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” (https://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.


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