202. “Grace as the Heart’s Desire” A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependance (Part II)

If one wants to come to terms with Roman Catholic theology, sooner than later one needs to address the “nature-grace interdependence.” Roman Catholicism is pervaded by an attitude that is confident in the capacity of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread that becomes Christ’s body, the wine that becomes Christ’s blood, the water of baptism that regenerates, and the oil of anointing that conveys grace), in the person’s ability to cooperate and contribute to salvation with his/her own works, in the capacity of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth. In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “elevate” nature to its supernatural end, relying on it and presupposing its untainted capacity to be elevated. Even if weakened or wounded by sin (as it is argued in Roman Catholic teaching), nature maintains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature. Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is pervaded by an optimism that whatever is natural is graced.

The “nature-grace interdependence” has a long history in Roman Catholic theology and many significant voices and trends have shaped it. In the article “Gratia Supponit Naturam?” A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependance (Part I) (1st May 2022) I painted a brush-strokes picture of the patristic and medieval trajectories that have forged the relationship, up to the Thomist accounts that solidified it over the centuries.

In the 19th century, two important Roman pronouncements gave it an authoritative status from a magisterial viewpoint. Firstly, the First Vatican Council Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius (1870) affirmed the nature/super-nature distinction as the normative framework for the Roman Catholic faith in the realm of epistemology and in the relationship between reason and faith. Secondly, the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) by Leo XIII elevated Thomas Aquinas’ thought (of which the “nature-grace interdependence” is a pillar) as the supreme reference point for Roman Catholic thought. So when we talk about the nature-grace scheme, we are dealing with a fundamental axis of traditional Roman Catholicism with the imprimatur (i.e. stamp of approval) of the magisterium.

Though well established in magisterial teaching, the “nature-grace interdependence” went through a significant intra-mural discussion in the 20th century.[1] The debate was sparked by the “new theology” (nouvelle théologie) and saw the involvement of the best theological minds of Rome, such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. According to Duffy, “this ‘new theology’ marked the end of the static theology of nature and grace that had been in vogue since the era of the Counter-Reformation.”[2]

The perception of these new theologians was that, after the Council of Trent, Thomas Aquinas’ account of nature and grace had been hardened to the point of making nature and grace “extrinsic,” i.e. separate, sealed off, apart from one another, resulting in a static outlook of a super-imposition of grace on top of nature. In his seminal work Surnaturel (1946) and in subsequent books, De Lubac in particular argued that this rigid interpretation of Thomas Aquinas had brought about a dichotomy between nature and grace, losing therefore the continuity between the two. Nature and grace had become juxtaposed rather than integrated, with grace being associated with a superior degree of nature rather than its original and pervasive matrix. Grace needed to be re-thought of as immanent to nature, as nature was to be re-appreciated as organically open and disposed to grace. According to this view, grace is not added to nature as though nature is void of it; rather grace is always part of nature as a costitutive element of it. In Henri Bouillard’s terms, grace is the “infrastructure of nature,”[3] not an external addition to it. Grace makes nature what it is.

For the “new theology,” then, grace is what constitutes nature, even prior to receiving salvation. There is a natural desire for God that is already a manifestation of grace. Nature is already affected by nature as part of what nature is. Grace is primary, not secondary to nature. In De Lubac’s poignant expression: grace is the “heart’s desire” of the natural man.

This line of interpretation of the Thomistic tradition was initially seen with suspicion by the Roman Catholic magisterial authorities. Without naming it, Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 expressed concerns over any possibile re-interpretation of the Thomistic legacy away from the patterns established by Aeterni Patris. It is true to say that only fifteen years later, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Roman Catholic Church embraced the main thrust of the new theology’s account of the “nature-grace interdependance” in its positive view of the modern world, in its nuanced yet redemptive understanding of world religions, and in its reiteration of man’s openness to God because of his/her natural disposition. By updating the traditional teaching on nature and grace, Vatican II “developed” it to overcome the rigid framework inherited from the 19th century and to adopt a more “catholic” (embracing and inclusive) understanding of it.

One of the consequences of this recent move is that sin, already overlooked in the traditional version, has become even less impactful on the overall Roman Catholic theological mindset. If grace is inherent in nature and by definition present in it, sin cannot be thought of as having brought about a radical breach between God and humanity, but only a minor wound in the relationship. Grace was in nature before sin and continues to shape it after sin. If sin is only a serious wound and not a state of spiritual death, then nature and grace intermingle from beginning to end at various levels of intensity.

This present-day reinterpretation of the “nature-grace interdependence” that emerged from the “new theology” and that was subsequently endorsed by Vatican II is the theological background out of which Pope Francis can talk of atheists going to heaven, argue that humanity is made of “all brothers,” regardless their faith in Christ, ask “who am I to judge?” when dealing with people in irregular relationships, say that “God is in every person’s life,” pray with Muslims and people of other religions assuming that we pray to the same God, and insist that mission is the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace. Because of this view, the Gospel appears not to be a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead access to a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind.

All these expressions of the Roman Catholicism of our time find their historical origin and theological legitimacy in the “nature-grace interdependence” whereby grace is pervasively present and active in all aspects of human life, inside and outside of explicitly Christian influences, in presence or absence of a professed faith in Jesus Christ.

According to this Roman Catholic view, grace is infused in nature from the beginning and will ever be so. The sacraments of the Church infuse more grace in the faithful, but even those who do not receive the seven particular sacraments live in a state of grace because of who they are, i.e. natural creatures of God inherently oriented toward Him. Remember that according to Roman Catholic teaching, there is no distinction between “common grace” (i.e. providence) and “special grace” (i.e. salvation). This explains the universalist tendency of Rome’s view of salvation, its optimistic outlook on man’s capacity to cooperate with God to merit salvation, and the positive view of human religions as vessels of grace.

In Roman Catholicism, both accounts of the “nature-grace interdependence,” the “gratia supponit naturam” of the medieval and modern ages and the idea of “grace as the heart’s desire” in our time, coexist. The Council of Trent (16th century, endorsing the former) and Vatican II (20th century, affirming the latter) are both pillars of Roman Catholic theology. Rome has no static or rigid doctrinal system. It is moving without losing its fundamental commitment concerning “man’s capacity for God,” in spite of sin.


[1] I am following in particular the account given by Stephen J. Duffy, The Graced Horizon. Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992).

[2] Duffy, p. 49.

[3] Henri Bouillard, Conversion et graçe chez saint Thomas d’Aquin (Paris: Aubier, 1944).

201. “Gratia Supponit Naturam”? A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependance (Part I)

The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church begins with a section interestingly entitled “Man’s Capacity for God” and deals with the foundational issue of whether or not men and women are naturally open to God and recipients of His grace. The answer of the Catechism is “yes,” and this affirmative answer is the backdrop of the Roman Catholic way of relating nature and grace. Indeed, one of the axes of the Roman Catholic system is the “nature-grace interdependance.” Briefly put, here is a way to introduce it:
 
“[T]he spheres of nature and grace are in irreversible theological continuity, as ‘nature’ in Roman Catholicism incorporates both creation and sin, in contrast to the Reformed distinction between creation, sin, and redemption. This differing understanding of sin’s impact means grace finds in nature a receptive attitude (enabling Roman Catholicism’s humanistic optimism), as against a biblical doctrine whereby entrenched sin leaves us unaware of our reprobate state. Nature is seen as ‘open’ to grace. Although nature has been touched by sin, it is still programmatically open to be infused, elevated, supplemented by grace. The Roman Catholic “mild” view of the Fall and of sin makes it possible for Rome to hold a view of nature that is tainted by sin but not depraved, obscured but not blinded, wounded but not alienated, morally disordered but not spiritually dead, inclined to evil but still holding on to what is true, good and beautiful. There is always a residual good in nature that grace can and must work with. After Vatican II, more recent interpretations of the nature-grace interdependence go as far as arguing that nature is always graced from within. If traditional Roman Catholicism maintained that grace was added to nature, present-day Rome prefers to talk about grace as being an infrastructure of nature. In spite of the differences between the two versions, the interdependence is nonetheless underlined.”[1]
 
This brief description highlights the fact that Rome has historically built its theological system along the lines provided by the nature-grace interdependence. It is therefore useful to better grasp the historical trajectory of the Roman appropriation and elaboration of that relationship. An old but still significant article by Johannes Beumer (1901-1989), a Jesuit theologian at the Gregorian University of Rome, covers much ground in sketching such a history up to the first half of the 20th century[2] and can be the starting point for some further comments and evaluations.
 
Gratia supponit naturam” (grace supposes nature) is the traditional expression that encapsulates the nature-grace interdependence as it is envisioned by Roman Catholic theology. It conveys the idea that man is capable of receiving grace as a natural desire and disposition. As nature is open to grace, so grace is in continuity with nature. The two are distinct but intertwined.
 
Where does this understanding come from? From the patristic age, there are several interwoven threads, but the contours of the motif are still loose and undefined. Both in the West (e.g. Ireneaus and Athanasius) and in the East (e.g. Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great), there is a talk of grace “perfecting” nature as well as the recognition of the pervasive consequences of sin which have marred that disposition of nature to be elevated by grace. These two elements somehow co-exist. While the Fathers contain some ambiguities in this respect, their main focus is to underline the power of grace to perfect the Christian life, i.e. the life of someone who has already received God’s grace, not natural life per se. Theirs is not an abstract reference to nature as such but to the kind of nature that has already been touched by grace and continues to be impacted by it.
 
In the East, however, the stress is increasingly put on the participation of nature to grace as an inherent capacity that is maintained regardless of sin. In Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus and the Pseudo-Dyonisius, there is a growing insistence that grace cannot work apart from the assumption that nature is disposed to receive grace, welcome it, and be perfected by it. In their view, there is a harmony between nature and grace. Obviously, in this theological understanding, the impact of sin recedes from the fore and becomes less relevant than in a Church father like Augustine. What is prominent is the continuity between nature and grace and their interdependence.
 
In the Medieval period, it is Albert the Great (1200-1280) who teaches that we are by nature disposed to receive grace and that grace presupposes what is natural in us. His famous sentence is “what is in nature is also in grace” (“sicut est in naturis, sic et in gratia”). In his view, grace does not distance oneself from nature nor does it modify nature; rather, grace perfects nature. Along this line, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274) coins the phrase “grace presupposes nature” (“gratia praesupponit naturam”). At this point, sin has disappeared from the forefront of the discussion and its impact is no longer seen as having involved a radical breach or a tragic disruption.
 
According to Beumer, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the one who has theologized the relationship more forcefully, giving it its mainstream Roman Catholic outlook in the Second Millennium. Building on what had already been envisaged by the preceding Medieval theologians, Aquinas believes that grace needs nature as its substrate, as its logical presupposition, and as the substance that could receive it. Between nature and grace there is concordance. Grace fits nature and vice versa. Sin, though formally acknowledged, is swallowed in nature and considered a weakness or a sickness of nature which nonetheless maintains its original openness to it and capacity for it.
 
It is in the subsequent development of the Thomist tradition (e.g. Bellarmine and Suarez) that one finds an account of the relationship that stresses the distinction between nature and grace, while maintaining their organic link. In Scholastic Thomism grace is seen as the added gift to nature, which can function even without grace. Grace is super-natural, placed on top of nature, as if it were an added layer. In this scholastic view, nature can exist without grace but grace cannot exist without or apart from nature. One consequence of this Thomist account is that the difference between “natura pura” (pure nature) and “natura lapsa” (fallen nature) is even more blurred than in previous versions of the relationship. Sin is always formally acknowledged, but its effects are considered as not having entailed the breaking of a covenant and therefore having brought about spiritual death. Nature is still intact as it has always been since its beginning. Grace is supernaturally added to a nature that has never lost its openness to it. The addition is aimed at elevating nature to a supernatural end, i.e. a higher and superior status. Only secondarily and incidentally, grace deals with the problem of sin. The latter is a kind of road accident that has not stopped the elevation journey; it has only made it more difficult. Ultimately, there is no tension between nature and grace, but harmony and coordination.
 
Beumer’s historical sketch ends here, but the Roman Catholic development of the “nature-grace interdependence” does not stop there. The 20th century saw a significant theological debate over the exact interpretation of the Thomistic understanding of the relationship.
 
Before entering the contemporary Roman Catholic discussions on nature and grace, some provisional conclusions can be drawn from this bird’s eye view of the issue. In all its variations up to the 20th century, the “nature-grace interdependence” has shown how impactful it is on the Roman Catholic view of the (lack of) gravity of sin. Without a tragic view of sin, Roman Catholic anthropology tends to be optimistic in man’s natural possibility to cooperate with salvation, and salvation itself looks like an addition wrought by grace rather than a regenerating miracle of God who brings about life where death reigns. As the opening section of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates with its reference to “man’s capacity for God”, the whole theological system of Rome is shaped around it and away from the gospel.
 
 
(to be continued) 
 


[1]L. De Chirico, Same Words, Different Worlds. Do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Believe the Same Gospel? (London: IVP, 2021) p. 105.

[2]Johannes Beumer, “Gratia supponit naturam. Zur Geschichte eines theologischen Prinzips,” Gregorianum 20(1939) pp. 381-406, 535-552. I had access also to the Italian translation provided by Simone Billeci, Gratia supponit naturam. Storia di un principio teologico (Venezia: Marcianum Press, 2020).

200. Who is Afraid of “Liquid” Roman Catholicism?

April 1st, 2022
Since the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the expression Liquid Modernity (2000), the adjective “liquid” has been applied to almost all phenomena, e.g. liquid society, liquid family, liquid love, etc. In our world, liquidity seems to describe well the vacillating, uncertain, fluid and volatile feature of contemporary life. Everything is mobile, plastic and soft; nothing can be put into solid, stable and lasting casts.

To the already wide range of associations, liquidity has been added as a descriptor for a specific religious tradition, i.e. liquid Roman Catholicism. George Weigel, a conservative American intellectual, talks about it in a worried tone in his article “Liquid Catholicism and the German Synodal Path” (First Things, 16th February 2022).

For some time, Weigel and other exponents of US Roman Catholic traditionalism have expressed their frustration (to put it mildly) at the massive injection of liquidity into Roman Catholicism by Pope Francis. The uncertain teaching on doctrinal and moral subjects of primary importance; a kind of intolerance towards the pre-conciliar liturgy; the constant pickaxing of the Roman Catholic institution with repeated criticism of clericalism; the ways the pope acts outside the box that destabilize customs; the welcoming and merciful message at the expense of the doctrinal and moral requirements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, etc. All this makes Francis a “liquid” pope who is liquifying an institution that has made its rocky and immutable structure a distinctive trait of its identity.

In addition to Francis, Weigel sees other troubling sources of liquidity in the Roman Catholic church. The article indicates Weigel’s alarm at the requests that are emerging from the “Synodal Path” of the German Catholic Church, including a series of conferences of the Catholic Church in Germany to discuss a range of contemporary theological and organizational questions. Supported by the majority of German bishops, these requests include celibacy becoming optional for clergy (married life being the other option), opening ministries to women (the diaconate first, then one day the priesthood perhaps), recognition (with ecclesiastical blessing) of homosexual unions… these are just some of the proposals that are about to arrive at the Vatican and that have the strength to detonate a bomb in the Roman Catholic Church. There are growing concerns all over the Roman Catholic world about the German “Synodal Path.” In this regard, Francis’ liquidity is just a pale version of the turbo-liquidity that is coming from Catholic Germany.

Weigel and the circles of US Catholic traditionalism witness these processes of liquefaction horrified. For them, Roman Catholicism is a canonically compact religion, sacramentally coherent, institutionally stable, doctrinally integrated. They have in mind a Roman Catholicism that is more “Roman” than “Catholic”, anchored to its unchangeable dogmas, tied to its consolidated tradition, characterized by fidelity and obedience on the part of the faithful, and centered on its ecclesiastical hierarchies. Liquid Roman Catholicism, for them, is a pathology of catholicity that runs the risk of Protestantizing Rome and dispersing its uniqueness in the bewildering contemporary age.

It is interesting to observe these internal conflict dynamics in Roman Catholicism from the outside. Often, in the past, Roman Catholic apologetics contrasted evangelical fragmentation with Roman Catholic solidity, denigrating the former and exalting the latter. It was not a credible argument in the past, but it is even less so today. Roman Catholicism is as divided internally as any other religious movement of global reach. Moreover, traditional Roman Catholic apologetics contrasted the stability of Rome with the volatility of the Reformation. This argument too was superficial and one-sided and it is even more so now. Roman Catholicism goes through significant transformation processes. The fact that Rome is deemed to be “semper eadem” (always the same) needs to be seen in light of its ongoing updating and development.

The key elements to come to terms with in this issue are twofold. First, one needs to consider the dual nature of Roman Catholicism which is, at the same time, “Catholic” (liquid) and “Roman” (solid). Its genius has always been to combine the two faces in order to make them coexist and reinforce each other. Today it is its liquidity that seems to be prevalent, but its solidity will not fail as Roman Catholicism is both. The second key element is the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which fostered change, as a recent article by Shaun Blanchard has reminded us (Commoweal, 14th March 2022). Vatican II has given Roman Catholicism such an injection of liquidity that today it is impacting the solid structures of Rome as never before. Will the long term outcomes of Vatican II be able to liquefy them completely? Unlikely. 

Rome will remain liquid and solid, perhaps in a different arrangement than their present-day combination, but still “Catholic” and, at the same time, “Roman.” Weigel and other Roman Catholic traditionalists dream of a return to a more “Roman” Catholicism: but have they not yet understood that their religion is also increasingly “Catholic” at the same time?

199.  Eating God? A History of the Eucharist and a Glimpse of Roman Catholicism

At first glance, it seems like a cannibalistic gesture, even if it is addressed to God and not to a human being. Yet it is the quintessence of Roman Catholicism. We are talking about “eating God,” an act that is at the heart of the Roman Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Can Roman Catholicism really be thought of as the religion of “eating God”? Matteo Al-Kalak, professor of modern history at the University of Modena-Reggio, explores this question is in his latest book, Mangiare Dio. Una storia dell’eucarestia (Turin: Einaudi, 2021; Eating God. A History of the Eucharist).

The book is a history of the Eucharist from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) onwards in the Italian context and focuses on how the Eucharist has been elevated to a primary identity-marker: practiced, taught, protected, abused, and used for various purposes, including extra-religious ones. Using “a mosaic technique” (p.xiv), he analyzes some pieces of the history of the Eucharist.
 
It is not surprising that facing the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation (in all its Eucharistic variants, from the German Lutheran version to the Calvinian-Zwinglian Swiss version), the Council of Trent emphasized the sacrificial character of the Mass and made the Eucharist the symbolic pivot of the Counter-Reformation. Al-Kalak’s book is a collection of micro-stories aimed at forming a mosaic that reflects the crucial importance of the Eucharist in the construction of the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic imagination and strongly Eucharistic emphasis.
 
After reviewing the biblical data, the book summarizes the medieval debates starting from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) which intertwined three pillars: who was to dedicate (in Roman Catholic language: consacrate) the bread and the wine (i.e. only the clergy), the confession to be preceded, and the true and proper Eucharist. One of the outcomes of the Council was the institution of the feast of Corpus Domini (The Body of the Lord, 1247). This Lateran synthesis was contested both before and after the Reformation. The pages on the heretical movements of the 16th century give voice to the “doctrinal fluidity of Italian heterodoxy” on the Lord’s Supper (p.19). In this regard, the opinion of Natale Andriotti from Modena is reported. Talking to a friend he said, “Do you think that Christ is in that host? It’s just a little dough” (p.149).
 
As pieces of the mosaic, other chapters tell stories of Eucharistic miracles, associated with various prodigies, and the development of a kind of preaching centered around Eucharistic themes (from the model offered by Carlo Borromeo in the 17th  century to the impetus given by Alfonso Maria de Liguori in the 18th century). Al-Kalak touches on the meticulous regulation given to the administration of the Eucharist (from the spaces, to the gestures, to the treatment of abuses) outside and inside the Mass (for example, at the bedside of the sick). Further chapters follow on the Eucharist represented in poetic, pictorial and architectural forms and on the desecrated Eucharist in witchcraft, magic and superstitious practices.
 
The discussion of the Eucharist in the face of the cultural disruption of the French Revolution is also of great interest. The Eucharist was seen as a polemical tool against the rationalism of modernity and for the re-Christianization of society (Pope Leo XIII). In recent years, though, Pope Francis is pushing to loosen the criteria for access to the Eucharist to allow the inclusion of those who are in “irregular” life situations. The book witnesses to the fact that the Eucharistic theologies and practices are not static and given once and for all, but always on the move.
 
The volume ends with an interesting “postscriptum” in which Al-Kalak dwells on the “scandal” of the Eucharist: “only the host is subject to the physiological mechanisms of the human being in such a radical way” (191), yet it is believed as a supernatural act filled with mystery. It combines rational language ​​with sensory ones, opening up to the irrational (p.193). If it is true to say that “the Eucharist – in the regular mass, in Eucharistic adoration, in Eucharistic processions – and fidelity to the pope and to the hierarchy are the two most distinguished features of Roman Catholicism from the Council of Trent onwards” (p.195), then a history of the Roman Catholic practice of “eating God” allows us to enter into the depths of the Roman Catholic religion.
 
Beyond the fascinating stories told by the book, what is of some interest is its title, “Eating God,” and its appropriateness to describe the soul of Roman Catholicism. Already in the early centuries of the church, Christians were sometimes accused of cannibalism precisely in relation to the Lord’s Supper. What did Jesus mean when he said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54)? The meal of bread and wine associated with the memory of the body and blood of Jesus Christ could give rise to misunderstandings. Was it a truly human “body”? Was it the blood of a corpse? Was it then a cannibal meal? Christian apologetics of the early centuries tried to unravel the misunderstandings as much as possible, indignantly rejecting the accusation of cannibalism and, if anything, indicating the biblical parameters of the ordinance instituted by Jesus himself.
 
Yet, already starting from the Fourth Lateran Council, and even more so from the Council of Trent, the church of Rome embraced “transubstantiation,” i.e an understanding of the sacrament according to which, after the consecration of the bread and wine and the transformation of their nature into the body and blood of Christ, there is a sense in which the Roman Catholic Eucharist is a real “eating of God.” If the bread really becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus (the God-man), taking it in some way means “eating God,”
 
Can it really go that far? Evidently yes, according to Rome. While the Reformation insisted on recovering the distinction between Creator and creature, the radical nature of sin and the sufficient mediation of the God-man Jesus Christ for the salvation of those who believe, the Roman Catholic Church instead veered on the analogy between Creator and creature and on the prolongation of Christ’s mediation in the hierarchical and sacramental church, to the point of considering the creature’s “eating God” as possible, even necessary. For Roman Catholicism, man is “capable of God” (capax dei) to the point of having to really “eat” him.
 
Is this the meaning of the meal that the Lord Jesus instituted the night he was betrayed and that he gave to the church as a memorial of him in view of his second coming? The debate on this question in history has been very lively and is still crucial. In the “eating God” of the Eucharist, Roman Catholicism puts all its worldview at work: its view of reality as touched but not marred by sin, the extension of the incarnation in the church, the divinization of man, and the “already” of salvation enjoyed in the fruition of the sacraments without waiting for the “not yet” of the final banquet. If you think about it, as absurd as it appears, “eating God” is a synthesis of Roman Catholicism.

198. The (Not So) Puzzling Theology of Pope Francis

Among the many puzzling things introduced by Pope Francis, his teaching (magisterium) is perhaps the level that was most impacted by the Argentinian Pontiff. The contents of his encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, bulls, speeches, occasional interviews, etc. have been described as “uncertain,” “in motion,” “ambiguous,” “nuanced,” at times even “heretical” – and by Roman Catholics!

Many Roman Catholics (and also many non-Catholic observers), accustomed to associating the papal magisterium with an authoritative, coherent and stable form of doctrinal teaching, are perplexed if not dismayed by a pope who seems both to say and not say, to argue for something and to undermine it, to state one position and then contradict it the next breath. As a Jesuit, Pope Francis tends to use an equivocal style, a dubitative and incomplete form of argumentation, an “open” logic, a colloquial if not casual tone, and a pastoral trait which often lacks clarity and coherence. Officially, the Pope’s teaching is set in the context of the historical traditions of the church. In this sense, nothing changes. In reality, however, Francis is accentuating the developmental and inclusive dynamic of Roman Catholicism as it emerged from Vatican II (1962-1965). According to this trend, while there is a sense in which nothing changes, everything is nonetheless re-thought, re-expressed, and updated. The “Roman” side of the teaching does not change while the “catholic” side does change.

A recent book by the Sicilian Roman Catholic theologian Massimo Naro, Protagonista è l’abbraccio. Temi teologici nel magistero di Francesco (2021: The Protagonist is the Hug. Theological Themes in Francis’ Magisterium) is a helpful guide in the theological universe of Pope Francis. From the outset, Naro readily acknowledges that the theology of Pope Francis is “an innovative proposal” even when compared with the updating trends of the Second Vatican Council.

Above all, the Pope’s vocabulary needs to be taken into consideration. If you want to try to enter the world of Francis, here are his central words: “mother church,” “faithful people of God,” “popular spirituality,” “mercy,” “synodality,” “polyedric ecclesiology,” “processes to initiate,” “existential peripheries,” “humanism of solidarity,” “ecological conversion,” “dialogue,” “fraternity and brotherhood” (p. 19). Not all are new words; some of them are terms that have been already used in Roman Catholic teaching, but are now given a new nuance or a distinct significance by Francis.

Naro further suggests that there are two theological frameworks that give meaning to his words, i.e. the “theology of the people” and the “theology of mercy.” For Francis, theology does not begin with biblical revelation nor from the abstract principles of the official teaching of the Church, but from the common and daily stories of men and women who must be welcomed and affirmed in their particular contexts and life journeys. This attention to the “inside” of the world and to the level where the “people” live pushes him to elevate forms of popular spirituality as authentic religious experiences. He is not scandalized by the “irregular” situations of life in which people find themselves, e.g. divorce, co-habitation, or same-sex relationships. Instead of teaching an external standard (in theology or in morality), the Pope begins where people are assuming that where they are, there is something good that needs to be affirmed.

According to Francis, the “people” are not the passive and obedient recipients of a top-down ecclesiastical magisterium, but active subjects whose religious experiences are true and real (even though not squared with traditional patterns) and therefore need to be part of the teaching itself. The “people” make the teaching as much as the ecclesiastical authorities of the Roman Church promulgate it.

You don’t need to be a trained theologian to catch how this version of the “theology of the people” is far from the evangelical belief that Scripture, as the inspired Word of God, is the source by which God teaches, rebukes, corrects, and trains. And who does He train? Not those who want to affirm their own experiences and lifestyles, but those who wish to repent from sin and reform their lives following the path indicated by the Bible. From a biblical perspective, Francis’ “theology of the people” does not have the external criterion of the Word of God, which questions hearts, practices, sinful habits, etc. and forges a new humanity that is always open to renewal in a process of ongoing sanctification.

Mercy is another keyword in the Pope’s magisterium. In his way of putting it, mercy is “the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite the limits of our sins” (Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy Misericordiae Vultus, n. 2, 2015).[1] In this dense sentence there is a strategic theological point. Among other things, as Cardinal Matteo Zuppi writes in the introduction, the Pope means that “at the center of the biblical message is not sin, but mercy” (p. 16). In Naro’s words, Christian theology must be freed from “hamartiocentrism” (p. 93), i.e., from the centrality of sin. Sin must be replaced by the pervasiveness of God’s mercy which “can help us to break free from hamartiocentrism and to rediscover the tenderness of God” (p. 114). In his view, Pope Francis has replaced sin with mercy at the center of his message.

In the Pope’s theology, sin is at most “the human limit” (p. 91), but not the breaking of the covenant, the rebellion against God, the disobedience to his commandments, or the subversion of divine authority that results in the righteous and holy judgment of God. If sin is a “human limit,” then the cross of Christ did not atone for sin but only manifested God’s mercy in an exemplary way. The words used by the Pope are the same as those of the evangelical faith (e.g. mercy, sin, grace, gospel), but they are given a different meaning than the gospel.

Francis sees everything from the perspective of a metaphysic of mercy that swallows sin without passing through propitiation, expiation, or reconciliation, which the cross of Jesus Christ wrought to give salvation to those who believe in Him. If everything is mercy and sin is only a limit, the resulting message is fundamentally different from the biblical gospel.

The traditional Roman Catholic teaching (from the Council of Trent to the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church) conflicts at crucial points with the evangelical faith summarized in the Reformation slogans “Christ Alone,” “Scripture Alone,” and “Faith Alone.” The “popular” and “merciful” account of the gospel taught by Pope Francis is another “catholic” variant of the deviation on which the church of Rome was established and on which, sadly, it continues to move forward.


[1] The English translation of the papal text on the Vatican website is blurred and incorrect. It says “the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness” (italics added). However, the Latin official text says “praeter nostri peccati fines” which needs to be translated as “despite the limits or bounds of our sins” as the Italian, French and Spanish versions rightly translate.