How should we report about Justin Bieber, Kanye West and other cases of well-known personalities who are considering the Christian faith?
Five years ago, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis.
Five years ago, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis. Since then, several biographies have been published to make his life known to the general public.
For example, Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York, 2014) sticks out as perhaps the most comprehensive window onto Bergoglio’s life. As he was not a major figure in global Roman Catholic circles prior to his election, let alone in the wider world, these accounts have helped many to better understand the main events of Bergoglio’s personal story before becoming pope.
One recent book by Massimo Borghesi, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Una biografia intellettuale (2017: Jorge Mario Bergoglio: An Intellectual Biography), looks at Bergoglio’s life from a particular angle. Borghesi focuses on the intellectual influences (e.g. books, journals, authors, friendships, networks) that have shaped Bergoglio’s thought. In so doing, it provides a fruitful perspective on the genesis and development of the vision that Bergoglio embodies and promotes as pope. In addition to surveying all of the relevant literature, Borghesi has also worked on a questionnaire that Pope Francis responded to, giving further details and filling in the blanks of previous attempts. According to this well-researched analysis, Bergoglio’s intellectual biography seems to be marked by three main influences.
The French Jesuit Starting Point…
The formative years of Bergoglio as a student in philosophy and theology were profoundly impacted by his reading of French Jesuit intellectuals like Henri de Lubac, Gaston Fessard, and Michel de Certeau. They introduced the young Bergoglio to the Catholic dialectical thought, away from rigid Thomism and towards the dynamic synthesis of embracing opposites and enlarging the overall vision. In this Jesuit school of thought – which, by the way, became the matrix of the theology of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) – what are perceived as oppositions become “tensions”, at times painfully disruptive, but also potentially creative and always to be maintained as such. Bergoglio became persuaded that human thought is always “in tension”, never fixed or stable. He distanced himself from abstract definitions and propositions. He learned to always think in programatically “open” and “loose” thought forms.
Intertwined with this dialectical tendency was Bergoglio’s early exposure to Liberation theology. Since his first attempts at coming to terms with its growing popularity in Latin America, Bergoglio was not interested in the Marxist ideological and political framework of much of the Liberation theology of those years. He was definitely attracted to the “theology of the people” that is a side aspect of Liberation theology. According to this particular way of theologizing, the people’s concerns, preoccupations, aspirations, etc. need to be the starting point. Rather than considering folk devotions and beliefs as a pre-modern stage that will be overcome by political liberation, the “theology of the people” assumes them as vital and central. Marian devotions and practices become the most appreciated expressions of the people’s heart even if they are contrary to Scripture. Theology and pastoral practice must therefore be developed only in a bottom-up way. In this view there is no sense in which the Bible can be the supreme norm for faith and life. In Borghesi’s terms, the future pope embraced “a liberation theology without Marxism” (p. 71). This is the context of Bergoglio’s important emphasis on the “people” being the principal subject of theology and Church life.
… Mediated Through the Uruguayan Alberto Methol Ferré …
Bergoglio’s early fascination with French Jesuit thought was further consolidated by his reading of the lay Uruguayan Catholic philosopher Alberto Methol Ferrè (1929-2009). From Methol Ferré he learned that human thought is always unstable, mobile, and ever-renewing. This was yet another injection of Catholic dialecticism that moved Bergoglio further away from static and traditional Thomism.
Methol Ferrè is also the intellectual who suggested that with the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church had finally overcome both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. After fiercely fighting them up front (from the 16th century to the 19th century), Rome eventually came to terms with its ability to assimilate and absorb the Reformation and the Enlightenment, rather than opposing them. At Vatican II the Catholic Church took the “best” of both and launched a “new” Reformation and a “new” Enlightenment. They were no longer adversaries, but parts of the “catholic” accomplishment of their positive contributions. This is the background of both Francis’ recent kind words toward the Reformation on the occasion of the 5th centenary and his low-key approach towards controversial lifestyles (e.g. homosexuality) marked by modern individual autonomy. What this basically means is that after Vatican II the Reformation as such is over and has been absorbed within the on-going renewal of the Church of Rome.
… Leading to the Italian-German Romano Guardini
Building on these two important phases of his intellectual life, Bergoglio grew in his conviction that the Catholic Church is the “complexio oppositorum” (the whole that makes room for the opposites). His study of German theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968) corroborated the Catholic dialectical dimension of his thought. Guardini argued that Roman Catholicism is “Weltanschauung”, an all-embracing worldview, the only one that is capable of handling multiple tensions between diverging poles and bringing them to a “catholic” unity. From Guardini, Bergoglio developed his idea of unity as being a “polyhedron”. The polyhedron is a geometric figure with different angles and lines. All different parts have their own peculiarity. It’s a figure that brings together unity and diversity, and Roman Catholicism is the home of unity as a polyhedron. This explains Francis’ commitment to ecumenical and inter-religious unity that downplays differences and concentrates on generic commonalities. In this view unity is not governed by biblical truth and biblical love but by the embracing view of Rome which holds together all angles and lines of life.
On March 13th, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, marking a significant transition in the Roman Catholic Church. What he has been saying and doing since being elected, e.g. his affirming attitudes towards all, his noisy silences over doctrine, his thoroughgoing Marianism, and his lack of clarity on several key issues, has caused many to wonder where his thought came from. Borghesi’s intellectual biography makes it clear that Francis’ pontificate comes from afar. It is the result of a long series of developments within Catholic thought, from Jesuit sources to Latin American influences up to the Vatican II matrix of contemporary Rome, without having being corrected by the Word of God. One needs to immerse oneself in what happened at the Second Vatican Council to begin to make sense of what Francis is saying and doing now. All analyses of Francis being an “evangelical” or a “kerygmatic” pope are simplistic and short-sighted. He is much more than that, in ways that are dialectical, open-ended, and at the service of the Catholic vision to embrace the whole world.
Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy), theologian and expert in Roman Catholicism.