224. Why Zygmunt Bauman saw “the light at the end of the tunnel” in Pope Francis

“You are the light at the end of the tunnel.” This is how Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) addressed Pope Francis during their meeting in Assisi in 2016 on the sidelines of a Sant’Egidio (i.e. a Roman Catholic charity) peace initiative. In his conversation with Francis, Bauman said, “I have worked all my life to make humanity a more hospitable place. I arrived at the age of 91 and I have seen many false starts, until I became a pessimist. Thank you, because you are for me the light at the end of the tunnel.”
 
How did the sociologist most known for his books on the “liquid society” happen to see the “light” in the Pope? The book by Zeger Polhuijs, Zygmunt Bauman and Pope Francis in Dialogue: the Labyrinth of Liquid Modernity (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic, 2022) examines the long-distance intellectual relationship between the two. Polhuijs is a Roman Catholic priest of the Community of Sant’Egidio and currently studies fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The book was presented at the Roman campus of the Australian Catholic University on 28th November 2023 and allows more digging into the matter.
 
Bauman’s attraction to Pope Francis is an episode that shows an interesting and widespread tendency in contemporary culture: how post-Marxist intellectuals, disillusioned by the failures of ideologies and preoccupied with the explosions of world fragmentation, find in Pope Francis a figure who, with his message of mercy, inclusion, and fraternity, instills hope in the general dullness.
 
Returning to Polhuijs’ book, it highlights how, in his examination of the ills of the contemporary world, Francis uses Bauman’s language and, conversely, the sociologist’s analyses overlap with the pope’s. There is a certain parallelism between them. Bauman, an agnostic, Jewish, post-Marxist, was attracted to Francis’ open and concrete thinking and the “transcendence” of the human fraternity he presents. In it, Bauman sees the awareness of the danger of the globalization of indifference, which is an effect of the liquid society, disengaged from traditional values and which has lost all sense of proximity. The antidote to liquidity is not a nostalgic and definitively lost solidity (Francis would call it “backwardism,” “clericalism,” “proselytism”), but solidarity among all: believers and non-believers. To contrast the adverse effects of liquid society, one does not need a common reference to God, but the appreciation of human fraternity.
 
For Bauman, Francis embodies this: not a reactionary religious voice saying to go back to traditional society or the Catholic church as the only agency that grants happiness for the afterlife, but an encouragement to connect with everyone by discovering the closeness of solidarity, regardless of one’s beliefs, religious commitments, or life practices. “The light at the end of the tunnel” is a new form of humanism that Francis seems to champion.
 
The proximity between Bauman and Pope Francis was indirectly observed by the conservative American intellectual George Weigel when he coined the term “liquid Roman Catholicism” as a description of the kind of Roman Catholicism that is emerging under Francis. Liquid Catholicism is marked by 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 of this makes Francis a pope who is liquifying an institution that in the past has made its rocky and immutable structure a distinctive trait of its identity.
 
Liquid Catholicism embraces believers, non-believers, Christians, non-Christians, practicing and non-practicing religious people. The important thing is that all are included. Everyone, in his or her own way, will decide the ways and times of their participation, but the assumption is that everyone is already a participant. Not surprisingly, Roman Catholics accustomed to thinking of their Church in terms of doctrinal clarity, unambiguousness of interpretations, and predictability of practices are puzzled by Pope Francis.
 
The point I want to make is this. In Bauman’s attraction to Francis, he was not interested in God, the Bible, sin, Jesus Christ, and salvation; the sociologist remained agnostic and did not convert to Roman Catholicism or the Christian faith. He was interested in society’s degradation, for which the recipes of ideology advocated in his youth had proved unsuccessful. On the other hand, Francis did not challenge him to believe in God, just as he does not confront his interlocutors with the need for biblical conversion. The Pope encourages them and all to feel that they are “all brothers,” to welcome each other, to consider fraternity the source of transcendence, leaving each to regulate his relationship with God in his own way, should he be interested.
 
This kind of “catholicity”, i.e. liquid Catholicism, pleases the post-Marxist culture, which, from being anti-religious and atheistic, has now become agnostic, perhaps indifferent to the discourse about God, but still characterized by its humanitarian concerns. This is the common ground with Francis’ catholicity. It makes the pope a “popular” figure in the eyes of progressive culture because it grounds transcendence on horizontal relationships (God is not needed), exalts fraternity among fellow human beings (reconciliation with God is not sought), and encourages proximity with one another (without fellowship with God). It bypasses Jesus Christ who said: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Biblically speaking, then, is what Bauman found in Pope Francis the true light at the end of the tunnel, or is it instead not another shade of darkness?

223. The Icing on the Cake of Pope Francis: the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions

The Roman Catholic Church officially opens for the blessing of same-sex unions. After much winking and hinting that this would be the outcome of the current pontificate, the official statement came out, putting pen to paper. “One should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation. At the same time, one should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing” (n. 38). So says the declaration Fiducia supplicans (18/12/2023) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with explicit approval from Pope Francis.
 
The die is cast. What had been a decade-long debate between those who hoped for this opening, considering it an advancement of Catholic morality toward greater inclusiveness, and those who saw it as a sign of Roman Catholicism’s irreversible ruin is now resolved. With a “declaration” of high hierarchical value in the authority of Vatican pronouncements (observers note that the Congregation’s last statement was Joseph Ratzinger’s Dominus Iesus dating back to 2000), Roman Catholicism is now officially in favor of blessing gay unions, as are many liberal Protestant churches around the world.
 
It all began with “Who am I to judge?” (2013) to “All, all, all” at the Lisbon Youth Day (2023). The trajectory was clear from the start: Pope Francis’ inclusive, embracing, “Catholic” afflatus and his distance from positions that he calls “clerical” and “backwardism” but that are also part of the doctrinal baggage of Roman Catholicism. In between are many steps, not the least of which is the appointment of trusted Argentine theologian Víctor Manuel Fernández as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who signed the Declaration. Now Francis has his back covered even within the Vatican’s “official” theology. Indeed, Fiducia supplicans openly contradicts another 2021 document of the same Congregation, when Cardinal Ladaria was Prefect. Then, responding to “doubts” precisely about the possibility of blessing same-sex unions, the Vatican had still responded with a (somewhat) clear “no.” Two years later, however, the answer is “yes.” Evidently, the evolution toward Roman Catholic inclusion has accelerated further.
 
Of course: the Vatican says that there is no question of recognizing gay unions as marriage, that Catholic doctrine does not change, that the blessing is not a sacrament but a sacramental, … all secondary doctrinal clarifications that do not modify the main point. The Roman Catholic Church today officially offers blessing to same-sex couples: something, moreover, already in place (and for years) in Roman Catholic churches in many European (e.g. Germany and Belgium) and Latin American (e.g. Argentina) countries.
 
Roman Catholics must ask themselves whether Fiducia supplicans is consistent with the previous magisterium or is in open conflict with it. By its nature, Roman Catholicism is constantly on the move to possibly encompass the whole world within the institutional-sacramental structures of its Roman system. Not being hinged on and guided by the biblical gospel, Roman Catholicism fluctuates between asserting its Roman power and accentuating its Catholic embrace. In Dominus Iesus (2000) the Vatican restated its Roman understanding of the Catholic Church being the only and true church. With Fiducia supplicans (2023), the Vatican opens its Catholic embrace to same-sex couples.
 
Fiducia supplicans is the icing on the cake of his pontificate. The main ingredients of Francis’ Jesuit recipe have been two: we are “all brothers” (Christians, non-Christians, atheists and agnostics: everyone) and the Catholic Church is the “field hospital” for all. Now, there is also the icing on the cake.
 
Fiducia supplicans is in open contrast to biblical teaching. Pope Francis is a shrewd Roman Catholic Jesuit who leads his church toward the most “catholic” form it has ever had, but not toward the gospel of Jesus Christ.

222. From “Metaphysical” to “Popular”: A Window on the Roman Catholic Theology of the Future?

In the beginning was Roman Catholic metaphysics: Aristotelian in outline, revisited and improved by Thomas Aquinas, capable of integrating some biblical and Augustinian insights, elastic to the point of metabolizing mystical and rationalistic streams, open to updating with respect to modernity, while maintaining its solid structures. Metaphysics was taught in Roman Catholic seminaries (two years of metaphysics preceded the study of theology in the training of priests). It was at the heart of catechesis, the watermark of the church’s documents, and the imprint of its public morality and theology. In short, it was the recognizable mark of the Roman Catholic church. Metaphysics started from “first principles” and, in the light of reason as helped by revelation (coming from Tradition and the Bible), by deductive means and procedures, arrived at every nook and detail of human life. With this metaphysics, Rome fought against the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modernism.
 
Then came Vatican II (1962-1965), and that solid framework was stress-tested. It went through a season of development and updating, introducing a new set of emphases. The “pastoral” tone was preferred to the “doctrinal” one.  The top-down structure made room for more bottom-up processes. The season of “genitive” theologies (of demythologization, enculturation, hope, liberation, post-colonialism, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, etc.) battered classical metaphysics. In the name of “renewal,” there was a certain theological restlessness and an eagerness to change the paradigm.
 
Then there was Pope Francis (2013- ). Of eclectic and unfinished theological training, Argentine and non-academic, the pope immediately showed his frustration with the schematism of metaphysics, denouncing its abstract and “clerical” character, in his view far away from people’s problems and offering answers to questions of the past that nobody is asking. In their own way, the “outgoing” trajectory of which he became an interpreter and the “synodality” he championed are formulas that apply to theology as well. In concrete terms, in 2018, with the Constitution Veritatis Gaudium, the pope sent signals to the ecclesiastical universities, preparing them for a new season. After the death of Benedict XVI, Francis changed the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, giving it to a “non-metaphysical” theologian like Víctor Manuel Fernández. Now, with the document Ad theologiam promuovendam (“Promoting Theology”, 1st November 2023; Italian textEnglish unofficial translation), he changed the statute of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, which is a Vatican institution at the service of the pope’s theological ministry. In this text, Pope Francis envisages his way of doing theology.
 
In imagining the Academy of the future, Francis hopes that theology will experience an “epistemological and methodological rethinking,” a “turning point,” a “paradigm shift,” a “courageous cultural revolution.” In the background is dissatisfaction with traditional metaphysics and its theological methods. According to Francis, theology must be “fundamentally contextual” and no longer start from “first principles.” It must translate into a “culture of dialogue” with all and no longer think of itself as only lecturing to the world, religions, and others. It must be “transdisciplinary” and no longer prioritize philosophy over the other disciplines. It must be “spiritual” and not abstract and ideological; “popular” and not detached from people’s common sense; “inductive” and not deductive.
 
In so doing, the pope distances himself from the legacy of metaphysical theology that has been the paradigm of Roman Catholicism throughout the ages. Is his way of looking at theology something that Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, Leo XIII, John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, etc., would recognize as being in line with the tradition of Rome? Not really. Perhaps Karl Rahner, some Liberation theologians, and their disciples would.
 
“Promoting theology” seems to be a manifesto of an account of Roman Catholic theology that, without naming traditional metaphysics, distances itself from it in significant ways. It does not appear to abolish metaphysics by decree but subjects it to accelerated “updating” and “development” such that its connotations are changed. In a nutshell, the Roman Catholic theology of the future will be done differently.
 
As noted at the outset, traditional metaphysics has absorbed all the orientations that have emerged, even those that initially seemed contrary to its arrangement. It has demonstrated great adaptability at the service of Roman catholicity, i.e. the ability to integrate new ideas and methods without changing the fundamental commitments of the Roman Catholic church. The question is: is the direction Francis wants theology to take compatible with its well-established patterns? Is it a radical change with unpredictable consequences? For sure, in the wake of Vatican II as interpreted by Francis, Roman Catholic theology will be increasingly different not only in emphasis but also in language, style, themes, and content. Those who think of Rome as the home of stability have yet another indication that Rome does develop and change. Tradition is an evolving process.
 
It is feasible to say that the Roman Catholic theology of the future will be et-et, both-and: both the one established over the centuries and the one Pope Francis desires. Both approaches to theology are not committed to Scripture as the supreme authority. The former reflects a philosophical system rather than the Bible; the latter mirrors the context more than the Word of God. In both cases, theology is hardly evangelical but rather two ways of voicing Roman Catholic theology: one more “Roman” (metaphysical), the other more “catholic” (contextual).

220. “The next Pope will be John XXIV.” Will he?

“On the Vietnam journey, if I don’t go, John XXIV certainly will.” In the traditional inflight press conference on the papal plane returning to Rome from Mongolia (September 4), Pope Francis hinted at his possible successor. Being asked what his plans are for future international journeys, Francis showed awareness of his frailty, due to age and poor health conditions. This is why he cannot plan long-term. He also indicated the name of a possible successor who could replace him after he is gone. Of course, he did not refer to a specific individual, but to the papal name he wished the next Pope could take.
 
The indication of the name “John XXIV” sheds light on the preferred portrait of the pope of the future. It is worth noticing the possible names he did not refer to and the one he used during the interview.
 
“Francis II” was not mentioned for understandable reasons. A reigning Pope wishing his successor to follow his steps is legitimate, but indicating that he should choose his name would have been an abnormal form of egocentrism. In his 10-year tenure, Francis has shaped the next conclave (i.e. the assembly of cardinals who will elect the next Pope) by nominating 70% of it. Most of the new cardinals are Francis’s friends and like-minded people. Obviously, he wants the successor to follow in his footsteps, but wishing him to take the name “Francis II” would have been a faux pas.
 
“Benedict XVII” wasn’t mentioned either. Despite formally polite co-existence, Francis has always thought of himself as breaking off the ecclesiastical trajectory of Pope Ratzinger. There has been a cleavage between the two on all grounds: doctrine, practice, style, language, strategy. After the death of Benedict XVI, Francis tried to limit his influence and close his era. Certainly, Francis does not want Pope Ratzinger’s staunchly “Roman” and traditional line to be revived after the end of his reign. He believes there is no place whatsoever for a “Benedict XVII” in the future of the Roman Catholic Church.
 
Furthermore, a “John Paul III” was not indicated as a desirable follow-up. John Paul II’s legacy is surely tied to the re-launching of Rome’s catholicity (i.e. the embracement of the world into Rome’s sacramental and institutional structures) – something that Pope Francis is also pursuing in his own way. However, John Paul II (now a “saint”) was also the Pope who engaged in “culture wars” with the secularizing West, upholding traditional Roman Catholic moral identity-markers (e.g. opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality). He created an “us” versus “them” mentality in the relationship with the world, especially the secular West. This oppositional posture is very far from Pope Francis’s more “catholic” and inclusivist strategy. He wants to underline that we are “all brothers” and continue to be so despite professing different religions and having opposite ethical convictions. Francis does not want the Roman Church to be a polarizing agency but a place where differences exist in harmony.
 
“Paul VII” did not appear to Francis as a desirable successor either. While Francis often positively quotes Paul VI as the one who wrote the encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) calling the Roman Church to engage in “evangelization” (to be understood in the Roman Catholic sense of expanding the borders of the Roman Church), he apparently dislikes the black and white picture that Paul VI painted in dealing with moral issues such as the regulation of birth in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). Paul VI created a chasm between the world and the Church. On the contrary, Francis wants to eliminate all separation and treats differences, even the sharpest ones, as instances of human richness to be harmonized.
 
Neither “Francis II,” “Benedict XVII,” “John Paul III,” nor “Paul VII.” Why “John XXIV” then? Here are some possible explanations for why Pope Francis would like his successor to imitate or look like John XXIII. John XXIII is known as the “good pope” who was approachable, kind, warm, and humble. Giuseppe Roncalli (1881-1963), John XXIII, was the Pope who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1959. The Council only began in 1962, and John XXIII died during it. Vatican II is the watershed event in the present-day Roman Catholic Church whereby Rome began to downplay its centuries-long insistence on the “Roman” sides of its identity (e.g., hierarchy, full adherence to the catechism, submission to the ecclesiastical authority) and to stress its “catholic” aspirations (e.g., inclusion, embracement, absorption). Francis thinks of himself as enacting and implementing this aspect of Vatican II.
 
Moreover, in the opening address to Vatican II, John XXIII remarked that the Council had no doctrinal agenda but wanted to develop “a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.” Neither condemnations of the world nor theological definitions were to be expected. What ensued was a wholehearted affirmation of the goodness of the modern world. Francis likes to underline the pastoral nature of everything the Church says and does. The pastoral dimension (warm, welcoming, accepting of all) is often referred to as if it were in opposition to the doctrinal one. Francis thinks of his pontificate as a “pastoral” attempt at building bridges instead of creating walls with the whole world, leaving doctrinal issues aside. He wants this “pastoral” emphasis to be kept and even increased by his successor. A John XXIII-like pope is expected to promote universal fraternity in ecumenical, inter-faith, and social relationships.
 
A final comment is in place. Unlike John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, John XXIII was an Italian pope. Among the candidates to succeed Francis, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the Italian archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian Bishops Conference, is at the top of the list. In recent months, Francis sent Zuppi to visit Ukraine, Russia, the US, and now China as his ambassador for peace in the Ukraine war. In so doing, he wanted to raise Zuppi’s international profile. In many ways, Cardinal Zuppi resembles the portrait of “John XXIV”: not known for his strong doctrinal views, but recognized as a cardinal dedicated to dialogue, peace, and fraternity. Did Pope Francis intend to indirectly campaign for him?


AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER!

On the occasion of the 8th centenary of Thomas Aquinas, the book is a thoughtful introduction aimed at presenting the main contours of his complex legacy and critically evaluating it especially in areas where the “Roman Catholic” Thomas is more than the “classical” theologian who is attracting renewed attention in evangelical circles. IVP Books

218. In a double move, Francis closes the Ratzinger era. For now.

Pope Ratzinger (1927-2022) died only seven months ago, but it is safe to say that on July 1st his era definitely ended, at least in the intentions of the reigning pope. In a double move that would make a skilled checkers player envious, Pope Francis put an end to an unwieldy presence in his pontificate. As a “pope emeritus” living in the Vatican (a situation that had never happened before in the millennial history of the Catholic Church), Ratzinger constituted a thorn in Francis’ side, albeit a silent one at least on the outside. Light years removed in terms of theological training and ideas about the church, Francis had assigned him the “wise grandfather” role—a vexatious way of saying that he was an old man rich in memory but lacking in future prospects.
 
Benedict XVI died at the end of 2022, but on July 1st, his shadow receded further from the Vatican. Francis’ first move was to dispatch Ratzinger’s secretary, Msgr. George Gänswein, to Freiburg, Germany, without assignments: away from Rome, deprived of ecclesiastical responsibilities. The last rift between him and Francis had been the day after Ratzinger’s funeral with the publication of his book Nothing but the Truth. My Life at the Side of Benedict XVI (Italian edition: Nient’altro che la Verità. La mia vita al fianco di Benedetto XVI, Milano: Piemme, 2023), in which Gänswein had clearly spoken of the disagreements between the two popes. Francis had not liked either the timing or the content. Now Gänswein, who is only 66 years old (a “young” age for the church in Rome), has received the reciprocation that tastes like revenge served cold: a one-way ticket and a future without appointments. The message is clear: cohabitation with Ratzinger and his “inner circle” is over.
 
But there was another move in contrast to the Ratzingerian age. Before becoming pope, Ratzinger had been the powerful prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office). Upon becoming pope, in defense of Catholic doctrine, Cardinals Müller (German) and Ladaria (Spanish) had been appointed in his place. They are different in temperaments, but both “conservative” or “moderate” like Ratzinger. The former had been his student, the latter had been secretary of the Dicastery in Ratzinger’s time. Two “loyalists.” There was no shortage of friction; Müller had said that Pope Francis needed “theological framing” and, in the face of this “offense,” was promptly and abruptly dismissed by the pope. Ladaria, a Jesuit like Bergoglio, has held a more defiladed and guarded position, but certainly not in line with the evolution of Francis’ papacy.
 
Now, coincidentally, on the very same day of Ratzinger’s former secretary’s departure, Ladaria, Ratzinger’s appointee to the Dicastery, was also dismissed on grounds of seniority. In his place, Francis appointed Argentine Víctor Manuel Fernández. Not well known in international theological circles, Fernández is, however, a loyal follower of Pope Francis. He is said to have been the ghostwriter of Evangelii Gaudium, the pontificate’s programmatic manifesto calling for a “missionary conversion” of his church;[1] Amoris Laetitia, the exhortation that contains openings toward the Eucharistic inclusion of people in “irregular” states of life; and Laudato Sì’, the encyclical on environmental issues that is so popular in progressive circles. Virtually all the cornerstones of Francis’ magisterium were written in consultation with Fernández. In the aftermath of Evangelii Gaudium, he had written a book presenting the new papal course to the world: The Project of Francis. Where he wants to take the Church (Italian edition: Il progetto di Francesco. Dove vuole portare la Chiesa, Bologna: EMI, 2014). Now, this interpreter of Francis’ thinking, far removed from Ratzinger’s, became prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the highest body for the promotion of Catholic doctrine. Francis has a very faithful and “young” theologian (62 years old) in a position that can carry on his “project” even when he is gone. In Francis’ view, this really is a big deal. The next two years will see two Synods of Bishops (gathering all Roman Catholic bishops from around the world) on the controversial topic of “synodality”, i.e., a new way of proceeding in the church, with Rome becoming more inclusive and absorbing (catholic) and less marked by its traditional identity (Roman). Francis has now a trusted supporter and enthusiastic promoter of his view of “synodality.”
 
In two moves, Francis has shrewdly weakened the “Roman-ness” of the church as interpreted by Pope Benedict XVI and scored a point in favor of the “catholicity” of the current fluid church, the one where we are “all brothers.” While physically frail, Francis has never been stronger than he is now.


[1] Here is a recent summary of Evangelii Gaudium from the Pope himself: “Here we find the ‘heart’ of the evangelical mission of the Church: to reach all through the gift of God’s infinite love, to seek all, to welcome all, excluding no one, to offer our lives for all. All! That is the key word.” Audience to the General Assembly of the Pontifical Mission Societies (June 3rd, 2023).

212. 10 years of Francis: “Under his papacy, the Roman Church has become more ‘catholic’ than ever before”

[Published in: Evangelical Focus – world – 10 years of Francis: “Under his papacy, the Roman Church has become more ‘catholic’ than ever before”]


This March marks the tenth anniversary of Francis’ papacy.

After becoming the first cardinal to become pope through the resignation of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s leadership has found himself constantly at the centre of media attention.

His inclusiveness and lack of clarity on certain issues has caused concern among the most conservative sectors of the Roman Catholic Church.

On the other hand, the absence of specific decisions has led some of the more liberal circles to return to the synodal path, especially in Germany.

Faced with a clear retreat from its historical geographical dominance, Francis’ emphasis on the Southern hemisphere of the planet is shown in his recent renewal of the Council of Cardinals (his closest advisory body) with names such as the Archbishop of San Salvador de Bahía, Sérgio da Rocha, the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Fridolin Ambongo, the Archbishop of Bombay, Oswald Gracias.

Spanish news website Protestante Digital talked with the Italian evangelical pastor, theologian and an expert in Roman Catholicism based in Rome, Leonardo De Chirico, about the ten yeas of papacy of Francis.

Question. Ten years after his election, how do you assess Francis’ papacy?

Answer. There are several angles we could take to evaluate the 10 years of his papacy. Here are three.

From the global point of view, he was elected to divert the attention of the Roman Catholic church from the secularizing West (where Roman Catholicism is in decline) to the Global South (where in some places like Africa it has potential to grow).

His 40 international journeys witnessed to his attention given to African and Asian countries. The appointments of cardinals were also made following a similar criterion. Under Francis the center of gravity shifted towards the Global South.

From the doctrinal viewpoint, his three encyclicals (e.g. Laudato si and All Brothers) and his apostolic exhortations (the most important ones being The Joy of the Gospel on mission and Amor Laetitia on the family) indicate a shift of the Catholic magisterium towards becoming more “catholic” (i.e. inclusive, Global South, absorbing, focused on social issues) and less “Roman” (i.e. centered on Catholic distinctives).

Francis has lowered the traditional Roman Catholic identity markers (sacraments, hierarchy) for all people (e.g. practicing, not practicing, believing, not believing, people in ‘disordered’ lifestyles) to be included and to feel they “belong” to the church.

When Francis talks about “mission” he has in mind this sense of inclusion, regardless of gospel criteria. Under Francis the Roman Catholic Church has become more “catholic” than ever in its long history.

As a matter of fact, in spite of his inclusiveness, Catholic churches are empty, and numbers are declining in the West.

Organizationally speaking, he has launched the “synodal” process whereby he wants his church to be less centralized and with more participation from the peripheries.

Germany has taken him seriously (perhaps too seriously!) and its “synodal” path is advancing proposals such as the blessing to homosexual relationships and the ordination of women to the priesthood that are considered to be disruptive.

As Francis seems committed to synodality on the one hand, his style of leadership appears to be centralizing, moody and unpredictable, on the other.

Q. It seems that his papacy has especially highlighted the differences in the leadership of the Catholic Church. To what extent is the Holy See more polarized?

A. Every pope has had his internal enemies. John Paul II was not liked by some progressive circles. Benedict XVI was criticized every time he spoke. Francis has received pushback from cardinals, theologians, and important sectors of Roman Catholicism, especially in the USA but also in Australia (e.g. the late cardinal Pell) and Germany (e.g. cardinal Müller).

They are concerned with the erosion of Roman Catholic identity based on traditional doctrines and practices being replaced with an “all brothers” kind of mindset where almost anything goes.

Some mismanagement by Francis in financial and leadership decisions has also created an atmosphere of distrust in the Vatican.

Q. An uncertain financial situation in the Vatican Bank; issues such as same-sex marriage; the opening of the priesthood to women, etc. What are the main challenges you think he will focus on?

A. In 2023 and 2024 he will convene the Synod on synodality and I think this will be the test case of his whole papacy.

Some proposals coming not only from Germany, but from the grassroots of other Roman Catholic provinces, want to bring radical changes on some of the traditional identity-markers of the Church (e.g. view of sexuality, access to the sacraments, priesthood).

Unfortunately, none of them indicate that there is an “evangelical” move in the Roman Church. They are all aimed at making the church more “catholic” but they are not open to a biblical reformation.

Francis has brought his Church to a time when decisions need to be made. As a good Jesuit, he has resisted making decisions so far, being more willing to activate long-term processes.

Q. Francis just went to the just went to RD Congo and South Sudan to ask for peace in two war territories. He has talked about the Amazon, climate change and the war in Ukraine. To what extent is the Vatican’s role as an international mediator becoming more and more defined?

A. Francis has become the spokesperson of the world religions on issues like migration, the environment, and peace, less so on issues like the protection of life. All of this in the context of his understanding of inter-faith dialogue.

His Document on human fraternity (2019) signed with Muslim leaders epitomizes his insistence on the whole of humanity made by “brothers and sisters” who are called to walk, work and pray together regardless faith in Christ. Certainly, the political role of the Vatican has become more relevant and central; its theological profile has further lost Christian distinctiveness.

Q. Francis’ papacy is marked by the Fratelli Tutti mentality. He has no longer referred to Protestants as “separated brethren”. What are the implications of his relationship with other religions and what can we still expect?

A. Francis has bluntly re-defined what it means to be “brothers and sisters”. He has extended “fraternity” to all those who live “under the sun”, i.e. “the one human family”. Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, Protestants … are all “all brothers”.

That is his interpretation of what Vatican II meant with the Church being “the sacrament of unity between God and mankind” (Lumen Gentium 1). The re-definition of what it means to be brothers and sisters is an attempt to blur what the Bible expects us to distinguish.

Our common humanity takes over the spiritual connotation of being “in Christ” as the basis for the shared fraternity. Francis pushes this unbiblical approach in his ecumenical endeavors and inter-faith initiatives.

Contrary to what Francis thinks, there is no reason to distort the plain words of Scripture: fraternity is a relationship shared by those who are “in Christ”. Moreover, a biblically defined neighborhood is more than sufficient to promote civic engagement and peaceful co-existence with all men and women.

Evangelical protestants should be aware that when Francis speaks of “unity” he does not have in mind unity in the gospel, but unity of the whole of mankind.

208. The End of the Tridentine Paradigm (or Where Is the Roman Catholic Church Going)?

It was the historian Paolo Prodi (1932-2016) who coined the expression “Tridentine paradigm” to indicate the set of identity markers that emerged from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and which shaped the Catholic Church for centuries, at least until the second half of the 20th century. In one of his most famous books, Il paradigma tridentino (2010), Prodi explored the self-understanding of the institutional church of Rome which, in the wake of and in response to the “threat” of the Protestant Reformation, closed hierarchical and pyramidal ranks up to the primacy of the Pope. The church consolidated its sacramental system, regimented the church in rigorous canonical forms and parochial territories, and disciplined folk devotions and the control of consciences. It relaunched its mission to counter the spread of the Reformation and to anticipate the Protestant states in an attempt to arrive first in countries not yet “evangelized.” It promoted models of holiness to involve the laity emotionally and inspired artists to celebrate the new vitality of the church of Rome in a memorable form.

The Tridentine paradigm produced the Roman Catechism of Pius V (1566) as a dogmatic synthesis of the Catholic faith to which Catholics scrupulously had to abide, the controversial theology of Robert Bellarmine to support anti-Protestant apologetic action, and the great baroque creations by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (like the majestic colonnade of St. Peter’s) to represent the church as the winner over its adversaries and new patron of artists and intellectuals.

The Tridentine paradigm has withstood the challenge of the Protestant Reformation and more. With the same paradigm, Rome also faced a second push coming from the modern world: that of the Enlightenment (on the cultural side) and the French Revolution (on the political side) between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the same set of institutional, sacramental, and hierarchical markers that emerged from the Council of Trent, Rome defended itself from the attack of modernity and counterattacked. With the dogmas of the immaculate conception of Mary (1854) and papal infallibility (1870), which are children of the Tridentine paradigm, Rome elevated Mariology and the papacy to identity markers of modern Roman Catholicism. With Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), Rome condemned the modern world, just as the Council of Trent had anathematized Protestants. With the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), Leo XIII elevated Thomism to a system of Catholic thought against all the drifts of modern culture.

The Tridentine paradigm exalted the church of Rome and condemned its enemies. It established who was in and who was out. It defined Roman Catholic doctrine and rejected “Protestant” and “Modernist” heresies. It solidified Roman Catholic teaching and consolidated practices. It authorized controlled forms of pluralism but within the compact structure of the central organization. According to the Tridentine paradigm, it was clear who Catholics were, what they believed, how they were expected to behave, and how the church functioned.

Then, the world changed, and Roman Catholicism changed with it. The Tridentine paradigm gradually eroded with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), not in a frontal and direct way, but following the path of “development” and “aggiornamento” that Vatican II promoted. Of course, Rome does not make any U-turns or swerves sharply. Trent is still there, and the dogmatic and institutional structures of the Tridentine paradigm are standing. The Roman Catholic Church has begun to see its limits, wishing to overcome them by embracing a new posture in the world. Even if Paul VI immediately saw the risks of abandoning it, John Paul II tried to make the Tridentine paradigm elastic by extending it to the universal church. Benedict XVI coined the expression “reform-in-continuity” to try to explain the Catholic dynamic of change without breaking with the past.

The pope who seems to perceive the Tridentine paradigm in negative terms is Pope Francis. His invectives against “clericalism” are directed at Roman Catholic people and practices nourished by the Tridentine spirit. The typical distinctions of the Tridentine paradigm are rendered fluid and are progressively dissolved: clergy/laity, man/woman, Catholic/non-Catholic, heterosexual/homosexual, married/divorced, etc. If the Tridentine paradigm distinguished and selected things and people, Francis wants to unite everything and everyone. The first paradigm separated Roman Catholicism from the rest; this pope wants to mix everything. The first worked with the pair white/black, inside/outside, faithful/infidel. Francis sees the world in different shades of gray and welcomes everyone into the “field hospital” that is the church.

The “synodal” church dear to Francis seems to overturn the traditional pyramidal structure. The direction of the church is determined by the “holy people of God” made up of migrants, the marginalized, the poor, the laity, and people in irregular life situations. Before there were heretics, pagans, and excommunicated, now we are “all brothers.” It is no longer the center that drives, but the peripheries. It is not sin, judgment, and salvation that occupy the discourse of the church, but its message today touches on themes such as peace, human rights, and the environment. The church no longer wants to present itself as a “magistra” (teacher) but only as a “mater” (mother).

With its calls for the extension of the priesthood to women and the blessing of same-sex couples, the German “synodal path” is effectively striking the Tridentine paradigm. The first results of the “synodal process” in European dioceses are attacks on the Tridentine paradigm. It is true that there are conservative circles (in the USA in particular) who claim the Tridentine paradigm and would like to revive it. However, the point is that Roman Catholicism globally is at a crossroads. Has the Tridentine paradigm reached the end of its journey? If so, what will be the face of Roman Catholicism tomorrow? Neither the Tridentine paradigm nor the various synodal paths dear to Pope Francis indicate an evangelical turning point in the Church of Rome. The Church of Rome was and remains distant from the claims of the biblical gospel.

207. “Go to Thomas!” Who Will Follow the Pope’s Invitation?

Nothing could be more explicit: “Go to Thomas!” This warm invitation was issued by Pope Francis to participants of the International Thomistic Congress (Sept. 21-24) during an audience at the Vatican. In his address, the pope extolled the thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) as a sure guide for Roman Catholic faith and a fruitful relationship with culture. Citing Paul VI (Lumen ecclesiae, 1974) John Paul II (Fides et ratio, 1998), who had magnified the importance of Thomas’ thought for the contemporary Roman church, Francis stood in the wake of recent popes in emphasizing superlative appreciation for the figure of Thomas while adding his own.

This is nothing new. For centuries, Roman Catholicism has regarded Thomas Aquinas as its champion. His voice is often considered the highest, deepest, and most complete of Roman Catholic thought and belief. Canonized by John XXII as early as 1323, he was proclaimed a doctor of the church by Pius V in 1567 to be the premier Roman Catholic theologian whose thinking would defeat the Protestant Reformation. During the Council of Trent, the Summa theologica was symbolically placed next to the Bible as a testament to its primary importance in formulating the Tridentine decrees and canons against justification by faith alone and other Protestant doctrines. In the seventeenth century, he was considered the defender of the Roman Catholic theological system by Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), the greatest anti-Protestant controversialist who influenced many generations of Catholic apologists over the centuries. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris in which he pointed to Thomas as the highest expression of philosophical and theological science. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) stipulated that the formation of priests should have Thomas as the supreme guide in their studies: “The students should learn to penetrate them (i.e. the mysteries of salvation) more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections” (Optatam Totius [1965] n. 17). Of recent popes, this has already been mentioned. Considering this, what could Pope Francis say but, “Go to Thomas!”

Francis indicated not only the need to study Thomas, but also to “contemplate” the Master before approaching his thought. Thus, to the cognitive and intellectual dimension, he added a mystical one. In this way, he caused Thomas, already a theologian imbued with wisdom and asceticism, to be seen as even more Roman Catholic. This mix best represents the interweaving of the intellectual and contemplative traditions proper to Roman Catholicism.

The International Congress had the exploration of the resources of Thomist thought in today’s context as its theme. Thomism is not just a medieval stream of thought, but a system that is both solid and elastic at the same time. All seasons of Roman Catholicism have found it inspiring for the diverse challenges facing the Church of Rome, including the Reformation first, the Enlightenment project second, and now post-modernity. As a result of the Congress, we will continue to hear more about Thomas and Thomism, not only in historical theology and philosophy, but also in other fields of knowledge that were once far from previous interpretative traditions of Thomas.

In recent years, we have witnessed a growing fascination with Thomas Aquinas and Thomism by evangelical theologians, especially coming from the North American context. They seem to be attracted to the “great tradition” he represents. This phenomenon should be studied because it signals the existence of internal movements within evangelical theological circles. Protestant theology of the 16th and 17th centuries had a critical view of Thomas. In a sense, Thomas could not be avoided, given his stature and importance for theology, but he was read with selective and theologically adult eyes. Then, for various reasons, there has been a certain neglect not only of Thomas but with pre-Reformation historical theology as a whole. Today, in the face of the pressures coming from secularization and the identity crisis felt in some evangelical quarters, Thomas is perceived as a bulwark of “traditional” theology that needs to be urgently recovered. It is often overlooked that Roman Catholicism has considered Thomas as its champion in its anti-Reformation stance and also in its subsequent anti-biblical developments, such as the 1950 Marian dogma of the bodily ascension of Mary. Rome considers Thomas as the quintessentially Roman Catholic theologian and thinker.

“Go to Thomas!” is an invitation that even a growing number of practitioners of evangelical theology would take up. The point is not to uncritically study or absolutely avoid Thomas, but rather to provide the theological map with which one approaches him. It is necessary to develop an evangelical map of Thomas Aquinas. If Rome considers Thomas its chief architect, can evangelical theology approach him without understanding that Thomas stands behind everything Roman Catholicism believes and practices?  

206. New Cardinals for the Future Conclave

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.

(CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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.

205. One Roman (Vatican) Stop After a Catholic (German) Push

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.