Why Are Younger Evangelicals Turning to Catholicism and Orthodoxy?” (pp. 253-273).

Reasons Behind the Drift

In recent decades there have been some “conversions” of well-known evangelicals to Roman Catholicism, from Thomas Howard in 1985 to Francis Beckwith in 2007, followed by significant numbers of younger intellectuals attracted to Rome. After acknowledging the primarily North American context of this phenomenon, Stewart also readily points to the fact that the “traffic” of those leaving Roman Catholicism for forms of Protestantism far exceeds the movements in the opposite direction. There is no sign of a massive turn of evangelicals to Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, what is happening is worth investigating.

A number of reasons are offered to explain the phenomenon. For some, it is simply a return to the church of one’s upbringing. These are people who were born in Catholic families and left Rome at some point in their life out of personal dissatisfaction, then returned to it at a later stage. For others, it was the search for the “historic church” as a haven from sectarianism. After experiencing naïve forms of evangelicalism characterized by isolationism and localism, some young evangelicals looked to Rome as the “mother” and universal church. For still others, it was a desire for the liturgical and doctrinal stability promised by Rome, in contrast to sectors of evangelicalism that tend to run after what is new and creative and therefore lose any sense of tradition. Finally, an admiration for the Catholic intellectual and theological traditions caused some to distance themselves from the apparent shallowness of the (lack of) evangelical thought.

Tools to Face the Challenge

Thinking through the list of reasons presented by Stewart provides much food for thought. Most of them derive from the lack of an historical sense of identity that often marks Evangelicalism. These weaknesses are real issues and are entry points for Roman Catholicism to look appealing to dissatisfied evangelicals. To them, Rome appears in an idealized form rather than its complex, and at times contradictory reality.

Ending the chapter and the book, the author helpfully suggests ways to recover an evangelical awareness of its being an historical movement grounded in the Bible and in continuity with the historical church. Of course, modernity has influenced the present outlook of Evangelicalism, but its doctrinal and spiritual shape has always been marked by the constant recovery and appreciation of the original (and therefore biblical and ancient) form of Christianity. Christian antiquity and historical legacies must be nurtured in connection with the fact that each evangelical congregation is part of the “catholic” church and the present-day global church. Cultivating both diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the evangelical faith will give antidotes to the allures of Rome.

There is a final point that needs to be underlined. Often the fascination towards Rome is characterized by a certain idealization of Roman Catholicism which can be significantly removed from reality. Roman Catholicism has its own intellectual traditions but is also home to folk traditions, syncretistic practices, and mystical trends that run contrary to this image of a solidly intellectual religion. People who turn to Rome often have a selective and faulty view of Evangelicalism and a selective and idealized perception of Roman Catholicism. This is why the current discussion on the evangelical identity crisis needs to take into account Stewart’s excellent piece of scholarship.

145. Mission. Did Pope Francis say Mission?

January 1st, 2018

“Throughout the world, let us be permanently in a state of mission”(The Joy of the Gospel, 2013, n. 25). These programmatic words epitomize the missionary vision that Pope Francis has been expounding and implementing since becoming Pope in 2013. Without a doubt, mission is central to his thought and action and is a defining mark of his pontificate. Having said that, it is not always clear what he means when he talks about “mission”. Indeed, in today’s religious language “mission” is one of those words which can have multiple “shades of gray”, and discovering its meaning can become a conundrum. Pope Francis adds his own complexities and nuances to the already variegated semantic range of the word “mission”.

The recent papal journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh (28-30 November) provides an entry point into the applied missiology of the Pope. Here Francis was visiting two countries where Christians are minorities and where mission, however definable, is the top priority of the Church. What a great opportunity for him to embody and exemplify the vigorous call to his Church to be permanently “in a state of mission”!

Omitting to speak of Christ?

What took place there – or, should we say, what did not take place? – sheds light on the whole issue. The Pope’s public speeches were about peace and harmony, solidarity and dialogue, and were centered on a generic faith in “God” which could have been understood in all kinds of ways. Any references to Jesus Christ were omitted. As Italian journalist Sandro Magister put it: “There was only one moment in which Jesus was named and his Gospel proclaimed, in the speeches on the first day of Pope Francis’s visit to Myanmar. Only that the one who spoke these words was not the pope, but the Burmese state counsellor and foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi, who is of the Buddhist faith”.

This is a strange way of doing mission, one might think. The gospel was vaguely proclaimed by a Buddhist politician rather than by the Pope. As far as Francis is concerned, important omissions of this kind are not new. For example, acute observers like Chris Castaldo have already pointed out the lack of Christ-related language in other public speeches. In 2015, visiting the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, the Pope delivered Christ-less speeches, however inter-faith and ecumenically friendly they were. As Castaldo soberly commented: “Sadly, he failed to do so much as mention the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ.’”

This omission looks like a pattern in Francis’ mission. It is true that even the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus speech at Athens did not explicitly mention the name of Jesus Christ, though he referred to the “man” (Acts 17:31), which is a clear reference to the Lord Jesus, the risen One and the coming Judge. Paul’s speech, nonetheless, challenged the belief system of his hearers and presented the reality of God’s righteous judgment over all, calling people to repent. All these elements also seem to be missing in the Pope’s missiology. When he is in inter-faith and political contexts, he seems reluctant to boldly and clearly proclaim the name of Jesus as the only Savior and Lord. Unlike Paul the missionary, who faced pushback and criticism because of his presentation of the gospel, Francis is normally liked by his hearers, who feel affirmed in what they already believe rather than challenged by the message of Jesus Christ. What kind of mission are we talking about then?

Mission without Apologetics?

Is this critical assessment based on reading too much into the Pope’s gospel omissions? One way of answering this question is to allow the Pope to speak for himself in explaining his missionary vision. Luckily, in flying back from Myanmar and Bangladesh, Francis gave a telling comment on what had just happened. Here is the script of the in-flight press conference, during which Francis replied to a question posed by a French journalist. The Q&A is worth quoting at length:

Etienne Loraillere (KTO): Holiness, there is a question from the group of journalists from France. Some are opposed to inter-religious dialogue and evangelization. During this trip you have spoken of dialogue for building peace. But, what is the priority? Evangelizing or dialoguing for peace? Because to evangelize means bringing about conversions that provoke tension and sometimes provoke conflicts between believers. So, what is the priority, evangelizing or dialoguing? Thanks.

Pope FrancisFirst distinction: evangelizing is not making proselytism. The Church grows not for proselytism but for attraction, that is for testimony, this was said by Pope Benedict XVI. What is evangelization like? Living the Gospel and bearing witness to how one lives the Gospel, witnessing to the Beatitudes, giving testimony to Matthew 25, the Good Samaritan, forgiving 70 times 7 and in this witness the Holy Spirit works and there are conversions, but we are not very enthusiastic to make conversions immediately. If they come, they wait, you speak, your tradition … seeking that a conversion be the answer to something that the Holy Spirit has moved in my heart before the witness of the Christians. 

During the lunch I had with the young people at World Youth Day in Krakow, 15 or so young people from the entire world, one of them asked me this question: what do I have to say to a classmate at the university, a friend, good, but he is atheist … what do I have to say to change him, to convert him? The answer was this: the last thing you have to do is say something. You live your Gospel and if he asks you why you do this, you can explain why you do it. And let the Holy Spirit activate him. This is the strength and the meekness of the Holy Spirit in the conversion. It is not a mental convincing, with apologetics, with reasons, it is the Spirit that makes the vocation. We are witnesses, witnesses of the Gospel. “Testimony” is a Greek word that means martyr. Every day martyrdom, martyrdom also of blood, when it arrives. And your question: What is the priority, peace or conversion? But when you live with testimony and respect, you make peace. Peace starts to break down in this field when proselytism begins and there are so many ways of proselytism and this is not the Gospel. I don’t know if I answered”.

With this answer one is projected into the missiological vision of the Pope. Let’s briefly mention its main points. First, there is a negative reference to proselytism without defining it. As it stands, his words discourage the expectation for conversions and put a stigma on the missionary activity that looks forward to seeing people embracing Christ out of their religious or secular background (see instead Mark 1:15; Acts 2:37-38). Second, there is an unnecessary polarization between good deeds/attitudes and the verbal proclamation of the gospel. Nowhere in the Bible is such a polarization between the content of the message and the behavior of the messenger maintained. We are instead called to always join what we say, what we do, and how we do it (e.g. 1 Peter 3:15-17). Third, there is a distrust of apologetics in dealing with unbelief. The missionary is not expected to give reasons for what she believes and to challenge the belief system of her friend. In this way, the Pope seems to discourage engaging in meaningful apologetics (evidently against 1 Peter 3:15).

According to Pope Francis then, mission does not look forward to making disciples, refrains from verbally proclaiming the Good News, and is skeptical about apologetics. How different this is to the standard evangelical understanding of evangelization given by the 1974 Lausanne Covenant:

“To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand. But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Savior and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God. In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his Church and responsible service in the world” (par. 4).

In this evangelical definition, almost everything the Pope warns against is instead strongly affirmed: the verbal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the necessity of Christian persuasion in the context of lives marked by integrity. This is not what Pope Francis has in mind when he refers to mission.

144. What Happens If Catholics Think the Pope Is a Heretic?

December 1st, 2017

Roman Catholics as individuals and groups may have different opinions about the Pope. After all, the Church of Rome is not a monolith, and even Popes polarize the assessments of the Catholic people. But what happens when negative voices become more frequent, more outspoken, more radical in their criticism, as seems to be the case in recent months? While public opinion is still heavily influenced by the overall positive image that Francis has, and continues to consider him as a kind of “hero”, within Catholic circles the “wait-and-see” approach toward some awkward aspects of his teaching is coming to an end. Groups of intellectuals, priests, and even cardinals are voicing their growing embarrassment and are doing it publicly and with a severe tone. In raising their concerns, what they point to are not some peripheral elements but important matters of doctrine. The irony is that the one who is supposed to guard the Roman Catholic deposit of faith is charged with allegations of introducing confusion, if not heresy.

Coming to Terms with Recent Criticism

There are at least three criticisms against Pope Francis that are worth considering. Let’s briefly look at them chronologically.

In September 2016, four cardinals (two of whom have recently died) sent to the Pope five questions (in Latin “dubia”, doubts) concerning the interpretation of  key parts of his summary document on the synod on the family, Amoris Laetitia. In the explanatory note, they give voice to the “grave disorientation and great confusion” that exist in the Catholic community. According to the cardinals, the contrasting interpretations of the papal text arise from its ambiguity and the apparent contradictions with previous official teaching on the re-admission of divorced people to the Eucharist. Although they asked the Pope to clear any ambiguity, Francis never responded and perhaps will never do so. Their doubts will remain unanswered.

In July 2017, more than 200 Catholic priests and intellectuals from around the world wrote “a filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies” to the Pope , thus elevating the tone of the criticism to the denouncing of doctrinal deviations. Their observations were no longer questions, but real corrections made to the teaching of the Pope. The word “heresy” was evoked in looking at the demise of the traditional teaching on marriage and the sacraments, as they see happening, and severely threatening the future credibility of their Church.

At the end of July then, Father Thomas Weinandy, a capuchin priest and former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, made public a letter sent to the Pope. In it, he argued that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease.  It compromises their capacity for love, joy and peace”. Moreover, Weinandy charges Francis with “demeaning” the importance of doctrine, appointing bishops who “scandalize” believers with dubious “teaching and pastoral practice”, giving prelates who object the impression they will be “marginalized or worse” if they speak out, and causing faithful Catholics to “lose confidence in their supreme shepherd.”This is hard language coming from a mainstream Roman Catholic theologian who has spent the whole of his life in the service of his Church and the Vatican. What is happening in the Roman Catholic Church? Is Rome on the eve of an internal breaking point with disastrous consequences?

The Tensions between the Roman and Catholic components

These three criticisms are extremely serious and perhaps a tipping point in Catholic circles as far as the growing uneasiness towards Pope Francis is concerned. Various interpretations have been suggested in trying to understand what is happening. What might be useful, in coming to terms with it, is to relate both Francis’s apparent openness to change and ambiguity in teaching on the one hand, and the angrier reactions of the traditionalists on the other, to the inner and constitutive dynamics of Roman Catholicism.

Roman Catholicism is what it is because it inherently combines the “Roman” element with the “Catholic” one. Both are essential components of the synthesis offered by the Roman Catholic system. The genius of Roman Catholicism is its being at the same time Roman and Catholic, one and the other, one never at the expense of the other.

It is “Roman” in the sense that it is organically attached to the city and the Church of Rome, and by extension to the institutions, canon laws, dogmas, hierarchy, and the political outlook associated with it. Much of this derives from a complex history marked by an imperial ideology.

It is “Catholic” in the sense of its being inclusive, global, embracing, and open to different movements, trends, and trajectories. The Roman elements provide stability and continuity; the Catholic element fosters development and renewal. Roman Catholicism is able to hold the tension deriving from its dual identity and to maintain it at a manageable balance.

What is happening with Pope Francis is to be understood against the background of the tensions between the Roman and Catholic poles within Roman Catholicism. Francis is strongly pushing the “catholic” agenda of Rome, embracing all, affirming all, expanding the traditional boundaries of the Church.

Some traditionalist circles are reacting strongly because they see the danger of losing the Roman elements represented by the well-established teachings and practices of the Church. They see the Catholic swallowing the Roman. They see the risk of the Catholic taking precedence over the Roman and therefore severing the dynamic link that has characterized Roman Catholicism for centuries.

Whereas with the previous Pope (Benedict XVI), the overall balance was more in favor of the Roman than the Catholic, with Francis the Roman Catholic pendulum is swinging towards the catholicity of Rome. Francis’s critics believe that he has gone too far and want the pendulum to reverse towards more reassuring Roman elements.

Can There Be a Biblical Reformation in Roman Catholicism?

As we are celebrating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, with its call to the Church to submit to the authority of Scripture and its recovery of the good news that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, it is appropriate to ask whether Rome is still grappling with the same issues that gave rise to it.

Luther took issue with the Pope and his theology and practice of dispensing God’s pardon through indulgences. Luther’s standard was the biblical gospel, and he challenged the Church to embrace afresh the gospel. Rome responded by absorbing some of Luther’s concerns about grace and faith within the sacramental system largely shaped around Roman elements and within its synergistic theology significantly marked by Catholic components, thus reinforcing the overall Roman Catholic synthesis rather than reforming it according to the Word of God.

Ever since, the Roman Catholic system has been swinging and bending one way or another to accomodate either progressive or traditional trends, either reiterating Roman emphases or introducing Catholic ones, and then rebalancing the whole. But the Church was not reformed because it did not recognize the external and supreme authority of Scripture and the gospel of salvation by faith alone. As it stands, it will never be renewed according to the Word of God. It will certainly accomodate “Catholic” movements like the Charismatic renewal and “Roman” movements like the Marian groups, and then re-fix the overall synthesis. It will even accomodate an emphasis on biblical literacy, as well as commend unbiblical devotions and beliefs: both-and, Roman and Catholic!

What is happening now with the criticism of Pope Francis is business as usual in the Roman Catholic Church: at times the pendulum swings one way before readdressing the overall balance. It could be argued that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a great push towards the Catholic element and the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were subsequent attempts to moderate it in terms of reinforcing the Roman elements. With Francis the Catholic is again winning the day. These tensions will go on as long as Roman Catholicism exists. They are inner movements within the system. If one looks at Roman Catholicism as a system, then even the doubts of the cardinals, the criticism of priests and intellectuals, and even their charges of heresy against the Pope become easier to come to terms with. Roman Catholicism is both Roman and Catholic, and will always be so.

Nothing is going to break abruptly and, more importanly, no biblical reformation is possible under these conditions. Roman Catholicism will be stretched and go through a stress test, but will be able to handle both Francis’ catholicity and his critics’ insistence on the Roman component. The synthesis will be expanded, but the gospel will not be allowed to change Rome. This is the reason why the Reformation is not over.