When the reigning Pope creates new cardinals, it is because he is thinking not only of the Roman Catholic Church of today but, above all, that of tomorrow. Cardinals are those who, in addition to assisting the Pope with governing the universal Church, meet in conclave and elect the successor once the reigning one has died or, as in the case of Pope Ratzinger, resigns. By the end of August, Pope Francis has created 21 new cardinals (of which 16 are electors, that is, still under 80 years of age). In doing so, he has appointed two-thirds of the voting college of cardinals (should the conclave meet today) from the beginning of his pontificate. Note that the majority required for the election of the pope is just two-thirds. Most of the new cardinals and all those voting seem to belong to the pro-Francis area, that is, loyal to the line of the pope and in continuity with his approach.
When it comes to electing Francis’ successor, the overwhelming majority of the cardinals will have been created by Francis himself. Does this mean that they will vote for a “Franciscan” candidate, that is, one who carries out the agenda of the current papacy? It’s not for sure. The history of the conclaves, including the last one, indicates that electoral majorities do not predictably follow in the way they were formed, but can be constructed in an unexpected way. In any case, it is an indisputable element that Francis has now filled the conclave with cardinals of his appointment. On this point he followed not so much a “catholic” policy of choosing representatives of all the trends within Roman Catholicism (e.g. progressives, traditionalists, centrists, …) but a partisan one: he chose cardinals who meet his personal theological and pastoral preferences.
The geographical origins of the new cardinals are different. In this regard, it should be noted that Pope Francis has chosen the new cardinals from the “peripheries” of the Roman Catholic world: think of the bishops of Singapore, Mongolia and East Timor, small and decentralized episcopal sees that now become much more important. In Italy he appointed as cardinal the bishop of Como (a small diocese) while the nearby and large archdiocese of Milan still remains without a cardinal. In the USA he created as cardinal the bishop of San Diego (small in size) but left the much larger diocese of Los Angeles without. Pope Francis is like this: he is predictable in his willingness to unsettle established patterns that subvert expectations.
What does all this mean regarding the prospects of Roman Catholicism? Not much. Or rather: much as regards the internal dynamics in Rome, but much less with regards to the expectation of a “turning point” of Roman Catholicism in an evangelical direction. Whether the next pope is a “Franciscan” or a conservative, from the southern hemisphere or the Western world, elected by a narrow majority or by a large majority, in favor of synodality or centralizer, little of theological significance is going to change.
If the conclave would meet today, the most quoted candidates for the papacy are:
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle (Philippines), who is thought of as being in line with Francis and represents the Roman Catholic Global South, but is perhaps too young (being born in 1957);
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi (Italy), close to Francis but with his own independent posture;
Cardinal Peter Ërdo (Hungary), a good candidate of the conservative wing, but European and therefore still from the “old” world;
Cardinal Pietro Parolin (Italy), the current Vatican Secretary of State, in case the conclave ends up in a stand still and looks for a mediation between different groups.
Whoever the next pope is, unless there is a surprise that stems from the extraordinary providence of God, he will remain within the logic of Roman Catholicism, which moves along the lines of ecclesiastical politics but whose agenda does not include a way towards a reformation according to the gospel. The true reformation requires abandoning all that Rome has added to the evangelical faith (Marian dogmas, sacraments and practices that are not taught in Scripture, imperial and hierarchical structures, spurious if not really pagan devotions, etc.) to return to the biblical faith that is grounded in Scripture alone and centered on Christ alone. Unfortunately, everything that precedes the conclave does not seem to indicate any movement towards an evangelical reformation of the Roman Catholic Church, but only another page in the long history of Roman Catholicism.
Roman Catholicism is, by definition, Catholic (inclusive, welcoming, absorbing) and Roman (centralized, hierarchical, institutional) at the same time. The former characteristic gives it its fluidity, the latter its rigidity. It is soft like velvet and abrasive like sandpaper. Certainly, there are historical phases in which the Catholic prevailed over the Roman and vice versa. There are different combinations in the way the two qualifications are intertwined with each other.
For example, on the one hand, the Council of Trent (16th century) was very Roman with its dogmatic definitions and its excommunications of those who upheld Protestant convictions on the supreme authority of Scripture and salvation by faith alone. On the other, the Second Vatican Council (20th century) was very Catholic with its ecumenism towards non-Catholics and its embrace of the modern world. Pius IX (1792-1878) was a Roman pope who rejected religious freedom and freedom of conscience; Francis is a Catholic pope with his insistence on the fact that we are “all brothers” (Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc) regardless faith in Christ. We could go on with other examples.
The point is that Roman Catholicism is always in a tense balance between its two sides: Catholic and Roman. Rome is not only Catholic – otherwise it would dilute and disperse its institutional project centered on its hierarchical structures. It is not only Roman – otherwise it would become hardened in a closed system. It is both at the same time. An example of the Catholic and Roman dynamic is precisely at work these days and has as protagonists the “Synodal Path” of the German Catholic Church and the Vatican, the Holy See.
For some years now a Catholic initiative, the “Synodal Path,” has been underway in Germany involving bishops, lay people and religious associations. This series of meetings, discussions and papers has gathered many critical voices within Roman Catholicism and has proposed innovations and changes to some consolidated Roman Catholic doctrines and practices: the German “Synodal Path” has approved the female diaconate (in view of the ordination of women to the priesthood), the official recognition of homosexual couples, the relaxation of admission to the Eucharist to all those who come forward, etc. These are all very Catholic measures, i.e. inclusive and progressive, broadening the traditional stance of the Roman Church.
Important sectors of German (e.g. Cardinal Walter Kasper) and international (e.g. conservative circles in the US) Roman Catholicism have expressed growing concerns over the disruptive turn of the “Synodal Path” and the “liquid” Roman Catholicism it endorses. To try to restore order, in 2019 Pope Francis wrote a letter to German Catholics whose essence can be summarized in this way: “the German Synod is fine, changes are fine to some extent, but always stay within the Roman structures and remain united to the whole ecclesiastical institution.” In spite of the papal message, this reminder went virtually unnoticed and the German “Synodal Path” continued undaunted with its very Catholic resolutions, challenging the Roman status quo.
On 21st July the news came out that, fearing a rupture of the balance between the Catholic and the Roman, the Vatican issued a “Declaration of the Holy See” in German and Italian. The declaration essentially says two things: first, that the “Synodal Path” is all right in so far as it does not change the well-established beliefs and practices of the whole universal church; and second, if anything, its requests and recommendations can and should be brought to the broader Synod of Bishops on synodality that will take place in Rome in 2023. This is the translation from the ecclesiastical jargon: “Dear German Catholics, you have pulled the rope too hard. Now the Roman structures of the Church are calling you back in order to make your journey flow back into the Roman Catholic synthesis.” In even fewer words: “Catholicity is fine, but not at the expense of the Roman identity.” Roman Catholicism is both Catholic and Roman.
The Vatican believed that the time had come to strike a Roman blow to the Catholic trajectory of the “Synodal Path.” Rome feared that the pendulum of Catholicity ran the risk of breaking the framework of Romanism.
This Roman initiative by the Holy See is just the latest in a series of continuous adjustments that keep the system in a dynamic equilibrium. Compared to theological liberalism which, from Friedrich Schleiermacher onwards, pushes the accelerator of the historical Protestant churches on the re-invention of Christianity to adapt it to the dominant culture, Roman Catholicism is open to “development” and “updating” without losing its dogmatic commitments and institutional structure. The Catholic expansion must serve the purpose of reinforcing the Roman system; otherwise, it is not different from the liberal agenda.
For this reason, Roman Catholicism is not interested in a “reformation” according to the gospel. Rome wants to incorporate new and different emphases (e.g. evangelical, charismatic, traditionalist, liberal) without changing its sacramental and hierarchical self-understanding. Rome says it wants the gospel, but Rome also wants mariology, the papacy, the sacraments – traditions and devotions that are contrary to the gospel – without obliterating its view that the Roman Church as it stands is a de iure divino institution, i.e. by divine law and therefore unchanging and unchangeable. If the tension between the Catholic and the Roman of Roman Catholicism is not broken and reformed by the truth of the gospel and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Rome will never really change: it will shift from here to there, always moving within the boundaries of its Catholic and Roman sides, but without getting closer to Jesus Christ.
The constitution of a country is a kind of identity card for the country itself. Its different components, its various articles, the procedures that are enacted… they all create a window into what the country stands for and what its rules are. Since a country’s identity is reflected in every change of the constitution, any change signals a modification in the self-understanding of the entity.
The Roman Curia is governed by a kind of constitution that is issued by the Pope as the Head of the Church and Head of the State of the Vatican. It contains the rules that preside over the functioning of the Vatican departments and offices, which are at the service of the universal mission of the Roman Pontiff. It is the blueprint of the Vatican institution and is centered on the office of the Pope and practically implemented by the Roman Curia.
The recent promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium (PE) on 19th March 2022 gives the opportunity to examine how the Roman Catholic Church understands and organizes her institutional life as far as the present and the future are concerned. More importantly, PE shows the inherent connection between the theological vision and the institutional outlook of the Roman Church, at least from the viewpoint of the Curia. Prior to PE, the Roman Curia operated under the constitution Pastor Bonus issued by John Paul II in 1988 and so it is also interesting to notice the changes after 25 years. The constitution defines the Roman Curia as “the institution which the Roman Pontiff ordinarily makes use of in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office and his universal mission in the world.” Furthermore, it states: “The Roman Curia is composed of the Secretariat of State, the Dicasteries and other bodies, all juridically equal to each other.”
Of course, PE is a juridical document and some interest and expertise in canon law is needed to come to terms with its contents. The focus of this article will not so much be on the institutional re-arrangement of the Roman Curia and its organizational structure, but rather, on the theological vision that sustains it and that constitutes its framework. In what follows, I will try to look at PE from two different angles: the reordering of institutional priorities that it envisages and the significance of those priorities for the overall life of the Roman Catholic Church.Evangelicals are not always aware of the institutional picture and pay little attention to it. However, Rome is a big institution and one cannot come to terms with it without considering it. Therefore, this will be an exercise of evangelical discernment applied to the changing structure of the Roman Curia.
The Reordering of Priorities “Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel, n. 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church. What kind of reformation did he have in mind? In some sense, PE is the institutional answer to the question asked at the beginning of his pontificate.In a nutshell, Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of his Church has to do with the increase of “synodality,” i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The Pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger role in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the particular churches, to ensure that they act better together. According to him, reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic in the internal organization of the Roman church in a synodical outlook. PE spells out what it means for the Pope to think and act toward this kind of reformation.
In The Joy of the Gospel, the Pope wrote: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (n. 27). Now 9 years after The Joy of the Gospel, PE is the tool by which the Pope wants mission to be at the center of the Vatican institutional life and not just a set of activities run by the Vatican institutions. It is a change of symbolic and conceptual significance.
PE attempts to make the Roman Curia at the service of mission. This concern is made clear by the prominence given to the Dicastery for Evangelization, which is the first in order of the departments of the Curia. The Dicastery for Evangelization (directly chaired by the Pope with two pro-prefects in the sections into which it is divided) is formed through the merger of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The Pope himself takes full and direct responsibility to lead it. It has never happened before that the Pope would reclaim such a position and have such direct involvement.
In the list of PE, the Dicastery for Evangelization is followed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (which historically always had the first position among the old Congregations). The reverse of the order between the two is significant. The latter dicastery is followed by the new Dicastery for the Service of Charity, which was previously a simple Office, that of Apostolic Charity. The triadic order is therefore: evangelization, doctrine, charity. The more prominent role of “charity” is signaled by the institutional upgrade from Office to Dicastery.
It is worth pausing for a moment and reflect on the order that is envisioned by PE. Evangelization comes first and takes priority over doctrine. Evangelization is to become the first concern of the Roman Curia. Doctrine seems to be at the service of evangelization, no longer the other way around as has been the case for centuries. The Roman Curia is no longer supposed to be primarily a defensive structure guided by a body watching over doctrine, but needs to become an outward vector at the service of the mission of the Church. The shift is indicative of the new trajectory Pope Francis wants his church to move even beyond his time.
PE is not a detailed plan yet, but from the institutional perspective, it signals a significant change of priority. It is as if what was envisioned in The Joy of the Gospel has come to fruition. Through the re-structuring of the Roman Curia, evangelization and mission are now at the institutional center of the Vatican. The legacy of Pope Francis is a subject open to various interpretations. Doctrine has never received much attention by Pope Francis. Many of his critics have pointed out the doctrinal confusion if not failure in his leadership. Other aspects of his reign are receiving some pushback. Whatever one thinks of him, PE is perhaps his most important and lasting contribution and something that all people inside and outside of the Roman Catholic Church will have to deal with.
What Does Evangelization Mean? Given the importance of evangelization and mission in the new outlook of the Roman Curia, it is important to grapple with the theology of evangelization that lies at the heart of PE. “Evangelization” seems to be a popular word in Catholic circles. Being traditionally part of the vocabulary used by evangelicals (and also referred to as “evangelism”), it has become increasingly used by Roman Catholics, too. It was Paul VI with his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi who introduced it in Catholic language. It was Benedict XVI who launched in 2010 a new Vatican department to support efforts towards the “new evangelization.” It is Pope Francis who regularly speaks about and practices forms of evangelization, making it a central task of the Church, as attested in his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. With PE, evangelization is given institutional importance.
“Evangelization” is a word that Rome has re-signified in order to suit its theological vision of embracing the world and in order to fulfill its calling to be, as Vatican II says, a “sign and instrument of the unity between God and mankind” (Lumen Gentium, n. 1). A similar genetic modification has occurred with other words that have historically belonged to the Evangelical vocabulary, e.g. “conversion,” “unity” and “mission.” These words are some examples of the way in which Roman Catholicism can maintain the same spelling, while giving these terms a distinct Roman Catholic meaning.
In The Joy of the Gospel, the “heart” of the Gospel is summarized in this way: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (n. 36). In this apparently Evangelical definition of the Gospel, something is missing: while the objective Good News of God is rightly related to the narrative of Jesus Christ, the subjective part of it (i.e. repentance from one’s own sin and personal faith) is omitted. The tragedy of being lost without Jesus Christ is also downplayed. For this reason, nowhere in the document are unrepentant unbelievers called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (n. 244), Jews don’t need to convert (n. 247), and with believing Muslims, the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (n. 252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium, n.16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are associated to “the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (n. 254). 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. According to Francis, therefore, evangelization and mission are the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace.
The word “evangelization” is used here; the practice of it is apparently endorsed. Evangelicals, for whom the word strikes deep spiritual chords, may celebrate the emphasis that the Roman Catholic Church is putting on evangelization, now in an embedded form in the Roman Curia. Yet a careful and honest reading of the document shows that the kind of “evangelization” the Pope is advocating for here is something utterly distant from the biblical meaning of the word.
Apart from Evangelii Gaudium, the most recent encyclical All Brothers (2020) is another window into Pope Francis’ theology of evangelization. In this document, Francis pleads the cause of universal fraternity and social friendship. Although it does not directly deal with evangelization, it nonetheless shapes the missiological framework of Francis’ theology of evangelization.
Among other issues, All Brothers raises a soteriological question. If we are all brothers as we are all children of God, does this mean that all will be saved? The whole encyclical is pervaded by a powerful universalist inspiration that also includes atheists (n. 281). Religions in the broad sense are always presented in a positive sense (nn. 277-279) and there is no mention of a biblical criticism of religions nor of the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the key to receiving salvation. Everything in the encyclical suggests that everyone, as brothers and sisters, will be saved. Evangelization is surely impacted by this assumption.
Then there is a Christological issue. Even though Jesus Christ is referred to here and there, his exclusive and “offensive” claims are kept silent. Francis wisely presents Jesus Christ not as the “cornerstone” on which the whole building of life stands or collapses, but as the stone only for those who recognize him. Above Jesus Christ, according to the encyclical, there is a “God” who is the father of all. We are children of this “God” even without recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus is thus reduced to the rank of the champion of Christians alone, while the other “brothers” are still children of the same “God” regardless of faith in Jesus Christ. Evangelization cannot escape from being shaped by this shallow Christology.
Thirdly, there is an ecclesiological issue. If we are all “brothers,” there is a sense in which we are all part of the same church that gathers brothers and sisters together. The boundaries between humanity and church are so nonexistent that the two communities become coincident. Humanity is the church and the church is humanity. This is in line with the sacramental vision of the Roman Catholic Church which, according to Vatican II, is understood as a “sign and instrument of the unity of the whole human race”(Lumen Gentium, n. 1). According to All Brothers, the whole of the human race belongs to the church not on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, but on the basis of a shared divine sonship and human fraternity.
After sampling the theology of evangelization in Francis’ programmatic documents, it is useful to compare it with standard evangelical accounts of evangelization. According to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, perhaps the most representative evangelical document of the 20th century, evangelism is “the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (n. 4). Notice the different elements of this neat and clear definition: “proclamation,” “historical and biblical Christ,” “persuasion,” and the emphasis on one’s personal reconciliation to God.
What “evangelization” is talked about in PE? The immediate answer is that of The Joy of the Gospel and All Brothers, and this is not really good news for Evangelicals. The word is the same, but the meaning is far different. In its understanding and practice of evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church legitimately brings in the whole of its theological system, which is based on a combination of the Bible and traditions, Christ and the saints, faith and folk piety, and so on. Its evangelization promotes and commends this kind of blurred and erroneous gospel. Before celebrating the fact that with PE the Roman Catholic Church has become seriously engaged in evangelization, one needs to understand what kind of evangelization Rome stands for: it is a flawed view of what “preach the Gospel” means according to the Bible.
 So far the text of PE is only available in Italian. This explains why the document has so far received less attention than what it would deserve. An introductory presentation of PE can be found in G. Ghirlanda, “‘Praedicate Evangelium’ sulla Curia romana”, La Civiltà Cattolica 4123 (2/16 aprile 2022) pp. 41-56 and O.A.R. Maradiaga, Praedicate Evangelium. Una nuova curia per un tempo nuovo (Roma: Pubblicazioni Clarettiane, 2022). Cfr. A. Spadaro – C.M. Galli (edd.), La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Brescia: Queriniana, 2016). Here is the list of the dicasteries as they are arranged by PE: Dicastery for Evangelization; Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; Dicastery for the Service of Charity (formerly the Office of Papal Charities); Dicastery for the Eastern Churches; Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Dicastery for the Causes of Saints; Dicastery for Bishops; Dicastery for the Clergy; Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life; Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue; Dicastery for Culture and Education; Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; Dicastery for Legislative Texts; Dicastery for Communication. The Council for Promoting the New Evangelization was created by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. See my “‘Confusion’ and ‘Failure’: Other Roman Catholic Blows Against Pope Francis”, Vatican Files (March 1st, 2019) and “Is the Pope Catholic?”, Unio Cum Christo (2022) forthcoming. As an aside, another important nuance that PE introduced has to do with the possibility for a lay person to preside over a dicastery, and this by virtue of the principle that “the power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of orders, but from the canonical mission” received by the Pope with the conferral of office. In my book Same Words, Different Worlds: Do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Believe the Same Gospel? (London: IVP, 2021), I explore words such are “generation,”“justification,”“cross,” etc. showing that the way these words are understood by Rome is significantly different from their biblical meaning.On Rome’s attempt at redefining biblical words, see my article “Left Without Words. How Roman Catholicism is Reshaping the Evangelical Vocabulary,”Vatican Files (April 1st, 2013). In Same Words, Different Worlds, cit. I argue that while Rome uses the same words of the gospel, its account of the gospel is flawed because the Roman Catholic Church is not committed to Scripture Alone as its foundational principle and therefore its understanding of the Bible is determined by non-biblical sources.
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?
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). 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.
 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.
There is a general perception that Pope Francis’s pontificate has entered an irreversibly declining phase, a sort of late autumn that is a prelude to the end of a season. It is not just a question of age: yes, Pope Francis is elderly and in poor health. But aging aside, the pontificate finds itself navigating a descending parable. It started with the language of “mission” and “reform”. Francis’ reign, now nearly 10 years old, was immediately engulfed in a thousand difficulties, particularly within the Catholic Church. Many of these problems were caused by the ambiguities of Francis himself, to the point that the push envisaged at the beginning turned out to be broken, if not wholly inconclusive.
Given the predictable end of a season, the question is therefore legitimate: after Francis, who is next? Who will be the next pope? This question is asked not by some bitter secularist or even a seasoned bookmaker, but by the devout Roman Catholic scholar George Weigel, former biographer of John Paul II (Witness of Hope. The Life of John Paul II, 1999) and author, among other things, of a book in which he proposes a change in the meaning of the term “evangelical”: from being a descriptor of the Protestant faith grounded on Scripture Alone and Faith Alone to an adjective describing a fully-orbed Roman Catholicism (Evangelical Catholicism. Deep-reform in the 21st Century, 2013, see my review here). Weigel is a bright intellectual and an exponent of the conservative American Roman Catholicism that has often been outspoken against Francis.
In his book The Next Pope. The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2020) Weigel draws a composite sketch of the new pope. The next pope will be a man who was either a child or very young during the years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). For the first time, Rome will have a pope more “distant” from the controversies of the 1960s-1970s. For this reason, perhaps he will be more free from the interpretative wars over the Council, i.e whether it was a Council that continued with tradition or broke from it. However, as Weigel admits (but it doesn’t take much acumen to recognize it), “there are profound divisions over Catholic doctrine and identity, praxis and mission, within the Church itself” (p. 9). The next pope will find these divisions on his desk. How will he deal with them?
According to Weigel, the next pope will have to find inspiration from Leo XIII (1810-1903), whose papacy from 1878 to his death in 1903 generated a ferment in the life of the then tormented church: Leo anchored its life and thought to Thomist philosophy; he developed its social doctrine; and launched a challenge to the modern world at the cultural level instead of adopting a defensive attitude towards it. The reverberations of this vitality were then channeled by John XXIII in convening Vatican II and by John Paul II in the Great Jubilee of 2000. For the American scholar, this is the militant Roman Catholicism that the next pope will have to embody and promote: faithful to its traditional doctrine, integral in its moral teaching, consistent in its ecclesial practices, made up of devout Catholics. For Weigel, taking inspiration from Leo XIII and John Paul II, the agenda of the new pope needs to be the “new evangelization”. Here is the way he puts it: the new pope “will have to devote himself fully to the new evangelization as the great strategy of the Church of the 21st century” (p. 23).
In order to “evangelize”, the Roman Catholic Church must, according to Weigel, regain its identity as a sacramental and hierarchical church, combining this with its consolidated cluster of doctrines and practices handed down by tradition, i.e. the “fullness of the Catholic faith”. Weigel warns Roman Catholicism against going down the bankrupt path of liberal Protestantism which, by way of adapting to modern times, has lost its convictions and has also seen its churches empty. From his North American point of view, Weigel says that “the growing branches of Protestantism in the world are evangelicals, Pentecostals or fundamentalists” (p. 56), all characterized by “clear teaching and firm moral expectations”. It is as if to say: Roman Catholicism can follow the path of liberal Protestantism, become “light” (that is, confused in doctrine and mixed with the world) and die, or it must recover its “full” identity and flourish again. For Weigel, “light Catholicism will lead to zero Catholicism” (p. 59), the loss of faith and a dissolutive process. For this reason, he hopes that the next pope will be the expression of a full, convinced, devoted Roman Catholicism that aims at “evangelizing” (that is, Catholicizing) the world rather than being penetrated by the world.
This language of “light” versus “full” Catholicism helps explain why Weigel is critical of Francis. The present pope is seen as embroiled in proposing a “light” form of Roman Catholicism: he speaks of “mission” (e.g. in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium), but he works it out in a very different way from the “new evangelization”. For Francis, mission is to go out to meet “all brothers” (i.e. Francis’ latest enclycical argument for a universal brotherhood) with mercy, highlighting the unity that already exists among all human beings without lingering over differences. The strategy is to avoid facing disputes, not to challenge anyone, and to express mercy without a doctrinal backbone. Quite the opposite of what Weigel is hoping for. It is clear that Weigel’s new pope will have to make a vigorous shift away from Francis’s trajectory.
Weigel often uses a kind of “evangelical” language to describe the pope of his dreams. He speaks of fervor of spirit and solidity of convictions, all indicators not so much of doctrinal contents, but of the experiences of the evangelical faith. At the same time he speaks a very Roman Catholic language: he refers to salvation through baptism, Roman hierarchy, papal primacy, and Marian devotions. As a traditionalist Catholic, Weigel believes that everything Roman Catholicism has collected througout history (e.g. the Council of Trent, Vatican I, Marian dogmas, etc.) should be kept and nothing lost. All of this is very Catholic. He wants to make people believe that Roman Catholicism can (indeed must) also be “evangelical” without losing its Catholic tenets. He has in mind a pope who is very traditional in doctrine (anti-evangelical), yet very passionate and committed like an “evangelical”. This is the kind of pope he hopes for.
When he was elected in 2013, Francis too was presented as very close to the “evangelical” ethos. Spontaneous prayer, experiential language, and a certain fervor in spirituality seemed to make him a different pope. Many evangelicals were impressed, only to discover some time later that Francis was and is also very Marian, universalist, Jesuit, and anti-evangelical. Now Weigel, indirectly criticizing Francis, hopes for an “evangelical” Catholic pope, even if a very different pope from the present one. Both Francis and Weigel have an experiential (non-doctrinal) meaning of “evangelical” in mind. They want to appropriate the evangelical ways of living out the faith, while remaining anchored to the traditional (Weigel) or “outgoing” (Francis) doctrine of Roman Catholicism. Both of them distort the evangelical faith and want to dissolve it in the dogmatic-institutional synthesis of Roman Catholicism.
Whoever is elected, the next pope will unlikely be an “evangelical” if the word “evangelical” retains its doctrinal and historical meaning. The “evangel” is not the paramount commitment of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, its head will never be an “evangelical” pope if the Roman Church will not undergo a reformation according to the “evangel”.
Whenever we talk about lands tormented by decades of wars and violence, sometimes perpetrated in the name of religions, divinities and faiths, we must do so with sobriety and circumspection. It is easy to pontificate from a distance, comfortably seated and safe, forgetting the tragic context and the widespread suffering in the situation you want to talk about. This is to say that commenting on Pope Francis’ recent trip to Iraq can become a pretext for easy criticism if one does not try to enter the complexity of the situation and the tragedy of the hour. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that the Roman pope’s call to religious freedom and freedom of conscience was very good. His appeal to respect for minorities was extremely helpful. His invitation to national conciliation and solidarity between the various components of society was also commendable.
Having said that, the theological framework of his visit to Iraq cannot be overlooked. The climax of his journey was the address given at the inter-religious meeting at the Plain of Ur (March 6th). In a very evocative and emotional way, his speech was centered on the figure of Abraham as the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims. According to Francis, “Abraham our father” is common to all: Jews, Christians and Muslims are the “descendants” promised by God to Abraham and therefore “brothers and sisters” among them. These three groups are called by God “to bear witness to his goodness, to show his paternity through our fraternity”. In the name of Abraham, they experience the same human (in Abraham) and divine (in God) fatherhood, thus being brothers and sisters. Applying it to today’s situation, according to the Pope,“there will be no peace as long as we see others as them and not us”.
All Brothers and Sisters After laboring the point of the shared brotherhood in God and in Abraham, Francis ended his address in a way that boils down his vision:
Brothers and sisters of different religions, here we find ourselves at home, and from here, together, we wish to commit ourselves to fulfilling God’s dream that the human family may become hospitable and welcoming to all his children; that looking up to the same heaven, it will journey in peace on the same earth.
This heartfelt appeal was followed by the “Prayer of the children of Abraham” (recited with the Christian and Muslim representatives present at the meeting) in which, among others, these expressions are striking:
As children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with other believers and all persons of good will, we thank you for having given us Abraham, a distinguished son of this noble and beloved country, to be our common father in faith.
We ask you, the God of our father Abraham and our God, to grant us a strong faith, a faith that abounds in good works, a faith that opens our hearts to you and to all our brothers and sisters; and a boundless hope capable of discerning in every situation your fidelity to your promises.
Abraham is presented as “our common father in faith” and the prayer is addressed to “our God” without mentioning the name of Jesus Christ, taking for granted God’s fatherhood not as Creator of all things, but as “our God”, God of us “brothers and sisters”.
In addition, by concluding his address with an inter-religious prayer, the pope shifted the focus from a religious speech to a form of “spiritual ecumenism”, i.e. joint prayer. For him, speaking about universal fraternity and praying as brothers and sisters to the same God are one and the same. Inter-religious dialogue becomes a spiritual form of unity based on the conviction that all humanity shares faith in the same God. In the Roman Catholic understanding and practice of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, joint prayer is always in view when talking about “unity”.
The papal address and his inter-religious prayer require a “grammar” to be fully understood. It is easy to stop at the level of a convinced call for religious freedom and peaceful coexistence. It would be reductive and not in line with the intentions of the pontiff. What Francis said and did is embedded in a truly Roman Catholic theology of the unity of the human race as it is made up of sisters and brothers, all children of the same God who, as such, can and must pray together.
The Pope’s Slippery Slope There is an evident slippery slope in this train of argument related to the themes of otherness and coexistence between different people. Apart from the heavy implications of universalism (i.e. the idea that all religions lead to God), the pope says that in order to not be in conflict with one another, people must be friends; to be friends,they must be brothers and sisters; and to be brothers and sisters, it is necessary to refer to the same divinity which, although differently constructed on the theological level, is the same God. The train of thought ends in this way: being all children of the same God, we must pray together.
If we consider all the steps involved in this argument, we are faced with an impressive concentration of what the Roman Catholic vision looks like.
There are strong theological implications as far as the doctrine of God is concerned: is the Muslim Allah the same as the Triune God of the Bible? If we are praying as brothers and sisters together, the pope’s answer is YES.
There are evident soteriological consequences: are we all saved regardless of faith in Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God? If we pray to the same God as brothers and sisters, implying that we are all accepted in His eyes, the pope’s answer is YES even though the language of “universal salvation” is not explicitly used.
There are also missiological overtones: what about the great commission to go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel in view of the conversion of the lost? If we are already brothers and sisters, praying together to the same God, the pope’s answer is that the church’s mission is to make visible and concrete what is already true: no one is really lost and, as human beings, we are already part of God’s family.
The Roman Catholic “Logic” and its Dangers If one accepts this Roman Catholic “logic” of Pope Francis, in order to live in peace among those who are different, one must recognize the pan-religion that unites everyone. Having a common religion is foundational for striving towards peace. According to the pope, peace is possible among brothers and sisters who are children of Abraham, and who are ultimately children of God.
Those who do not accept this “logic”, i.e. those who believe that one should not have to have the same faith to live together in peace, that one should not have to pray together to love the neighbor as Christ commands us, that one should not have to resort to the rhetoric of “we are all brothers and sisters” to work together for the common good, they sow enmity, foment violence, and create conflicts. The slippery slope of the pope’s speech is extremely dangerous. It undermines the Christian “scandal” according to which Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and, at the same time, Christ’s disciples are called to live in peace with everyone (Romans 12:18) regardless their religious beliefs and practices. This is the Christian claim: in the process of loving the neighbor and living in peace, one should never fudge the gospel that says that apart from Jesus Christ there is no salvation (Acts 4:12). On the contrary, the pope thinks that in order to have peace one MUST profess the universal religion of “we-are-all-brothers-and-sisters-praying-to-the-same-God”. His is not the Christian way.
A final word on Abraham. What the pope said about the patriarch, the apostle Paul would not have said. For Paul, Abraham is the father of the believers in Jesus Christ (Romans 4:11-12). For Paul, the descendants of Abraham are the disciples of Jesus Christ from every nation (Romans 4:16-17): his inheritance, in fact, does not follow the biological line of flesh and blood but is received and transmitted “by faith” in Jesus Christ (4:16). Jesus himself questioned ethnic and cultural appropriations of the common fatherhood of Abraham (John 8:39), saying that Abraham rejoiced in waiting to see the day of the Lord Jesus (John 8:56). Without Jesus, and outside of faith in Jesus Christ, being children of Abraham can be a cultural identity marker, but not the basis for unity in faith and prayer.
The pandemic hit hard in 2020. Disruption broke in at all levels. The Vatican, as the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, was no exception. Programs in Rome were canceled or held in a low-key form. Was it then a stand-by or – even worse – a wasted year? Not at all.
2020 was a year of intense activity behind the scenes, especially in the area of expanding the borders of Rome’s “catholicity”. The catholicity of Roman Catholicism is one of the two pillars of the whole system: while it is “Roman” – i.e. centered on Rome’s hierarchical institution, focused on Rome’s catechism and canon law, based on its sacramental machinery– it is also “Catholic” – i.e. ever-expanding its synthesis, assimilating trends and movements, aiming at becoming more fully universal through absorbing the world. Outside of the spotlight of media attention, it was the catholicity of Rome that gained a great deal from the COVID year.
While its ordinary events were negatively impacted, the long-term, “catholic” vision of the Roman Church was fueled with impressive consequences. Pope Francis was the architect and proactive director of all these moves. In observing the recent global activities of the pope, the Argentinian philosopher Rubén Peretó Rivas compared them with those of an international organization and asked whether Pope Francis aims at becoming the “Chaplain of the United Nations”. His 2020 “universal” initiatives indeed look like those of the United Nations in language, scope and content. Three projects deserve to be mentioned in this respect.
“All Brothers” It has been rightly called the “political manifesto” of Pope Francis’s pontificate. In fact, there is a lot of politics and a lot of sociology in the latest encyclical “All Brothers” (3rd October 2020). In it, Francis wants to plead the cause of universal fraternity and social friendship. To do this, he speaks of borders to be broken down, of waste to be avoided, of human rights that are not sufficiently universal, of unjust globalization, of burdensome pandemics, of migrants to be welcomed, of open societies, of solidarity, of peoples’ rights, of local and global exchanges, of the limits of the liberal political vision, of world governance, of political love, of the recognition of the other, of the injustice of any war, of the abolition of the death penalty. These are all interesting “political” themes which, were it not for some comments on the parable of the Good Samaritan that intersperse the chapters, could have been written by a group of sociologists and humanitarian workers from some international organization. The vision proposed by “All Brothers” is the way in which Rome sees globalization with the eye of a Jesuit and South American pope.
Its basic message is sufficiently clear: we are all brothers as children of the same God. This is Pope Francis’ theological truth. When “All Brothers” talks about God, it does so in general terms that can fit Muslim, Hindu, and other religions’ accounts of god, as well as the Masonic reference to the Watchmaker. To further confirm this, “All Brothers” ends with a “Prayer to the Creator” that could be used both in a mosque and in a Masonic temple. Having removed the “stumbling block” of Jesus Christ, everyone can turn to an unspecified Divinity to experiment with what it means to be “brothers” – brothers in a Divinity made in the image and likeness of humanity, not brothers and sisters on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ who has died and risen for sinners. “All Brothers” has genetically modified the biblically understood meaning of fraternity by transferring it to common humanity. In doing so, it has lost the biblical boundaries of the word and replaced them with pan-religious traits and contents. The papal document is deist, at best theistic, but not in line with biblical and Trinitarian Christianity.
“All Brothers” shows that the mission that Pope Francis has in mind is not the preaching of the Gospel in words and deeds, but the extension to all of a message of universal fraternity. This is the theological framework of the pope as he stretches the boundaries of the catholicity of his church.
The Global Compact on Education Soon after releasing “All Brothers”, there was another indication of Pope Francis’ universalist agenda. In a video message aired on 15th October 2020, he commended the “Global Compact on Education” (GCE), i.e. an ambitious plan in the field of education worldwide to bring about a “change of mentality”. The GCE is worked out with Mission 4.7, a U.N.-backed advisory group of civil and political leaders aiming to meet the educational target (numbered 4.7) of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
SDG number 4 strives for “quality education”, and within that goal, target 4.7 aims to “ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.
This is the U.N.’s globalist language, but the Roman Catholic language significantly overlaps with it. GCE speaks of “human fraternity” regardless of and beyond religious beliefs. In the plan, the watchwords are wholly secular. The dominant formula is “new humanism”, explained in terms of “common home”, “universal solidarity”, “fraternity” (as it is defined in “All Brothers”), “convergence”, “welcome”, overcoming “division and antagonism” … The “new humanism” is coupled with the “universal brotherhood” so as to embrace the whole of humanity in a human, common project. In the “new humanism” Rome reads its increased catholicity, the U.N. its globalist agenda.
In the video Francis also praised the U.N.’s role and contribution in offering a “unique opportunity” to create “a new kind of new education”, and quoted St. Paul VI’s 1965 message of appreciation of the U.N. in which he lauded the institution for “teaching men peace”. Francis is certain that this plan will bring about “the civilization of love, beauty and unity”. No explicit Christian reference is made and there is no indication that the root problem is human sin. It seems that as we will have better education opportunities for all, the “new humanism” will come. This is in line with the U.N. vision, but is it realistic from a Christian viewpoint?
The Economy of Francesco If “All Brothers” is the theological framework and GCE is the project in education, a third area that Pope Francis has strongly pushed forward is an initiative in the field of economics. Making reference to Francis of Assisi’s reconciled view between humanity and the earth and drawing inspiration from it, the initiative was called the “Economy of Francesco” (EF).
In a video broadcast on 21st November, the pope called young economists, entrepreneurs and business leaders “to take up the challenge of promoting and encouraging models of development, progress and sustainability in which people, especially the excluded (including our sister earth), will no longer be – at most – a merely nominal, technical or functional presence. Instead, they will become protagonists in their own lives and in the entire fabric of society”. The goal is to strive towards “a pact to change the current economy” and to “give a new soul to the global economy”, and indeed to radically overthrow it in the wake of the “popular movements”.
Again, this project is another extension of the catholicity of the Roman Catholic Church, with no explicit reference to a Christian framework, but falling in line with an apparently globalist view of an economic reality marked by the “new humanism”.
As Francis promoted EF, he also included as partner in the initiative the “Council for Inclusive Capitalism”, meaning the magnates of the Ford Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Mastercard, Bank of America, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the like. The Council is formed by around 500 companies, which together represent 10.5 trillion dollars in assets under management and 200 million workers in over 163 countries. This is to say that simply painting Rome’s catholicity as anti-capitalist is wrong. Pope Francis aims at including all parties in his “new humanism”. In these relationships with the global companies there are also strategic opportunities for funding the initiatives of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a win-win relationship.
As already mentioned, Francis’s activism on the global scene in 2020 prompted someone to label him as “Chaplain of the United Nations” because of the striking convergence between the “new humanism” that he has been advocating in the areas of fraternity, education and the economy and the goals of the U.N. In doing what the pope does, the impression is not to be given that Francis is awkwardly operating outside of Roman Catholic principles and convictions. While there are apparent similarities with the ethos of an international organization such as the U.N., what the pope did in 2020 is an attempt to implement the vision cast at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
In one of its foundational documents on the church, Vatican II argues that the church is a “sacrament”. Here is how it explains what this means: the church is a “sacrament” because she is “a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1). The idea of the global “human fraternity” and the Roman Church being a sign and instrument of it is embedded in the self-understanding of Rome. With these recent projects, Pope Francis is making it plain what it means for the Roman Catholic Church to be a “sacrament” in the world in the realms of global politics, education and economy, i.e. uniting the whole of humanity around itself.
In his 2013 document “Evangelii Gaudium”, Francis wrote that “initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (n. 223) is what he wanted to achieve. “All brothers”, GCE and EF are all processes initiated by the expansion of Rome’s catholicity. Those who are used to think of Roman Catholicism as a “Roman” system (e.g. dogmatic, rigid, locked-in) and not as a “Catholic” project (e.g. open-ended, absorbing and expanding) may be surprised and even puzzled. But Roman Catholicism demands that its Roman-centered institution be unceasingly fertilized by its evermore Catholic horizon, and vice versa.
Can you imagine an Apostle Paul who, at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17), invites his listeners (followers of various philosophical schools and ancient cults) to unite in prayer, each to his own god/ideal as a sign of fraternity? Can you imagine an Apostle Peter who, in writing to Christians at the four corners of the Roman Empire (1 Peter 1:1), recommends that they raise petitions together with the faithful of the Eastern, Greek and Roman religions, to invoke the end of a pandemic? For those who have a basic grasp of the biblical faith, this is pretty absurd. Not for Rome, though. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church organized a “Day of Prayer and Fasting addressed to believers of all religions” (14 May) under the auspices of the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity to pray together. Catholics, Muslims and people of other religions or of no religion were all encouraged to pray to her/his own god or personal ideal for the pandemic to cease.
Biblical Proximity Is Not Universal Fraternity Before examining the theological problems behind the inter-faith prayer promoted by the Roman Catholic Church, it is important to be aware of the context of this initiative. The aforementioned Higher Committee for Human Fraternity was established in 2019, a few months after the meeting in Abu Dhabi between Pope Francis and Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Muslim University in Cairo (Egypt). That meeting was centered on the signing of the controversial “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together“. In spite of the praise gathered in inter-faith circles, it is a controversial document for a simple reason: it joins the commendable attempt to build a peaceful society (especially in areas where the relationship between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority is tense) with the idea that Muslims and Christians are “brothers and sisters” praying to the same God. In so doing, it wrongly exchanges proximity with fraternity, i.e. our being neighbors with all men and women, with our being brothers and sisters with those who belong to the family of God in Jesus Christ. While proximity connects people of different faiths and backgrounds and calls them to live in peace, fraternity is a spiritual bond that unites believers in Jesus Christ as brothers and sisters in Him.
The “Document on Human Fraternity” blurs the distinction and changes the meaning of fraternity, extending it to the relationships between peoples of different religions, as if Muslims and Christians are “brothers and sisters” praying to the same God.
An Ever Expanding “Catholic” Trajectory This day of prayer witnessed the participation of believers of all religions, but also of those who do not believe, united “spiritually” to pray to their divinity or ideal, all pleading for the end of the pandemic. Each participant was called to address his god/ideal in a spirit of fraternity that embraced everyone. What is at stake theologically is enormous. Moving beyond the perimeter of the biblical faith, Roman Catholicism legitimizes prayers to other deities or religious ideals, silencing the prophetic message of Scripture that we either serve the biblical God or idols. It fails to bear witness to the claims of Jesus Christ as the God-man who came to save those who believe in him, and instead changes the meaning of fraternity by stretching it indiscriminately to all humanity, rather than believers in Jesus only. In so doing, the tenets of the biblical faith are trampled on.
This is a further move away from biblical Christianity. Not being anchored in Scripture alone, not being committed to Christ alone, Roman Catholicism is anxious to extend its ever-expanding catholicity (i.e. all-encompassing embracement) in all directions, even those clearly contrary to the basics of the Christian faith. This is not even something new that was introduced by the current Jesuit Pope with his “uncertain” magisterium. It is rather a confirmation of the slippery slope of the “development” of what is already contained in Vatican II (Lumen Gentium n. 16), with its universalistic bent, which was visually represented at the inter-religious prayer of Assisi (1986, convened by John Paul II) and then confirmed by Francis’ apostolic exhortation of 2013 (Evangelii Gaudiumnn. 244-254), eventually culminating in the “Document on Human Fraternity” in 2019.
Present-day Roman Catholicism, while open to ecumenism with liberal Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals, does the same with Muslims, Buddhists, men of goodwill, etc. For Rome, unity is not only among Christians, but among all women and men as human beings. This “unity” is based on the “gospel” of our common humanity, to which everyone belongs regardless of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The question remains, though: Is this the biblical gospel?
Back to Paul and Peter Biblical proximity does not require common prayer and does not entail fraternity. At the Areopagus, while respectfully engaging various people in various contexts, Paul preached the gospel by calling all to repent and believe in the Man appointed by the Father who was raised from the dead, i.e. Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31). He was a good neighbor, but he did not call the Athenians “brothers and sisters”, nor did he ask them to pray with him. To the Christians scattered all over the world, Peter did not give the advice of uniting in prayer with the peoples around them, but he did teach them to always be prepared to make a defense of the gospel (1 Peter 4:15). Peter wanted them to be good neighbors (e.g. 1 Peter 2:12), but always ready to proclaim the excellencies of him who had called them out of darkness into his marvelous light. If Paul and Peter were informed of the “Day of Prayer and Fasting addressed to believers of all religions“, they would ask themselves: is this biblical Christianity?
Progressives were disappointed. Traditionalists were perplexed. In the end, Querida Amazonia (“Beloved Amazon”), the 2020 Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis following the Synod on the Pan-Amazon region, was neither the revolutionary push that many were fearful of nor the reaffirmation of the well-established Roman Catholic discourse on mission that others could have desired. Querida Amazonia was rather a reinforcement of Pope Francis’ own missiology. Its tenets had been already enshrined in Evangelii Gaudium (2013), with its call to his Church to be “outgoing”, and further affirmed in Laudato Si’ (2015), with its ecological concerns elevated to missiological primary focus. In the latest papal document, these threads are interwoven and more strongly knitted together as they are applied to the Amazon region. Initial reactions to it show the fact that the Pope did not go left or right, but followed his path.
Different Expectations As already mentioned, the Pope did not back up progressive voices expecting his approval for the consecration to the priesthood of the viri probati (married “men of proven virtue”) and for women to join the diaconate. These measures had been foreshadowed in the Final Document of the Synod (The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology) but the Pope kept silent on them. Perhaps the silence was due to awareness of the fact that, if approved, they would have caused further disruption to a Roman Catholic Church already in turmoil. Both the celibacy of priests and the exclusion of women from the diaconate belong to the Latin tradition to which Rome is committed. Progressive sectors of the Roman Church (i.e. some Latin American bishops and the majority of the German bishops) supported the relaxation of the vetoes and the eventual admission of married men to the priesthood and of women to the diaconate. Pope Francis did not mention these points, although the Final Document of the Synod makes reference to them. In this respect, Francis wrote that he did not want his Exhortation to replace or duplicate the Final Document (n. 2) – indeed, he called the “entire Church” to apply it (n. 4). So, even though he does not treat the two critical points explicitly, the Final document does and his Exhortation somehow validates it. Francis’ silence is, at best, an ambiguous silence.
While breathing a sigh of relief for not seeing the intentional
undoing of well-established traditions, Catholic conservatives were disturbed
to find in the papal document a powerful reaffirmation of some idiosyncratic
elements of the “outgoing” missiology of the reigning Pope. Apparently weak in doctrinal
emphases and overflowing with a “merciful” tone, the Exhortation insists on
globalist and nativist themes and focusses on the practice of theological and
liturgical inculturation: twenty-five paragraphs are dedicated to
inculturation, one fourth of the whole document. The kind of inculturation that
is envisaged is basically open to syncretism with indigenous cultures. Querida Amazonia tends to have a very
positive view of indigenous cultures – at times somewhat naïve – and in so
doing it lacks biblical realism. According to the Bible, cultures are not to be
idealized nor demonized: they are mixed bags of idolatry and common grace in
need of redemption. Pope Francis tends to idealize native cultures, seeing them
as already infused by the grace of God.
The Pope’s “Dreams” Querida Amazonia presents four dreams that the Pope has for the region. Talking about dreams is very evocative and emotionally engaging. First, Francis has a “social dream” in which he deals with themes such as injustice and crime, a sense of community, broken institutions, and social dialogue. Second, there is a reference to a “cultural dream” whereby the Pope talks about caring for roots, intercultural encounters, endangered cultures, and peoples at risk. Third, reference is made to an “ecological dream” in which the preservation of water reservoirs and the contemplation of the environment are treated together with the need for ecological education and habits. More than half of the document is dedicated to the first three dreams.
Finally, the Pope also has an “ecclesial dream”. In
this section he talks about the “message” that the Amazon region needs to hear.
The gospel is summarized in this sentence:
who infinitely loves every man and woman and has revealed this love fully in
Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen in our lives” (n. 64).
This is the papal kerygma. It is a message of love manifested in Jesus Christ who
died and rose and lives in us. This is all biblically right, though selective
at best, flawed at worst. There is no reference to sin, the need for repentance
and faith, salvation in Christ alone, God’s holiness and righteousness in
salvation and judgement, and the biblical framework of the Christian faith.
Francis’ gospel is a proclamation of a divine love that falls on all and is
already in all. While it contains elements of the gospel, it is not the
biblical gospel. Jesus’s kerygma was
“The kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the gospel” (e.g. Mark
1:15). Here God’s action (i.e. his Kingdom) and man’s lostness (i.e. our need
to repent) are explicitly stated and interwoven. The need to believe in the
gospel is also essential and that implies a transition, a conversion on our
part. Without it we are lost and continue to be lost. Unlike the Pope’s truncated
message, this is the biblical kerygma.
It is true that the Pope encourages readers of Querida Amazonia to refer to “the brief summary of this great message found in Chapter Four of the Exhortation Christus Vivit“, i.e. the 2019 document issued after the Vatican Synod on the young people. Even there, the gospel is summarized under three headings: “God is love; Christ saves you; the Spirit gives life”. The outlook is Trinitarian, but the content misses the reference to our sinful condition and our responsibility to respond in repentance and faith to God’s love. Again, the papal gospel looks like an objective and historical message, although void of covenantal premises and consequences, i.e. God’s righteous judgement on sinners. It seems that all have already received God’s love and are saved by Christ and live in the Spirit. Is this universalist message what the biblical gospel teaches? Given the fact that Querida Amazonia is addressed to “all persons of good will”, therefore Christians and non Christians alike, the ambiguity of the account of the gospel contained in the Exhortation is even more striking. The non-Christian reader of the document is not challenged to repent and believe, but is assured that God is love inspite of what she/he believes and stands for.
A Word to Evangelicals: “All this unites us”? In the final paragraphs, Querida Amazonia makes reference to “ecumenical co-existence”, i.e. a word to Evangelicals and Pentecostals who have become a strong presence in the Amazon region, subtracting people and influence from the Roman Catholic Church. After having summarized his account of the kerygma, Francis writes:
“All this unites us. How
can we not struggle together? How can we not pray and work together, side by
side, to defend the poor of the Amazon region, to show the sacred countenance
of the Lord, and to care for his work of creation?” (n. 109)
Does all this unite us? If “all this” refers to the
papal gospel as it is presented earlier, the answer is no. Many words and
themes are the same, but they are understood and lived out differently, and
what is missing is as important as what is said. Then, the Pope invites
Evangelicals and Catholics to “pray and work” together. These two activities do
not overlap and need to be distinguished. Certainly there is room for “co-belligerence”, i.e. common action in advocating for the poor and
caring for creation. This is both possible and necessary, open to all peoples
sharing these concerns. However, common prayer is a spiritual activity
requiring unity in the biblical gospel and involvement from born-again Christians.
Does all this unite us? What comes after adds further
reasons to answer in the negative. The following paragraph is a heartfelt
invocation to Mary (n. 110) by Pope Francis:
Mother whose heart is pierced,
who yourself suffer in your mistreated sons and daughters,
and in the wounds inflicted on nature,
reign in the Amazon,
together with your Son.
Reign so that no one else can claim lordship
over the handiwork of God.
We trust in you, Mother of life.
Do not abandon us
in this dark hour.
Why is the Pope so selective and ambiguous in
the presentation of the biblical gospel and why does he spend so many words in
the invocation to Mary? Does all this unite Evangelicals and Roman Catholics? No.
Is a truncated kerygma and an
invocation to Mary (who is said to reign and in whom we are called to trust) the
foundation for being united in the gospel? No. After all, Querida Amazonia consolidates the
blurred and confusing missiology of Pope Francis.