Tag Archives: Pope Francis

Webinar with Leonardo De Chirico: The Theological Vision of Pope Francis

17 Nov 2015, 18:00 (London Time)

Pope Francis seems to be an easy character to come to terms with. Frugal, transparent, down-to-earth, he is one of the most popular public figures around the globe. What about the theological vision that permeates his papacy?

In order to have a glimpse inside of Francis’ spiritual horizon, one needs to take his Jesuit identity into account. In spite of the kind manners of the man, a certain anti-protestant attitude lingers in the Pope’s mind and heart, especially as far as Luther, Calvin and the Puritans are concerned. Although he does not seem pushing a dogmatic outlook of Roman Catholicism as his precedessor, he nonetheless has his own “dogmatic certainties” and they are not what one may expect them to be. The insistence on one’s own conscience and the pervasiveness of God’s grace in it is paramount to approach his overall view of the relationship between God and human life. This explains why so many secular people resonate with what he is saying. They don’t feel challenged but affirmed.

Furthermore, his insistence on “mission” needs to be grasped within the whole of his theological framework. The use of the same word by other Christians does not necessarily imply the same meaning. Mission is the outworking of Francis’ program and fits his own personal interpretation of the papacy. Since catholicity is what Roman Catholicism stems from and look for, Francis’ version of catholicity is perhaps the most significant mark of his papacy.

Date & Time:
17 Nov 2015, 18:00 (London Time)
Sign up here


Leonardo De Chirico is the pastor of Breccia di Roma, a church that he helped plant in Rome in 2009. Previously, Leonardo planted and pastored an evangelical church in Ferrara, Italy, from 1997 to 2009. He earned degrees in History (University of Bologna), Theology (ETCW, Bridgend, Wales) and Bioethics (University of Padova). His PhD is from King’s College (London); it was published as Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. In 2015, he published A Christian Pocket Guide to Papacy through Christian Focus. He is a lecturer of Historical Theology at Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione in Padova, Italy. Additionally, Leonardo is the Director of the Reformanda Initiative, which aims to equip evangelical leaders to better understand and engage with Roman Catholicism, and the leader of the Rome Scholars Network (RSN).

    113. What Do You Think About Pope Francis?

    September 24th, 2015

    By Leonardo De Chirico and Greg Pritchard

    Pope Francis in one of the most liked leaders in today’s world. In 2014 Time Magazine voted him ‘Man of the year,’ and his popularity is on the increase, especially outside of the Catholic Church. In secular circles, including left-wing thinkers and LGBT movements, many seem to resonate with his apparent approachability and simplicity. With his insistence on mercy, love and tenderness, Francis likes to make his message simple, inclusive and non-judgmental.

    Evangelicals are not immune to Francis’s charm and kindness: many are attracted by his seemingly biblical language (e.g. conversion, mission, personal relationship with Jesus) and his less formal type of spirituality. This is just one side of the coin, however. Other descriptions of Francis depict him as a “chess player” due to his Jesuit ability to maneuver in unpredictable ways after establishing a personal relationship with people. Others still consider him a “liberal” due to his apparently universalistic views of salvation for all men in spite of their religion or lack of it. Still others think he is an “anti-capitalist” due to his harsh comments on free-market economies. The overall picture is therefore one of complexity.  Wherever you land in your opinion of him, here are five traits essential to understanding Pope Francis.

    Francis is a very gifted politician 

    A priest does not climb up the ladder of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and become Pope without having profound political gifts. Francis shares uncanny similarities to President Obama, another extraordinarily talented politician.  Obama and Francis both emerged onto the public stage with charm and an amazing ability to communicate.  They understand their respective audiences and winsomely communicate their message. They both exude a star power that is magnetic and draws people to them.

    There are two important aspects of their common political gift; empathetic listening and reflective communication.

    We see Obama’s ability to sympathetically listen to those of vastly different opinions when he was elected President of the Harvard Law Review.  In a revealing article by Jodi Kantor in the New York Times, before he became a candidate for the U.S. presidency, Obama’s relational political style was described in some detail.  The context is important: Harvard Law School at that time was a hotbed of political conflict.  Bradford Berenson, a future associate White House counsel in the Bush administration and classmate of Obama explained: “I have worked in the Supreme Court and the White House and I never saw politics as bitter as at Harvard Law Review in the early ’90s.”

    Kantor talked to dozens of Obama’s classmates and summarized that they “could not remember his specific views” and that even his closest friends didn’t “know exactly where he stood.” What everyone did remember was Obama’s extraordinary ability to listen to them and make them feel understood.  Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.”  Obama had a surprising ability to connect to the belligerent factions at Harvard Law School and not show his own cards: “People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Obama’s words.” In the midst of one political dustup, Obama calmed the waters and “students on each side of the debate thought he was endorsing their side.” One classmate remembering the incident commented: “Everyone was nodding, Oh he agrees with me”. [1]

    Today many evangelicals are experiencing Pope Francis in a similar way: “Oh, he agrees with me.”  Hundreds of Evangelical leaders are coming to Rome on a pilgrimage to meet this highly relational Pope.  They experience a Pope who is listening to them and who sounds like them. One Pentecostal evangelist gave the Pope a “high five.” An evangelical President of one organization described his two visits to Rome to a small group of evangelical CEOs, “Our world view needs to change.  We need to rapidly change our world view.  This pope apologized at a Protestant church.  No pope has ever gone out of the Vatican and gone to a Protestant church.  He is saying join hands.”  After talking to Francis, one major evangelical theologian was naive enough to question whether Francis even believed in the category of a Roman Catholic Pope.  Evangelical leaders are experiencing the magnetic presence and listening ear of a relationally warm, but gifted and canny politician, who is giving them “the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.”

    We see the second element of Obama’s and Francis’s political gift in their common style of communicating; they identify with their audience and therein cause their audience to identify with them.   Obama, in the prologue to his autobiography explains the result of this style “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  When Obama was emerging as a national candidate, this skill served him well.  When he was considering becoming a candidate for the presidency, his closest advisors recommended that he run before he had a detailed Senate voting track record while he could most profitably use his blank screen magnetism.[2]  At this moment the same can be said of Francis: He is charming, deflects old ways of thinking, and like the most gifted of politicians, has created “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

    Francis is a Jesuit with an Anti-Protestant Slant

    Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history. It is sort of an irony to think that a pope who appears to be close to Evangelicals actually belongs to the religious order that was founded to fight Protestantism. The former soldier Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1566) gathered a group of friends who called themselves The Society of Jesus (Societas Jesu) and eventually they were commissioned by the Pope to stop the spread of Protestantism. Their task was to imitate the strengths of Protestantism, i.e. spiritual depth and intellectual brightness, but to use them as catholic weapons against it. The Jesuit order provided the “alternative” catholic way to the Protestant faith. It comes as no surprise then that the first saint that Pope Francis proclaimed in 2013 was Pierre Favre (1506-1546), a French first generation Jesuit with a “smiling face” who more than others tried to look like a Protestant in order to drive people back to the Roman Church.

    Furthermore, the Jesuit side of Pope Francis is clear enough given his published (and never retracted) opinion that Luther and Calvin destroyed man, poisoned society, and ruined the church! In his 1985 lecture on the history of the Jesuit order, he gave severe evaluations of Luther (a “heretic”), and especially of Calvin (a “heretic” and “schismatic”) bringing about the “Calvinist squalor” in society, in the church, and in man’s heart. According to that lecture, Protestantism lies at the root of all evils in the modern West. The fact that this lecture was republished unchanged in 2013 in Spanish and translated in 2014 into Italian with his permission, but without a mitigating word of explanation, indicates that this assessment still lingers in the Pope’s heart and mind. He recently added a harsh comment on the Puritans, falsely associating them with a bigoted and merciless form of Christianity. This friendly Pope to Evangelicals is a Jesuit whose entire mission of order is to defend the Roman Church against Protestantism. Certainly Francis is a smiling Jesuit, but the anti-Protestant still beats in his heart.

    Francis is Selectively Radical

    The third trait addresses Francis’ radicalism. In a recent book Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2015) Cardinal Walter Kasper argues that Francis is not a liberal but a radical in the etymological sense of the Latin word “radix,” meaning root or originating principle. According to Kasper, the Pope is challenging the Church to be radical in the sense of re-discovering the roots of the Gospel which are joy, mission, frugality, solidarity with the poor, freedom from legalism, and collegiality.

    Kasper’s reading of Francis is clever and insightful. It encourages us to move beyond the usual polarizations between “liberals” and “conservatives” within the Church by introducing a third category, that of “radicals.”

    Francis appears to be radical on certain issues, but much less so with others. He is radical on poverty, but silent on the massive financial power of his Church. He seems to be radical on mercy, but never mentions original sin and divine judgment over all sinners outside of Christ. He is radical in advocating for simplicity, but keeps the expansive apparatus of an empire of which he is the head. He is radical in denouncing the tragedies of unethical capitalism, but seems to be much less outspoken towards the immoral deviations of one’s personal sexual life. In other words, his radicalism is somewhat selective. Radical in one area, much less so in another.

    In a certain sense, “liberals” are radical on social issues, while “conservatives” are radical on doctrinal issues. Everyone is radical in some sense. There are different shades of radicalism. Francis’ radicalism is much closer to the liberal version than the conservative one. Therefore, playing a bit with words, the question is whether or not his radicalism is radically different from a more liberal tendency. Historically speaking, the root of theological liberalism lies in the preference given to religious feelings over doctrinal expressions. And this is exactly what the Pope seems also fond of doing. If mercy and tenderness describe the overall message of Francis, they sound more like liberal catchwords than traditional ones.

    Francis is a Latin American

    Francis comes from Latin America where, where over the course of the 20th century, Roman Catholicism lost its religious monopoly, and a full 19% of the continent is now Protestant. The traditional Latin American Roman Catholic response to the numerical growth of Evangelicals has been labeling them as “sects” and “cults,” but this derogatory approach did not stop millions of people from leaving the Catholic Church to join various evangelical churches. The risk of losing the continent has caused the Catholic Church to do something it has never done before, to choose a non-European as Pope, to choose a Latin American as Pope.

    Now the Pope himself is directly involved in rescuing the continent, strengthening the Roman Catholic Church and reaching out to evangelicals from the Vatican.  His visits to Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay within the first two years of his papacy are an indication of the importance of this task in his agenda.

    Secondly the influence of Latin America on Francis is visible in his focus on the poor.  Latin American was the home of Liberation Theology with its Marxist categories and condemnation of capitalism.  Yet even those Latin American Christian leaders who rejected the Marxist analysis, which is embedded in a full blown Liberation Theology, still have often prioritized the poor in their theological thinking and emphasized those passages of scripture which reflect this concern.  Francis’ condemnation of Capitalism’s evils has surprised many in the west, but shouldn’t, if one understands Francis’ cultural roots.

    Francis is an ecumenical leader

    Francis is the most ecumenical pope ever.  Francis, before his election to the papacy, built relationships with evangelical leaders, attended evangelical conferences in his home country, and regularly visited a Youth with a Mission prayer center for personal prayer.  Since he became Pope, Francis has gone to an Italian Pentecostal church and apologized for how Roman Catholics have persecuted Pentecostals and welcomed hundreds upon hundreds of evangelical leaders to the Vatican.  What is behind Francis’ extraordinary openness and warmth toward evangelicals?

    We find the answer in a fascinating article in the Catholic Herald “The Pope’s great Evangelical gamble”.[3]

    “Somewhere in Pope Francis’s office is a document that could alter the course of Christian history. It declares an end to hostilities between Catholics and Evangelicals and says the two traditions are now ‘united in mission because we are declaring the same Gospel’. The Holy Father is thinking of signing the text in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, alongside Evangelical leaders”.

    The author explains that the Pope believes that “the Reformation is already over” because the Lutheran World Federation and Vatican’s “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” was signed in 1999.  In a video recording shown at an evangelical pastors conference in Texas, Francis said, “Brothers and sisters, Luther’s protest is over.”

    What is going on here?

    The last two Popes, John Paul and Benedict, in response to the 1999 statement, did not announce that the Reformation is over.  Benedict, while still leading the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a second official Vatican statement which explained that the Joint statement was inadequate and listed a number of serious differences between the historic Lutheran position and the Roman Catholic position.   In short, Benedict explained that the Council of Trent, which condemned protestant / evangelical central convictions as anathema, was still in force.

    But Francis is a different kind of Pope.  He is not a high powered theologian confronting relativism or clarifying doctrine like a Benedict or a philosopher theologian like John Paul II whose Vatican produced the Roman Catholic Catechism.  Francis is sincere, kind and loving.  But he is a committed Roman Catholic ecumenical leader, and most importantly, he is doing evangelism in the same way Roman Catholics have evangelized through-out their history.  Roman Catholics have extended their influence by absorbing movements, converting kings and using physical force. This last method is no longer a widespread strategy of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, Francis has apologized for how Roman Catholics have persecuted Pentecostals, indigenous native groups, Waldensians, etc.

    But the Roman Catholic evangelistic methods of absorbing movements and converting kings are both being actively used by Francis in his present PR campaign toward evangelicals.  For example, Roman Catholicism did not reject the Charismatic movement but absorbed it and a new sort of Catholic was created, a “charismatic Catholic.”  The Roman Catholic method of absorption is now focused on evangelicalism, seeking to dismiss the differences and emphasize the shared beliefs.  Or as the Catholic Herald describes it “The Pope’s great Evangelical Gamble” is Francis’s attempt to “declare an end to hostilities between Catholics and Evangelicals.”  Francis is seeking to establish a new sort of Catholic, an “evangelical Catholic.”

    The first step toward this broader absorption is the conversion of kings.  Over the previous two millennia the Catholic Church has historically extended its influence was by means of converting the kings and queens of political power, and within a generation or two, their kingdoms.  This same method is being used today to convert kings of influence.  Although a flood of Roman Catholics are becoming evangelicals, there is a trickle of evangelical leaders (kings of influence) converting to Roman Catholicism.

    The importance of this should not be underestimated.  Evangelicalism is easily the fastest-growing Christian movement in the last century.  According to Oxford Press’s World Christian Encyclopedia, the Roman Catholic Church stagnated with only 6% growth over a century, while evangelicalism grew 20 times as fast with 122% growth as a percentage of the world’s population.  The Roman Catholic leaders are aware that millions of Roman Catholics each year are converting to evangelical churches all across the world.  When Benedict was still Pope, he gave a lecture in his home country of Germany and expressed confusion of how to respond to the enormous growth of the global evangelical church.

    “The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss…This worldwide phenomenon- that bishops from all over the world are constantly telling me about- poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse?”[4]

    But while Benedict seemed confused, Francis is bringing evangelicals close and saying we are the same and the Reformation is over.  Francis is not confused or “at a loss” but knows exactly what he is about.

    The Siren Call of Unity

    In our fragmented and violent world, unity is one of the catchwords that many people are attracted to. Francis is strongly advocating for Christian unity and ultimately the unity of mankind. His passion for unity makes many Evangelicals think that he is the person who may achieve it. Francis developed his idea of ecumenism as 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.

    Where does this view of unity come from? In pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic ecumenism other Christians were drastically invited to “come back” into the Catholic fold and to conform to its doctrines and practices under the rule of the Pope. With Vatican II (1962-1965), Roman Catholicism updated its ecumenical project and embraced a concentric circle type of unity in which the one and only Church “subsists in” the Roman Catholic church and other churches and communities gravitate around this center according to their degree of nearness or distance from it. According to Vatican II and subsequent magisterial teachings, Christian unity is threefold:

    1. professing the same faith,

    2. celebrating the same Eucharist (i.e. the Roman Catholic way), and

    3. being united under the same sacramental ministry in apostolic succession (i.e. under the Pope).

    How does the polyhedron kind of unity as advocated by Pope Francis fit with this post Vatican II view of unity? For example, as far as the second mark of unity is concerned, is the Pope saying that the sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist and the theology of transubstantiation belong at the center of Christian unity, or are they particulars that can accommodate differences? Or is the Pope saying that apostolic succession, which is the basis of the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, is still part of the center, or is it a variable that is secondary to Christian unity?

    Polyhedrons are fascinating figures and Francis’ use of the image of a polyhedron is thought-provoking. However, the problem for Christian unity does not primarily lie in the metaphors used, but in the theological vision that nurtures it. If the Catholic Eucharist and the Catholic sacramental system are part of the center of Christian unity, one can make reference to spheres or polyhedrons all he likes, but the substance of the problem still remains.  The unity proposed by Francis still gravitates around the Roman Catholic Church and its distinct outlook, and not around the biblical Gospel that calls all Christians to conform to the mind of Christ.

    Conclusion:  How Should Evangelicals Respond to Francis?

    An increasing number of Evangelicals say: “I like this pope, he talks about Jesus a lot…” True, Francis knows the language that Evangelicals use (e.g. “conversion”, “mission”, “personal relationship with Jesus”) and is able to articulate it in a winsome way.

    The basic rules of interpretation, however, tell us that using the same words does not necessarily mean saying the same things. It is important to understand what Francis means by the words he uses. As already pointed out, in order to understand Francis’ vocabulary one needs to come to terms with Vatican II. This important Council fudged the theological meaning of important key words in order for the Catholic project to be implemented. In his language, for instance, conversion does not mean (what evangelicals mean) turning away from sin to grace, from judgment to pardon, from a state of reprobation to being saved. For Francis, conversion means coming closer to Christ on the assumption that everyone is already in the sphere of his saving grace, though at different distances.

    In Francis’ view, all those who follow their consciences are right with God. They may want to convert, i.e. come closer and experience a deeper measure of grace. Moreover, Francis believes that Muslims are brothers and sisters who pray to the same God as Christians do. For them conversion may mean getting deeper in their religious commitments but not necessarily turning away from Islam and embracing faith in Jesus Christ alone. The word “conversion” is the same, but the theological meaning is hugely different.

    Take “mission” as another example. In Francis’ vocabulary, mission does not mean going out in the world to proclaim the gospel of salvation in Jesus. It rather means calling people to come closer to the salvation that all people already are part of by being human though in different degrees. For Francis there is no “in or out” sense in this understanding of mission. The whole of humankind is already “in” a state of grace: mission is the task of calling people to engage it deeper, not to call them “in”. They are already “in”. Here again, words are the same but their meaning is vastly different.

    Evangelicals have to do their homework in order to go beyond the surface of mere phonetics in order to grasp the profoundly different theological vision underpinning Francis’ language. They may find it surprising how far Francis is from the standard evangelical understanding of the biblical Gospel.

    Moreover, in talking about unity, Francis is open to all, be they Christians or non-Christians, religious or secular people. He calls Muslims brothers and sisters. He prays with them saying that they are praying to the same God.  To secular people he says to follow their conscience and they will be fine. Evangelicals are just one piece in his vision. Unity like a polyhedron, means that according to Francis, there are different ways to relate to the Catholic Church, but Rome maintains central stage.

    Francis may use similar language, be a nice person, and be passionate about unity. But he is still the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Church, while not being static, nor a monolithic reality, does not really change in its fundamental commitments. It expands itself but does not purify itself. It embraces new trends and practices but does not expel unbiblical ones. It grows but it does not reform itself according to gospel standards.

    “What do you think about Pope Francis?” is a pointed question for Evangelicals especially. They seem to be the target of Pope Francis’ efforts towards friendship, reconciliation and unity. Befriending Evangelicals by talking and behaving like them may be a Jesuit way to convert evangelical kings of influence and absorb the Evangelical movement, the fastest growing portion of the Christian world. This is why it is vitally important for evangelicals to know who Pope Francis really is.

    Leonardo De Chirico, PhD King’s College, is Lecturer of Historical Theology at Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione, Padova (Italy); pastor, Breccia di Roma, Rome; Director of the Reformanda Initiative and the Rome Scholars Network, author, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman and A Christian Pocket Guide to the Papacy. He blogs on Roman Catholic issues from an Evangelical perspective at www.vaticanfiles.org  

    Gregory A. Pritchard, PhD Northwestern University, is President of the Forum of Christian Leaders, Director of the European Leadership Forum, author Willow Creek Seeker Service: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church


      111. We Are Not Puritans, Are We?

      August 1st, 2015

      The Puritans do not generally enjoy good press. For most people the term Puritanism is synonymous with religious bigotry and judgmental moralism. This is especially true in Neo-Latin cultures where the word “Puritan” is normally associated with a derogatory caricature of Puritanism. In these contexts, Puritan is referred to as a kind of cerebral Christianity, overwhelmingly interested in outward and formal purity at the expense of human warmth and personal proximity. Pope Francis is no exception. On a recent occasion he made an impromptu reference to the Puritans. The term slipped out of his mouth as he was telling a story of a priest with a negative attitude.

      What Are We, Puritans?

      In delivering a meditation on priesthood to thousands of priests from around the world at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome on June 12th, the Pope recalled a priest who found it difficult to baptize the child of a single mother who had asked him to do so. The priest had opposed the idea because the woman was not married and the child had been born outside of marriage. The then Archbishop Bergoglio reacted with outrage and vehemently replied: “What are we, Puritans?” In his mind there was no better description of this hypocritical and arrogant approach than naming it “puritan”! Are we Puritans? Absolutely not! “Please” – the Pope went on in his meditation – “let’s not have a Church without Jesus and without mercy. Don’t scare the faithful people. When this happens, when the priest’s heart is bureaucratic and attached to the letter of the law, the Church, which is Mother, is transformed, for so many faithful into a stepmother. Please, make them feel that the Church is always Mother”.[1]

      What does Puritan mean according to Francis? Apparently it means to have a church without Jesus, a church that scares people rather than welcoming them, a bureaucratic church obsessed with the letter of the law, a church that is a rigid stepmother rather than a loving mother. In Francis’ vocabulary there was no better term to discredit this merciless form of Christianity than referring to it as “Puritanism”. But is this a fair theological and historical description of Puritanism? Surely not.

      There are tons of evidence that support a very different portrait. Here is how C.S. Lewis sketches it: “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotallers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion” (C.S. Lewis,  Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature [On Edmund Spenser], pp. 121-122). Instead of being cold and detached Christians, they were “worldly saints” (L. Ryken), combining a radical biblical faith with a down-to-earth interest in the whole of life.[2] Again C.S. Lewis is helpful here: “To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called ‘puritanical’; they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together. So far as there was any difference about sexual morality, the Old Religion was the more austere. The exaltation of virginity is a Roman, that of marriage, a Protestant, trait” (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 35).[3]

      An Unsettled Relationship with Historic Protestantism

      Against the term Puritan, Francis encouraged the priests to “be merciful, be merciful” – “mercy” being the key word with which to understand the Pope and the program of the fast approaching Jubilee of Mercy – as if Puritanism was opposed to a biblically-defined mercy.

      Pope Francis is not new in showing profound uneasiness – even repulsion – towards what historic Protestantism stood for. In his 1985 lecture on the history of the Jesuit order he wrote severe evaluations of Luther (a “heretic”), and especially of Calvin (a “heretic” and “schismatic”) bringing about the “Calvinist squalor” in society, in the church, and in man’s heart.[4] According to that lecture, Protestantism lies at the root of all evils in the modern West. The fact that this lecture was republished unchanged in 2013 in Spanish and translated in 2014 in Italian with his permission, but without a mitigating word of explanation, indicates that this assessment still lingers in the Pope’s heart and mind.

      In spite of the much applauded, yet inconsequential “words of apology” recently extended to Pentecostals and Waldensians, Pope Francis still demonstrates he has mixed feelings about the whole of the Protestant Reformation, its main architects (e.g. Luther and Calvin), and some of its historical representatives (e.g. the Puritans). In his impromptu reaction Francis echoed widespread prejudices. Surely the Puritans deserve a much fairer treatment than what the Pope gave his audience. They were not merciless Christians. In J.I. Packer’s words, the Puritans were “God’s giants” who embraced whole-heartedly a version of Christianity that paraded a particular blend of biblicist, pietist, churchly and worldly concerns.[5] The Pope is among those who instead of caricaturing Puritanism should take the opportunity to better grasp it historically, theologically, and pastorally.

      [2] Leland Ryken, Wordly Saints. The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986).

      [3] Other interesting quotes by C.S. Lewis on the Puritans can be found at https://tidesandturning.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/c-s-lewis-defining-and-defending-the-english-puritans/. I wish to thank Greg Pritchard for pointing this website to me.

      [4] See my Vatican File (n. 83) “What Francis Really Thinks of the Reformation and of Calvin in particular”: http://vaticanfiles.org/2014/06/83-what-francis-really-thinks-of-the-reformation-and-of-calvin-in-particular/.

      [5] J.I. Packer, Among God’s Giants. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Eastbourne, UK: Kingsway Publ. 1991) p. 433.

        110. A “Green” Pope?

        July 1st, 2015

        As expected, the release of the encyclical Laudato si’ (“Praise be to you”) by Pope Francis was acclaimed as a major contribution to the urgent need for a sustained effort in environmental care. Given the breadth of the issues discussed, with this document the Pope wishes to engage not only the Christians or the like-minded people but “every person living on this planet”. It is possible that Laudato si’ will have an echo in wider circles of the public opinion (e.g. green movements and left-wing political sectors) and for a more prolonged time than a usual papal encyclical. Certainly it is the highest authoritative document that the present Pope has written so far, given that his 2013 first encyclical Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”) was essentially drafted by his predecessor Benedict XVI and that his 2013 Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) is hierarchically inferior in the ranking of magisterial documents. More than expounding traditional doctrinal points, Francis wants to underline wide-spread concerns and to show the open-mindedness of the Roman Catholic vision to address them. The reference to a well known prayer by Francis of Assisi in the title reinforces the intention to recall a long tradition and to attract a wide attention.

        Environmental Concerns and Roman Catholic Emphases

        In 192 pages (a fairly long length for an encyclical), six chapters, the usual invocation to Mary “the Mother and Queen of all creation”, and two closing prayers, Pope Francis delineates his concerns for the deteriorating health of planet earth and calls humanity to take action in order to stop the degenerating process. The remedy to the downgrade trajectory is the adoption of an “integral ecology” which will lead to a “sustainable and integral development”. After analyzing what is happening at our “common home” in terms of pollution and climate change, access to water, loss of biodiversity, decline in the quality of human life, and global inequality, the Pope touches on the cultural and social distortions that cause the present-day ecological crisis (e.g. pervasive technocracy and distorted anthropocentrism) and suggests the “gospel of creation” based on “common good” principles and applied to the social and cultural levels as the solution for it.

        The document strikes the cords of the wide-spread environmentalist mentality. At the same time it is part and parcel of the Social Doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. This means that its analyses and proposals are interspersed with typically Roman Catholic elements. For instance, apart from the Marian title of “Mother and Queen of creation”, there is a strong sacramental language in the final part of the document whereby the Eucharist is presented as the “greatest exaltation” of creation: “Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love”. “In the bread of the Eucharist, creation is projected towards divinization, towards the holy wedding feast, towards unification with the Creator himself” (236). Another specific Catholic emphasis in calling for an “ecological conversion” is the insistence on the role of global agencies and organizations while there is little stress on personal conversion. In the papal document sin has more social than individual dimensions. The thoroughgoing reference to the role of education in overcoming the ecological crisis tends to be a humanistic wishful thinking more than a sober Christian comment that has a realist view of humanity’s ability to deal with its problems.

        Evangelical Parallel Resources

        Laudato Si’ will prove to be a useful reading to penetrate what is central in the Pope’s vision: the poor, universal brotherhood, a sacramental vision of the world, and an appeal to the secular public opinion. In coming to terms with this encyclical, Evangelicals should be aware of what their own tradition has already produced on these pressing issues.

        The 1980 Lausanne Occasional Paper “An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Life-style”(http://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-20) is a compelling reminder of our biblical vocation to live soberly and to promote justice. The 2008 document by the World Evangelical Alliance “Statement on the Care of Creation” (http://www.weacreationcare.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/WEA-Statement-on-Care-of-Creation.pdf) tackles the challenges of being faithful stewards of God’s creation in a biblically responsible way. Finally, the 2010 Cape Town Commitment (http://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment) is a passionate call to a Christian life-style marked by humility, integrity and simplicity.

        These documents are much better grounded in the biblical doctrine of creation, the fall, and Christ’s redemption than the papal encyclical. They are also framed in the context of an evangelical concern for evangelism and mission, thus reflecting a more biblical and holistic approach than Laudato Sì’. A comparative study between these evangelical documents and Francis’ encyclical will be a good exercise for all those who want to come to terms with what the two main global Christian families are saying and doing about the environment.


          109. Jubilee of Mercy (and Indulgences)

          June 1st, 2015

          Pope Francis surprised the Catholic community and the public in unexpectedly announcing the indiction of an extraordinary Jubilee year beginning at the end of 2015 and running throughout most of 2016. The tradition of celebrating jubilee years dates back 1300 AD when pope Boniface VIII issued the first holy year calling pilgrims to visit Rome in order to receive a plenary indulgence. The name “jubilee” reminds of the biblical institution of the jubilee whereby, according to the Mosaic law, every fifty years slaves were supposed to be freed and debts had to be cancelled (e.g. Leviticus 25). However, in spite of the name, the Roman ecclesiastical jubilee has little to do with this biblical precedent and mostly to do with the medieval practice of a powerful church granting remission of the penalty of sin by shortening the time in Purgatory. The Vatican jubilee is therefore part and parcel of a theological vision whereby Purgatory is a pillar of the afterlife, the church claims to administer God’s grace on His behalf, and pilgrims have to do some penitential acts like rosaries, pilgrimages, fasting, i.e. religious works, in order to receive the remission. It is not a coincidence that Martin Luther, after visiting Rome in 1511, became troubled with the practice of indulgences and eventually nailed the 95 theses in the (vain) hope that a biblical and public discussion could be initiated.

          It is interesting to note that an unconventional Pope like Francis, who is known for his down-to-earth language and easy-going manners, would instead indict a Jubilee year which is part of a long and well-established tradition deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. Even the apparently “fresh” approach by Francis is always to be related to the “old” institution he is head of.

          Focus on Mercy

          Francis wants his Jubilee year to be focused on mercy. The overall theme of the year and of its wide-ranging activities will be mercy. This is not a new emphasis. His 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium already centered on mercy as an encompassing rubric of the mission of the church. After being elected, Francis went public in saying that he was reading a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper, Mercy. The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014) and that he was profoundly impressed by it. So, the Jubilee of mercy will be a vantage point from which Francis’s understanding of mercy will be displayed in full force.

          So far, some indications about how he understands mercy are a mixed bag. In these first two years of his reign, mercy has often been swollen with regard to its biblical meaning as to refer to a sort of divine and universal benevolence towards all. Eye-catching sentences like “Who am I to judge?”, “God forgives who follows his conscience”, “God always forgives”, contribute to widen God’s mercy to the point of being exchanged for an all-embracing, all-inclusive love. Yet unclear is the way in which the Pope relates God’s mercy to His justice and how this relationship fits in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. According to Scripture, Christ is the “merciful and faithful high priest” who made “propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). Any biblical understanding of mercy needs to be interwoven with God’s justice and Christ’s atonement which calls for repentance and faith. Otherwise, mercy can be (ab)used as a general manifestation of kindness which does not depict God’s mercy at all, but is rather a form of humanistic goodwill.

          What about Indulgences?

          The Bull of indiction of Jubilee of Mercy was issued on April 11th and is entitled Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy). There was some curiosity about how this outward-looking Pope come “from the ends of the world” would treat a very “Roman” and ecclesiastical topic like indulgences. He deals with it at paragraphs 21-22 where he uses a language much more personal and relational than juridical and traditional, yet the substance of the theology and practice of the indulgences is granted.

          In closing, one almost overlapping event will be the V centenary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. It is interesting to observe that while on the one hand the Roman Catholic Church is officially preparing an “ecumenical” commemoration of the Reformation, on the other she represents and promotes again the theology and the practice that caused the Reformation, i.e. the granting of indulgences. How is it possible to commemorate something that was opposed to the indulgences and, at the same time, focus on the same theological framework that was the cause of the dispute? Is it because the Roman Church is, despite all change, semper eadem, always the same?

            107. Preaching According to a Vatican Handbook

            May 1st, 2015

            Historically speaking, the sermon (in Catholic language: the homily) has hardly been on the top priority list of the Roman Catholic Church. The standard Catholic liturgy is centered around the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium n. 11), not around the preached Word. More attention has been given to sacramental celebration than Gospel proclamation. Moreover, Catholic spirituality has been shaped more by various devotions than the public exposition of the Word of God. With exceptions, of course, preaching has largely been peripheral, tending towards moralism and catechizing rather than paying adequate attention to the biblical text. Vatican II (1962-1965) stirred the Catholic Church to re-focus on Scripture, not altering the centrality of the Eucharist and the overall sacramental framework, but adding to both a more biblical flavor. To which extent this goal has been achieved is an on-going disputed matter.

            In Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) – his 2013 Exhortation – Pope Francis devoted several paragraphs (nn. 135-175) to encourage Catholic priests to be serious about preparing and delivering the homily, perhaps out of a dissatisfaction about the way they normally deal with it. Now the Vatican department responsible for overseeing worship and the sacraments has released a “Homiletic Directory”, i.e. a 150-page manual for preachers which contains guidelines on how to preach appropriately.

            The Sacramental Canopy

            Ars preadicandi (the art of preaching) is the technical expression which is used in the handbook to indicate the homiletic skills that are required of the preacher. Before highlighting the more practical suggestions, the handbook sets the theological framework for the homily. Since it is the Eucharist that makes the Church (quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1396), preaching is put under this sacramental canopy. This means that Christ is really present in the Eucharist but only analogically so (i.e. in a weaker, more remote way) in the preached Word. The Word proclaims Christ but it is the Eucharist that actualizes the paschal mystery of Christ (n. 10). The Word announces the Gospel but it is the Eucharist that transforms people (n. 14). Preaching then accompanies the Eucharist, but its ultimate significance rests on the “real presence” of the Eucharist.

            According to the Protestant Reformation, the Church is constituted by the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. Put differently, the Word comes logically and theologically first whereas the Catholic manual is faithful to the Roman Catholic reversal of the order and actually conflates the preaching of the Word into the Sacrament (sacrament in the singular, given the absolute prominence of the Eucharist above all other sacraments). The fact that the homily has “an intrinsically liturgical nature” (n. 5) confirms that this new Vatican emphasis on preaching derives the proclamation of the Word from the sacramental priority of the Eucharist.

            A Handbook for Good Catholic Preaching

            Coming to more practical matters, the handbook delineates the sermon as having the following features: short, not a lecture, not too abstract, not an exegetical exercise, not a personal testimony only (n. 6), in line with the concerns of the people and out of a maternal attitude towards it (n. 8). These last two aspects are very close to the “theology of the people” of Pope Francis, i.e. a special attention reserved to the people’s piety, devotions, and expectations. On the whole, the homily is presented as having more negative dangers to avoid than positive models to look at.

            The manual then highlights the specific tasks of preaching in the liturgical year marked by Easter, Lent, Advent, Christmas and Epiphany and within a three-year cycle. A strong emphasis is put to the responsibility to preach the faith of the Church (as enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) within the context of the “living Tradition of the whole Church” (n. 17). Scripture is seen as part of Tradition of which the Church is the living voice. On the one hand, the homily comes theologically second with regard to the Eucharist; on the other it is embedded in the tradition of the Church that controls it. Doesn’t this model run the danger of being a defensive mechanism that ends up in muzzling God’s word? If this is the case, how can the preached Word stand above the church?

            As Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16). Will this handbook help Roman Catholics to be more exposed to the preaching of the Word of God, or will it reinforce what the Roman Catholic Church already is and will continue to be?


              106. Should Evangelicals Love Pope Francis?

              April 13th, 2015

              (This Vatican File was written together with Reid Karr, a dear friend and a colleague in Gospel ministry in Rome)

              On the day before Easter Peter Wehner, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote an interesting and thought provoking article titled “Why Evangelicals Should Love the Pope.”[1] Three main concerns about it can be raised and briefly presented.

              The Straw Man

              Pitting Franklin Graham against Pope Francis on how to address the moral crisis of our time is very easy but totally arbitrary. With his seemingly harsh language and judgmental arguments against homosexuality, Franklin Graham represents a still significant portion of US Evangelicals, yet a minority of Evangelicals globally considered. In speaking to the US context, Graham may have right-wing political overtones that do not fit  the whole Evangelical family. North American socio-political categories are not useful to account for its complexity. Lots of Evangelicals, both inside and outside of the US, deal with the same issues with a different attitude and language. On the other hand, Pope Francis speaks on the same issues in more pastoral terms and in doing so he is able to overlook specific situations. When he does address concrete cases, he does so using strong language. For instance, in his recent visit to the Philippines (Jan 16, 2015), he spoke about the prospect of introducing same-sex marriage as an “ideological colonization” of family life to resist and fight against. Not exactly the tender tone that Wehner wants us to believe. Francis may seem softer and milder only because he speaks about these issues “in general” and in a more pastoral tone. Before contrasting Graham and Pope Francis, Wehner should wait until the Pope visits the US this coming September when he will speak at the World Meeting of Families. Is he so sure that Francis will speak merciful words only? Until then, he should have instead compared Franklin Graham and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the staunch Archbishop of New York. Perhaps the difference between the two is not so sharp as it appears to be between Graham and the Pope. In the article Graham is depicted as the Shakespearean fool and Francis as the wise man of the story: a much too simplistic picture of reality to be true.

              The Tip of the Iceberg

              In calling Evangelicals to love the Pope, the NYT article has a sentimentalized view of the Pope. It focuses on some aspects of the papal language, but fails to give readers the fuller picture. In the same period in which Francis met with prisoners and social outcasts, he also presided over pompous Easter celebrations in St Peter’s basilica with all the richness and power of the Roman Catholic church on full display. Where was Francis’ humility in all these splendorous liturgies and costly events? Moreover, about the same time in which Francis spoke about the church being a “field hospital”, he confirmed and reinforced the existence and necessity of the Vatican bank which is a world-wide power structure that deals with all sorts of financial activity. Wehner highlighted the “loving” words of the Pope and overlooked the rest. This is a common practice in the religious analysis of the papacy: a carefully selected picture of the Pope becomes his full representation, thus failing to provide an accurate account of the whole. The humble and frugal aspects of the Pope as a person have little to do with the political and imperial aspects of his role. Below the surface and the tip of the iceberg is the iceberg itself, which in this case is the last absolutist monarchy that can be found on earth. Serious reflection should be devoted to the reality of the iceberg rather than focusing on the tip only.

              What About the Gospel?

              “Welcoming all”, “showing compassion”, “all inclusive” seem to be the mainstream and politically correct expressions of the “gospel of the day.” Pope Francis is a champion of this kind of gospel presentation. Many secular people, as well as many Evangelicals, are fascinated by the seemingly generous scope of his message. In his article Wehner quotes Pope Francis as saying, “Without mercy, we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.” Truer words could not be spoken. But this statement represents the tip of the iceberg. We should be responsible and look below the surface and identify what is giving form to and supporting the Pope’s words and actions.

              Where does sin fit into the Pope’s view? What about repentance and faith in Christ alone? What about turning back from idolatry and following Christ wholeheartedly? What about putting the Word of God first? After visiting the prisoners in Naples and speaking words of mercy and forgiveness, the Pope went to the city cathedral to kiss the liquefied blood of St. Gennaro, a medieval practice related to the beseeching of a blessing of the patron saint upon the city. Where is the biblical gospel in this?

              What should concern every Christian above all else is the salvation of those who don’t know Christ as Savior. We can talk about mercy and forgiveness and love and taking Christ to the farthest and darkest places of the earth all we want, but what really matters is the message we proclaim and embody to the lost and hurting we encounter. What then is the message of salvation? If asked how one is forgiven and saved from his or her sins, how would Pope Francis respond? The article does not delve into these controversial waters. He and other Evangelicals who share his sentiments would do well to examine what’s below the tip of the iceberg.

                105. Conservative? Liberal? Radical? Who is Francis?

                March 31st, 2015

                Two years ago Cardinal Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis. With the precision of German technology, Cardinal Walter Kasper published the book Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2015) right in time to celebrate the second anniversary of his reign. In this volume, which has been produced in several languages, Kasper has collected some lectures on the Pope that he has given around the world in the past two years. Though each chapter stands on its own, Kasper sketches a coherent theological and pastoral portrait of Pope Francis, highlighting “tenderness” and “love” as two defining marks of the pontificate. Many of his evaluations of the Pope are shared by a large sector of progressive public opinion, both inside and outside of the Roman Catholic Church. What is really interesting is the way in which Kasper tackles one of the charges that often creeps in when commenting on the present Pope: is he liberal?


                Kasper summarizes the directions of Francis’s pontificate using some evocative words: surprise, mercy, renewal, ecumenism, dialogue, the poor. Each word describes a segment; taken together they form the axes of Francis’ worldview and action. The German Cardinal is aware that the Pope is often perceived as being attuned to the “liberal” spirit of the age: strong on social issues, relaxed in doctrine, wishing to include anyone at all cost.

                Kasper disagrees with this assessment and suggests that Francis is not a liberal but a radical. Radical in the etymological sense of the Latin word “radix”: root or originating principle. According to Kasper the Pope is challenging the Church to be radical in the sense of re-discovering the roots of the Gospel which are joy, mission, frugality, solidarity with the poor, freedom from legalism, and collegiality. Kasper argues that the Pope’s tendency is not to run after the political correctness of Western liberalism, but to call all Christians to recover the living source of their faith, i.e. the roots of the Christian life. Francis is a radical Pope who has impressed a different style, language, and emphases to the Papacy out of his desire to embrace and to live out the fundamental principle of the Gospel.

                A Selected Radicalism

                Kasper’s reading of Francis is clever and insightful. It encourages us to move beyond the usual polarizations between “liberals” and “conservatives” within the Church by introducing a third category, that of “radicals”. Two brief comments can be suggested. First, Francis appears to be radical on certain issues and much less so on others. He is radical on poverty, but is silent on the massive financial power of his Church. He seems to be radical on mercy, but never mentions original sin and divine judgment over all sinners outside of Christ. He is radical in advocating for simplicity, but keeps the expansive apparatus of an empire like the very system of which he is the head. He is radical in denouncing the tragedies of unethical capitalism, but seems to be much less outspoken towards the immoral deviations of personal sexual life. In other words, his radicalism is somewhat selective. Radical here, much less so there. In a certain sense, “liberals” are radical on social issues, while “conservatives” are radical on doctrinal issues. Everyone is radical in some sense. There are different shades of radicalism. Francis’ radicalism is much closer to the liberal version than the conservative one. Therefore, playing a bit with words, the question is whether or not his radicalism is radically different from a more liberal tendency. Historically speaking, the root of theological liberalism lies in the preference given to religious feelings over doctrinal expressions. And this is exactly what the Pope seems also fond of doing. If mercy and tenderness describe the overall message of Francis, they sound more like liberal catchwords than traditional ones.

                In a certain sense, the Protestant Reformation was a radical movement motivated by an aspiration to go ad fontes (back to the Bible), back to the Word of God, and aimed at recovering the radical Gospel of solus Christus (Christ alone) and sola gratia (grace alone). There is very little of this form of Christian radicalism in Francis’ pontificate. Some accents seem to point to the need of being exposed to the written Word of God and yet many more are still placed on practices and traditions which can hardly be found in Scripture. Some of the language of the Pope seems to resemble Gospel emphases, yet the substance of it is still heavily sacramental and hierarchical. Borrowing the title of Kasper’s book, Francis’ insistence on mercy and tenderness lies within the context of a less institutional, but still unreformed, traditional Roman Catholicism.

                  104. Two Years with Pope Francis. An Interview

                  March 20th, 2015

                  This interview was posted on http://evangelicalfocus.com/europe/438/2_years_of_Francis

                  You can listen to the interview at http://evangelicalfocus.com/multimedia/449/Leonardo_de_Chirico_2_years_of_Pope_Francis

                  Italian Vatican expert Leonardo de Chirico looks back to the first 2 years of Pope Francis: “His popularity is more of a social media phenomenon than a real one”.


                  1. The pope seems to have gained praise from almost everyone, including left-wing thinkers, LGBT movements, and media have been massively interested in every move he has done since then. What are some keys of this massive instantaneous success? How much in Francis’ popularity is a charismatic character and a good Communications strategy and how much is a real change in Catholicism?

                  Many indicators speak of a successful Pope in terms of audience and popularity, especially outside of the Catholic Church where normally Popes hardly gained the status of a celebrity. Francis broke some language and symbolic codes that made previous popes remote and unapproachable figures. Francis is perceived as a transparent, down-to-earth, one-of-us type of person. His breaking of codes makes many Catholics uncomfortable. This is perhaps one of the reasons why recent polls show that in spite of such popularity Catholic practice in the West hasn’t really improved in terms of attendance and obedience to the Catholic church.

                  2. Some Evangelicals in Europe say: “I like this pope, he is humble, he has his feet on the ground, talks about Jesus a lot…” It’s not difficult for anyone to like Francis. So, should we position ourselves as in favor of the pope or do you think there is a need to make a distinction between the sympathy for  person (Jorge Maria Bergoglio) and the institution he actually represents (the papacy)?

                  Bergoglio knows the language that Evangelicals use (e.g. “conversion”, “mission”, “personal relationship with Jesus”). He appears to be near but one has to understand what he means by using these words. I don’t think we mean the same things. Moreover, I wonder how he can be near to evangelicals given his published opinion (and never retracted) about Luther and Calvin having destroyed man, poisoned society, and ruined the church! I found it difficult to have sympathy for that! Then, for sure he also represents an institution that grew outside of biblical standards and he has not been reforming it according to the Gospel yet.

                  Thinking of Europe, do you think the Catholic Church is still in time to stop the loss of believers and even see young people go to mass?

                  The progressive erosion of the number of practicing Catholics is still going on even under Francis. His popularity is more of a social media phenomenon than a real one. Some sectors within the Catholic Church think that some “liberal” measures like admitting to the Eucharist those who have divorced or those who live in gay relationships will cause them to go back to the fold. The example of dying Protestant liberal churches which already provided for it should tell them that this is not the way to refill the churches of people. It’s the quickest way to empty them.

                  The Pope has been very clear and outspoken on internal in the Catholic Church, like  sexual child abuse. Why do you think there was so much silence with other popes before him?

                  The basic idea was that the institutional church needed to be protected from outsiders’ scrutiny. All nasty things were therefore covered up. This defensive attitude goes back to the fierce battle that the Catholic Church fought against the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary thought of XIX century. The late Benedict XVI began to introduce measures of transparency as far as the sexual abuses are concerned and Francis followed the same direction.

                  Have there been important doctrinal/theological changes since Francis is in charge? What are the main theological ideas of Francis?

                  Francis is not a professional theologian. I think he is influenced by two main sources, i.e. the present-day Jesuit theology and his Latin American context. When he argues that everyone is ok if one follows his conscience, he is building on and popularizing Karl Rahner’s views about “anonymous Christianity”. According to Rahner (1904-1984) we are Christians because we are humans. Similarly, Francis locates grace in our humanity. Or think of Jesuit Jacques Dupuis (1923-2004) who looked for a way to combine salvation in Christ and universal salvation in inter-religious dialogue. When Francis speaks of universal brotherhood or universal mercy, he is popularizing this kind of theology.

                  Then, his Latin American theological background is evident in his deeply felt Mariology – which has many folk spirituality attachments – and his “theology of the people” which is keen in making the people’s concerns and aspirations central, without asking whether or not they are biblically warranted.

                  What does Pope Francis think about Evangelical Christians? For instance, are Evangelicals saved if we believe in Jesus Christ? Are we still “cults”…?

                  Besides his criticism of Luther and Calvin, Francis seems to have a high view of evangelicals. He has many evangelical friends especially in Argentina. He recently mentioned the ability of evangelical preachers to relate to the biblical text in a helpful way. He seems to like the less-liturgical forms of charismatic spirituality. He seems to use a language that emphasizes the “personal” element of the Christian faith. In his recent interview to a Mexican journalist he clearly distinguished between evangelicals who are serious Christians and prosperity gospel groups which he named as “sects”.

                  You talked in one of your articles published at Evangelical Focus about the big devotion Francis has to Mary, calling her “Holy Mother of the Church” (http://vaticanfiles.org/2015/02/101-holy-mother-of-god-three-times/). How is this exaltation of Mary a problem in a biblical view of Christianity?

                  With all due respect for the Church Fathers, the great teachers and pastors of the early church, Marianism is a negative legacy of Patristic Christianity. It started to attributing to Mary what the Bible ascribes to Jesus. By applying syllogistic thinking, what could be said of Jesus could also be said of Mary. In this way nearly all the Christological titles have also become Mariological ones. Then Mariology became a doctrine which developed significantly in its own terms, outside of biblical standards. The recent Mariological dogmas, i.e. her immaculate conception (1854) and bodily assumption (1950), are children of this kind of development. Francis is totally at home with this Mariological framework and is a strong Marian devotee, especially of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil. His first act as Pope was to pay tribute to the icon of Mary Salus Populi Romani, Mary salvation of the Roman people.

                  Finally, the pope looks open to dialogue with other confessions, also with Evangelicals. How should we as Evangelicals react to it? Should be take steps to get closer to the Vatican, as some suggest? Are there social issues in which Catholics and Evangelicals could be “cobelligerent”? (pressing for more protection for the persecuted church, human trafficking, environmental care..)

                  Francis is open to all, be they Christians or non-Christians, religious or secular people. Evangelicals are just one piece in his vision. What he has in mind is a unity like a polyhedron: for him there are different ways to relate to the Catholic Church, but Rome maintains central stage. I think dialogue is important in the awareness though that the Catholic Church is not just like any other Christian denomination. It has at its center a political state, the Vatican; it still has an “imperial” structure with global claims and financial power; it has dogmas which are not based on the Bible alone; it legitimizes practices embedded in idolatry. This applies to the Church as an institution and not to all individual Catholics, of course. As for being co-belligerent, yes, on single issues and topics we should be open to work with anyone who is interested in supporting them.


                    101. Holy Mother of God! Three Times!

                    February 12th, 2015

                    In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar the first day of the year marks the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. On this occasion the Pope delivers a Marian homily that highlights the unique status of Mary and her unparalleled role in Catholic doctrine and spirituality. Given the strong Marian devotion of Pope Francis it is no surprise that he celebrated this solemnity with great enthusiasm that also included an unexpected finale. A recent book (Francesco e Maria. L’amore di Papa Bergoglio per la Madonna, edited by V. Sansonetti, Milano: Rizzoli 2014) highlights the love of Pope Francis for the Madonna by collecting a number of Marian prayers and devotions which are extremely dear to him.

                    Inseparable Mother

                    In his first speech of the year Francis offered a meditation on the inseparability of Christ and his mother[1]. He then elaborated on that inseparability by underscoring the relationship between Mary and the church and ultimately between Mary and the whole of mankind. “Jesus cannot be understood without his Mother” said the Pope. This is true of course, but with certain limits and biblical distinctions. With the Incarnation the Son of God became a man by being born of Mary. He is the sinless God-man that brings forth the Father’s grace through the Spirit while his mother is a sinful creature that receives God’s grace. That inseparability needs biblical qualifications otherwise it can lead to the exaltation of Mary beyond what Scripture allows.

                    Having established the inseparability between Mother and Son, the Pope went on to apply it to another relationship: that of Mary and the Church. Here is what he said: “Likewise inseparable are Christ and the Church – because the Church and Mary are always together and this is precisely the mystery of womanhood in the ecclesial community – and the salvation accomplished by Jesus cannot be understood without appreciating the motherhood of the Church”. The train of thought is that Mary is inseparable from Christ and from the Church; therefore Christ is inseparable from the Church through Mary. Mary is the connecting point between Christ and the Church. As she is inseparable from the former, she is also inseparable from the latter and mediates the relationship between the two. Thus Mary is theologically central in the overall Roman Catholic scheme.

                    There is yet another step. As Mary is the mother of Jesus and the mother of the Church, she is also deemed to be the mother of all mankind. The Roman Catholic transitive property of the inseparable link is at work here. In lyrical style Francis concludes: “Mary, the first and most perfect disciple of Jesus, the first and most perfect believer, the model of the pilgrim Church, is the one who opens the way to the Church’s motherhood and constantly sustains her maternal mission to all mankind. She, the Mother of God, is also the Mother of the Church, and through the Church, the mother of all men and women, and of every people”. The human inseparability between Mary and Jesus is worked out in the inseparability between Mary and the Church and then between Mary and the whole of humankind.

                    A Crescendo With A Marian Grand Finale

                    Francis’ speech is a clear example of how Roman Catholic Mariology has been at work throughout the ages. An initial step with some biblical support (i.e. the Son-Mother link in the context of the Incarnation) was developed in subsequent syllogisms that lacked biblical criteria (e.g. Mary mother of the Church, Mary mother of mankind). The outcome is a brand new theological framework that has little resemblance to how it began.

                    As an experienced bishop with pastoral warmth, Francis ended his homily with an unusual request that is hardly common in Vatican celebrations. “Let us look to Mary, let us contemplate the Holy Mother of God. I suggest that you all greet her together, just like those courageous people of Ephesus, who cried out before their pastors when they entered Church: “Holy Mother of God!” What a beautiful greeting for our Mother. There is a story – I do not know if it is true – that some among those people had clubs in their hands, perhaps to make the Bishops understand what would happen if they did not have the courage to proclaim Mary “Mother of God”! I invite all of you, without clubs, to stand up and to greet her three times with this greeting of the early Church: “Holy Mother of God!”.

                    Reports say that the puzzled crowd that was sitting and standing in the Vatican basilica shouted “Holy Mother of God” three times as the Pope had instructed. Thus the first day of the year was an occasion to introduce a highly sophisticated Mariological doctrine and a strongly felt Mariological devotion which were blended together by a committed Marian Pope. For those who desire to live according to the Word of God, it was not a very promising start to the year.