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The theological formation of Pope Francis

by Elise Harris | CNA

Pope Francis gives a blessing during an audience with participants in Italy's National Liturgical Week in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 24. (CNS photo/Giorgio Onorati, EPA)

Vatican City, Mar 17, 2018 / 06:00 am (CNA).- A recent letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has become the subject of controversy, after a Vatican office admitted to releasing a photo of the letter blurring some lines.

The letter responded to an invitation to review a series of books detailing the theological perspective of Pope Francis. While Benedict declined the invitation, saying he wouldn’t have time to read the books, he noted “that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation.”

The Pope Emeritus praised the series as an effort to “oppose and react to the foolish prejudice in which Pope Francis is just a practical man without particular theological or philosophical formation.”

While the letter remains the center of debate, it does raise an important question: what exactly is Pope Francis’ theological formation?

Those who know Bergoglio well are quick to point out that he is not a “systematic theologian,” and that he cannot be called a theological expert in the academic sense of the word.

However, despite a lack of formal academic experience, biographers note that Francis has a sharp mind and an extensive knowledge of influential Catholic thinkers, especially in the Latin American context.

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh told CNA that the first Latin American pope does not have an extensive academic foundation in theology, nor can he be identified exclusively with any particular theological movement or approach.

“People knew where John Paul II’s philosophy school was, they could situation him because of his thesis, and because of his scholarly life, and the same with Benedict; Benedict could easily be located as part of a particular school,” Ivereigh said. But Bergoglio “is not a systematic theologian, so you can’t really identify him with any particular school.”

However, Ivereigh, author of the authoritative English-language papal biography, “The Great Reformer,” told CNA that as a seminarian, studying at the Jesuit-run Colegio Maximo in Argentina, Bergoglio was the only student to ever get full marks in his classes.

“He was brilliant. Everybody recognized that he was intellectually brilliant from the beginning,” Ivereigh said.

Ivereigh said when Bergoglio was named seminary rector, years later, many of his students also commented that “he was incredibly widely read in literature of the world, European and Latin American, poetry, classics, the novels. He was very, very cultured in that broader sense of the word.”

Alejandro Bermudez, executive director of CNA and editor of the papal biography “Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend,” said Bergoglio was “a Jesuit of the old-school,” and as such “he definitely had that very rounded formation, with several interests,” including poetry, classical literature, and writings from the influential thinkers of the day.

However, after being placed into administrative and leadership roles at a young age, the future pope “spent a lot of time doing practical things and in a practical position” which took him away from academic endeavors.

“The truth is, he did not have enough time to get into a deep theological formation,” Bermudez said.

“I’m not saying he’s a lightweight,” he said, adding that Francis “has a well-rounded theological formation for sure.”

Bergoglio was tapped as the Argentine Jesuit provincial in 1973 at the age of 36, during a tumultuous period in which the nation was led by a violent military dictatorship. In 1980 he was named rector of the Philosophical and Theological Faculty at San Miguel Seminary in Buenos Aires, where he taught theology and oversaw Jesuit novices until 1986. He was removed from that role when his emphasis on traditional theology and spirituality clashed with the Jesuits’ then-Superior General Hans Kolvenbach.

He was sent to the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt, Germany to begin doctoral studies, which were based on the writings of German-Italian theologian Romano Guardini. However, after just a few months he was sent back to Argentina as a confessor in Cordoba.

By the time he was named Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992, he still had not finished his doctoral thesis. Bergoglio continued to ascend the ranks of Church hierarchy, taking on increasingly administrative roles that plunged him further into political and practical affairs, and farther away from his doctorate, which remains unfinished to this day.

However, according to Ivereigh, simply because Francis can’t be attached to a particular theological school, “that doesn’t mean that he’s difficult to pin down, because actually his intellectual trajectory is very clear.”

Intellectual Influences

The Pope’s intellectual influences include several prominent 20th century thinkers.

Bergoglio was familiar with Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss priest considered to be among the most influential theologians of the 20th century. He was also familiar with Gaston Fassard, a French Jesuit priest and theologian who died in 1978, as well as other influential Jesuit thinkers of the time such as German-Polish theologian Enrich Przywara and Frenchman Henri de Lubac.

The Italian-born German priest Romano Guardini, whose theology formed the basis for the future Pope’s unfinished doctoral thesis, was also influential on Bergoglio.

Guardini, who lived from 1885-1968, also influenced Pope Benedict XVI, who referenced Guardini frequently.

However, despite the frequent references to Guardini and the decision of Bergoglio to focus his thesis on Guardini’s writings, Bermudez stressed the need to have caution when it comes to just how much influence Guardini had, since Bergoglio’s thesis was never finished.

“We just know that he was incredibly impacted to the point that he wanted to do his doctoral thesis on him. But there is no trace of the Pope explaining himself in any kind of writing or interview or whatever about how much or how Guardini impacted him.”

Latin American Influences

Bergoglio’s biographers say he was impacted especially by several prominent Latin American theologians who were influential in “teologia latinoamericana,” or Latin American theology, an approach that emphasized the Church’s closeness to ordinary people and their expressions of popular devotion.

According to Bermudez, those who had the biggest impact on Francis’ thought were Jesuit Fr. Juan Carlos Scannone – who is still alive and was a professor of the young Fr. Bergoglio – as well as Argentinian Fr. Lucio Gera and Uruguayan Alberto Methol Ferre, who Bermudez said was “super influential on a whole generation of Latin Americans.”

Bermudez explained that the “teologia latinoamericana” intellectuals had a clear vision for the need to develop a theology “that would line up with the idea that Latin America, as a large continent with one language and one religion, had some kind of a ‘manifest destiny.’”

“These were the people who understood that Latin America had a huge contribution to make to the world of theology, considering that close to half of Catholics were living on the continent,” he said.

This approach emphasized the preferential option for the poor, and that popular piety and devotion would play a major role in unifying Latin American, and in preserving and transmitting the faith across the continent.

“That’s where the Pope’s preference for the importance of Marian shrines, and processions and events of massive faith comes from,” Bermudez said, explaining that because of the way in which people gathered to celebrate their faith in this “popular” way, the approach later became known as the “teologia del pueblo.”

“What is known today as the ‘teologia del pueblo’ didn’t exist at that time,” Bermudez said, explaining that the “theology of the people” was a later evolution of Latin American theology,

Bermudez stressed that these ideas were different from liberation theology, which sprung up in Latin America in the 1970s, and often emphasized a Marxist interpretation of the Gospel, viewing faith through the lens of class struggle, rather than giving primacy to spiritual freedom.

He explained that liberation theology largely rejected popular piety, believing it to be “some kind of backwards approach to religion that would keep people away from social change and structural change.”

Liberation theology was not relevant in Argentina at the time of Bergoglio’s formation, Bermudez said.

When Bergoglio was being formed, Bermudez said, “there was a lot of hope in a Latin American future in which Latin America would play a huge role in the world,” he said, but noted that in the years since, “crisis and corruption and political squabbles pretty much put an end to any hope that Latin America would raise up as one single nation.”

However, the influence of the “teologia latinoamericana” can clearly be seen in Francis’ words, actions and personal style, above all in his emphasis on community and solidarity, which Bermudez said stems from the belief that popular devotion “was a richness that allowed the people of Latin America to preserve and persevere in their faith.”

Another manifestation of this formation is the hope Francis has for Latin America’s role Church, since it covers such large swaths of territory, from the Rio Grande to the Tierra del Fuego.

“You can hardly find any other place in the planet when you can go through such a large territory and be celebrating the same faith and speaking the same language,” Bermudez said, adding that while he’s not sure if Pope Francis has a specific belief in the “great future” of Latin America, he still has a tremendous hope for the continent.

Likewise, Ivereigh said this influence can be seen even from Bergoglio’s time as rector of the San Miguel seminary in Buenos Aires, where he kept a strict spiritual and academic regime for the Jesuit novices, while also encouraging them to pray the rosary together and sending them out to minister in parishes on the weekends.

“His vision of the Church, I think, derives from his reading of the Spanish missionary experience in the colonial era of Latin America. He makes frequent references, particularly in Latin America, to that era,” Ivereigh said.

Bergoglio wanted the seminarians to “get out of their heads and have contact with the people; so study was important, but on weekends they were out there with the people ministering in the parishes,” which was unusual for Jesuits at the time, who typically placed a heavy emphasis on academics.

After the Second Vatican Council, Bergoglio was “very skeptical of progressive attempts to depart from core Catholic traditions,” such as, in his view, downgrading the importance of popular piety, Ivereigh said.

“He was very strong on maintaining that,” Ivereigh said, explaining that Bergoglio’s approach was consistently about “going back to the original charism of the 16th century Jesuits,” which placed a strong emphasis on missionary outreach.

“He certainly didn’t want to go back to the former time before the Council, but he didn’t want a modernization that would dilute the Catholic tradition, and he wanted a deeper reform that returned the Jesuits to their deeper traditions.”

How his formation shapes his papacy

Both biographers noted that, while the Pope has limited formal theological training, his formation and intellect can be seen in his daily words and actions.

For Ivereigh, Francis’ entire 5-year pontificate has so far been “one big lesson in what they call in Latin and Italian ‘pastoralita‘ – it’s one big lesson in how to be pastoral…putting people first, spending time with them, showing that everybody is valuable, showing that God cares about everybody.”

This is seen in Francis’ homilies and travels, but also in his interaction with media and his general approachability, Ivereigh said, explaining that in his view, the Pope is constantly trying to remove “unnecessary blockages” getting in the way of reaching the people.

“Some of those blockages are the result of social and cultural change, which lead people for example to be suspicious of institutions or to see institutions as distant. But some of those blockages are also part of the Church’s culture,” he said. “So the proclamation has to be simpler, humbler and more kerygmatic. That’s been his big message of these last five years.”

In his view, Bermudez said the influence of Latin American theology, in particular, can be seen clearly in the Pope’s continuous encouragement for priests to take on the “smell of the sheep,” as well as his ideas about how the priesthood and episcopate should be based on the “conviction that the faith of the people is very powerful.”

Since the beginning, Francis has preached the importance of popular devotions, the need for greater hope and solidarity, the importance of truth, a sense of good and evil and an emphasis on divine intervention, Bermudez said.

“All that has been influenced by this experience of the common people, your day-by-day Catholic who lives from Church feast to Church feast and experiences their faith [in this way],” he said, adding that this approach has “completely impregnated his preaching and his vision of how to live our faith.”

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5 Comments

  1. Very interesting article about the pope’s training, something I didn’t know much about.I would never guess it since it is not easily perceived by me all this formation, given his manners and style of expressing himself,and his contempt for Tradition and doctrine.I guess the explanation lies in his social background in Peronist Argentina, as the article seems to allude to.It is obvious that he should have had a solid formation, since all clergy has it, some more than others.It is very interesting that he did not finish his thesis, though. I myself admire Msgr. Romano Guardini’s work and can find nothing in the pope that would remind me of Guardini, pope Francis never even mentioned him, as far as I know. I hope all this spiritual and intellectual background will serve to help him change his ways someday.

  2. This propaganda piece of “fake news” is laughable. It is nothing more than a screed by Austen Ivereigh, a well-known sycophant for Pope Bergoglio. No one, apart apparently from Austen Ivereigh, considers Pope Bergoglio anything but a liberal Jesuit of very modest intellectual ability, impoverished theological formation, and utter contempt for rigid traditional neo-Pelagian Rosary counters.

  3. Sophia, Warner and Paul have spoken with well for me.

    I would add 3 things, as time doesn’t permit me to go on.

    As a parent Pope Francis divides children against their parents by seducing young Catholic people to “make a mess” in the Church.

    And Pope Francis speaks and acts maliciously against people who have “popular piety” that he disdains – that is – people who have reverence for Catholic tradition.

    And since he is so “brilliant,” we can now say that all of his abusive speech and targeted persecutions of people who care about Catholic tradition (ie authentically Catholic things that come before the 20th century, and generally not from Latin America) is well planned, intentional and manipulative.

    In sum, he is nothing more than our typical 20th century “progressive clericalist” tyrant, hand-picked by Cardinal “sex abuse coverup artist” Danneels, who stood with him on the balcony in 2013.

    I look forward to the end of his pontificate.

  4. Basically this tells us nothing new, unfortunately. He went to school, like you would expect of a Jesuit, but what he is remembered for is being “incredibly widely read in literature of the world, European and Latin American, poetry, classics, the novels,” and “poetry, classical literature, and writings from the influential thinkers of the day.” Which doesn’t tell us much at all.

    I think Francis has the idea that Jesus can be understood today as He might have been understood by His contemporaries. He knows the Gospels and I like that he tries to remind us of what it was like when Jesus spoke His words for the first time. Keeping the Gospels fresh is good. But it still has the effect of the teacher who overcompensates for the slowest members of the class. The rest of us are bored and don’t feel challenged, and when we raise our hands to complain we’re told that our comments are not helpful.

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