The radical theological vision of Pope Francis

In an overlooked address the Jesuit pope offers a renewed theology for our turbulent times

Robert Mickens, Rome 
Vatican City

July 5, 2019

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 Pope Francis attends the conference 'Theology after Veritas Gaudium in the context of the Mediterranean' at the Theological Faculty of Southern Italy, in Naples, Italy, June 21 June. (Photo by EPA/CIRO FUSCO)

"Among all the world's political and social leaders, Pope Francis stands increasingly alone as the most powerful force for global peace and stability."

Thus began the prelude to an earlier article titled, "Pope Francis or Steve Bannon? Catholics must choose."

In part, the piece tried to show how the pope is seeking to unite all of humanity – especially people of the various faiths – in contrast to those who are deliberately manipulating religion to sow division.

"In an age when alt-right populists are masquerading as Christians and using religious symbols to scare believers into embracing racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and ultra-nationalism – all so starkly at odds with the Gospel, by the way – Francis has played an indispensable role in preventing a dangerous spiral into a full-blown clash of civilizations…

"Another pope may not have had the courage, fortitude or deep and genuine faith to stand against all this and not allow himself to be co-opted to the Christian sovereigntists' cause."

End of the prelude.

The faith of the evangelical pope

Since the early days of his pontificate Francis has shown himself to be non-ideological and surprisingly non-partisan. Despite the ranting of some of his detractors, even within the most intransigent sectors of the Church's hierarchy, this pope is very definitely Catholic. But even more than that he is a Christian.

Similar to his papal namesake, Francis of Assisi, the pope's faith and leadership are profoundly grounded in a radical reading of and adherence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As Bishop of Rome, he is not obsessed with trying to show that his own teachings are in continuity with previous magisterial pronouncements, especially when those earlier teachings have been proven to be faulty (or false).

Francis is more concerned with converting the Church to the radicality of the Gospel, even if that means losing worldly power, prestige, privilege and influence.

He is not interested in the preservation of anything that is not essential to that Gospel. Nor is he given to keeping up any sort of appearance that the Church (and the popes) can never err.

For this and many other reasons, he has been criticized for being weak theologically.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has been one of the most vocal critics, even though he uses the classic Vatican courtesan ruse to blame this on the pope's advisors, rather than directly take aim at the pope himself.

Many professional theologians seem to think Pope Francis is barely literate in theology. They are very much mistaken.

Theology renewed and in specific context

The 82-year-old pope recently gave one of the most important theological addresses of his pontificate. It is a shame that it was largely overlooked, because it was a clear presentation of how he sees theology and its role in the Church and world today.

He gave the address on June 21 at a Jesuit-run school of theology in the Italian seaport city of Naples. It was as extraordinary in the way it was presented as much as in what the pope actually said.

Before he even spoke, Francis spent most of the morning listening to theological presentations offered by several other speakers. Only after that did he offer his own thoughts.

The title of his talk was, "Theology after Veritatis gaudium (the 2018 apostolic constitution on ecclesiastical universities and faculties) in the context of the Mediterranean."

It is important to note that Francis believes theology can only be done in a real, flesh-and-blood context. It can never be exercised as a mere idea or ideal.

And it was in the context of the Mediterranean, cradle of Western civilization – but as it is today – that the pope sought to show how the Church's theological investigations must proceed.

"The Mediterranean has always been a place of transit, of exchanges, and sometimes even of conflicts," Francis said.

He noted that it is an area facing a number of dramatic questions, which he and Muslim leaders highlighted during his historic trip last February to the United Arab Emirates.

"They can be expressed in some of the questions that we asked ourselves at the inter-religious meeting in Abu Dhabi: how can we take care of each other within the one human family? How can we foster a tolerant and peaceful coexistence that translates into authentic fraternity?

"How can we make it so that the welcoming of the other person and of those who are different from us because they belong to a different religious and cultural tradition prevails in our communities? How can religions be paths of brotherhood instead of walls of separation?" the pope recalled.

Dialogue as essential to theology

"These and other issues need to be discussed at various levels, and require a generous commitment to listening, studying and dialogue in order to promote processes of liberation, peace, brotherhood and justice.

"We must be convinced: it is about starting processes, not of defining or occupying spaces. Starting processes!" he told those gathered in an outdoor courtyard under the famous Neapolitan sun.

Dialogue on the big questions for our common humanity, as children of the One God, for the sake of peaceful coexistence… This is all part and parcel of theology in Francis' vision.

"We lose nothing by engaging in dialogue. We always gain something. In a monologue, we all lose, all of us," he warned.

He said dialogue is "not a magic formula," but it is essential – especially with Muslims and Jews – for the renewal of theology in an inter-disciplinary manner.

"Students of theology should be educated in dialogue with Judaism and Islam to understand the common roots and differences of our religious identities, and thus contribute more effectively to the building of a society that values diversity and fosters respect, brotherhood and peaceful coexistence," he said.

Such dialogue should be marked by compassion and mercy, the pope added.

"It is important that theologians be men and women of compassion – I emphasize this: that they be men and women of compassion – inwardly touched by the oppressed life many live, by the forms of slavery present today, by the social wounds, the violence, the wars and the enormous injustices suffered by so many poor people who live on the shores of this 'common sea,'" he said.

A theology without such compassion would not be rooted in reality but in a classroom, the pope contended. He said it would be "a laboratory theology, a pure theology, 'distilled' like water, which understands (tastes of) nothing."

Dialogue as welcoming

"I would say that theology, particularly in this context, is called to be a welcoming theology," Francis insisted.

He said it should "develop a sincere dialogue with social and civil institutions, with university and research centers, with religious leaders and with all women and men of good will, for the construction in peace of an inclusive and fraternal society, and also for the care of creation."

The most important point for Pope Francis is that the essential kernel of Christian faith – the kerygma – be the heart of theology and evangelization (preaching the Good News).

"Not apologetics, not manuals… but evangelizing. At the center is evangelizing, which is not the same thing as proselytizing," he said.

"In dialogue with cultures and religions, the Church announces the Good News of Jesus and the practice of evangelical love which he preached as a synthesis of the whole teaching of the law, the message of the prophets and the will of the father…

"Only in listening to this Word and in the experience of love that it communicates can one discern the relevance of kerygma. Dialogue, understood in this way, is a form of welcoming," the pope added.

Questioning tradition and growing from its roots

But this also means that theologians must "continually revisit and reconsider tradition."

"Reconsider tradition! And keep asking questions," Francis emphasized. He said ours is a "living tradition" that can help make sense of contemporary issues.

"Provided, however, that it is reread with a sincere will to purify memory, that is, discerning that which was in accord with God's original intention, revealed in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and that which was unfaithful to this merciful and saving intention," he insisted.

Pope Francis said Western Christianity had "learned from many mistakes and critical moments of the past." This will help it "return to its sources hoping to be able to bear witness to the Good News to the peoples of the East and West, North and South."

By "keeping its mind and heart fixed on the 'gracious and merciful God' (cf. Jon 4:2)," theology should encourage "people of the Mediterranean to reject any temptation toward re-conquest or toward an identity that is closed in on itself," both of which were the result of fear, according to the pope.

"Theology cannot be done in a setting of fear," he said.

The renewed theology Francis wants

"I dream of theological faculties where one lives differences in friendship, where one practices a theology of dialogue and welcoming; where one experiences the model of the polyhedron of theological knowledge instead of that of a static and disembodied sphere. Where theological research can promote a challenging but compelling process of inculturation," Pope Francis said, summing up his long address.

And here's his bottom line:

"Theology after Veritatis gaudium is a kerygmatic theology, a theology of discernment, of mercy and of welcoming, in dialogue with society, cultures and religions for the construction of the peaceful coexistence of individuals and peoples."

This is not a surrender of Christian faith or a watering down of the Church's belief in the truth of the Gospel message. Rather, it is a bold affirmation of both.

And it is the only responsible – and evangelical – way of doing theology in a world where some would use religion to divide rather than unite, to destroy rather than build, to instill fear rather than love and hope.

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