On Pope Francis and Understanding Theology

The world is like a school that the students refuse to attend because they do not want to know what they need to know to be saved

“Without mercy, our theology, our law, our pastoral care run the risk of collapsing into bureaucratic narrow-mindedness or ideology, which by their nature seeks to domesticate the mystery. Understanding theology is understanding God, who is love.” — Pope Bergoglio, Letter to the Theological Faculty at the Catholic University of Argentina, On the Occasion of Its 100th Anniversary,” March 3, 2015 (L’Osservatore Romano, March 13, 2015)

“We can talk about God because He has talked to us; so the first condition for speaking about God is listening to all that God himself has said. God has spoken to us! God is not therefore a distant hypothesis concerning the world’s origin; he is not a mathematical intelligence far from us. God takes an interest in us; he loves us; he has entered personally into the reality of our history; he has communicated himself, even to the point of taking flesh.”— Pope Ratzinger, “How to Speak about God,” The Transforming Power of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013), 42.


On March 3rd, Pope Francis wrote a short letter to the Theological Faculty at the Catholic University of Argentina, an institution with which he is no doubt most familiar. Pope Francis is not a speculatively-orientated man. He sees theology in practical terms. Vatican II, he tells the Argentine Faculty, is a “re-reading of the Gospel from the perspective of contemporary culture.” He does not say that it is a “re-reading” of contemporary culture from the perspective of the Gospel. The Council produced an “irreversible movement of renewal which comes from the Gospel. And now we must go forward.” What, one wonders, does “forward” imply? The notion of “progress” for the sake of “progress” avoids the question of “progress to what?” or “forward to where?” To go “forward”, we must first look backward to the Gospel. Chesterton said progress can only be made by looking backwards. The future is blank, but history contains real people, real choices for good or bad.

In answering his own question of going “forward”, Pope Bergoglio writes: “Teaching and studying theology means living on the frontier, one in which the Gospel meets the needs of the people to whom it should be proclaimed in an understandable and meaningful way.” The first “need” of the people, as the Gospels suggest, is the need to “repent”. The Gospel was not sent into the world to tell the people that they were hungry or disordered. They already knew this. Nor was it to teach them economics, which they could learn without the Gospel. What they needed to know most was “to where does the journey of life lead?” It leads to “eternal life”, as the Gospel of John teaches. No one is likely to know this truth unless he is taught by some power that is not, in fact, merely human.

Ever since Socrates, philosophy and intelligence have often been deemed to be “useless” because they were concerned with questions that seemed insolvable, such “What is the meaning of man?” “What is death?” “Has God spoken to us?”—questions often asked in the documents of Vatican II. The fact that many people think they have more pressing needs than their own salvation or that they do not need to be aware of such issues does not mean they are not fundamental. God came into the world not primarily to teach us what we know by our own powers but for what we do not know.

“We must guard against a theology that is exhausted in academic dispute or one that looks at humanity from a glass castle. You learn so as to live, theology and holiness are inseparable.” Academic disputes, no doubt, have their purpose. One might even argue, as I often do, that the disorders in economics, politics, and culture are usually the results of disputes in ideas. The wars of the world are first fought in the minds of academics and clerics. It is from there that order and disorder originates in the world. The reason St. Thomas is so important, I think, is precisely because he took academic disputes seriously.

Or as John Maynard Keynes once famously wrote: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” As Richard Weaver put it, “Ideas have consequences.” Marx wanted to argue that “Consequences produce ideas.” They do, but only after we understand the ideas that produced the original consequences about which we now think.


Pope Francis then exhorts the faculty and students of the Argentine University: “Let the theology that you elaborate, therefore, be rooted and based on Revelation, on Tradition, but also correspond with the cultural and social processes in particular, difficult transitions.” Christian revelation is, indeed, directed to the human person, to the human mind, insofar as it seeks to understand itself, God, and the world. Some ideas that people live by will be sensible; others will not. Revelation was sent into the world also, as Pope Benedict often said, to “heal” reason as well as to expand it. Both revelation and tradition will contain elements that cannot be previously found in any culture. What of reason that can be found is simply to be accepted and woven into a higher order.

“At this time,” Pope Francis adds, “theology must address conflicts, not only those we experience within the Church, but also those that concern the world as a whole and those which are lived on the streets of Latin America.” No doubt, this admonition reflects the abiding concern of evangelization that Pope Francis and other recent popes have stressed. Probably, one should add, the primary reason “evangelization” has such a problem in making the Gospel known throughout the world is due to the ideas that control Chinese, Muslim, Indian, tribal, and western liberal thought. Each of these in its own way prevents any open or successful presentation of the faith within the limits of its power.

So, we should not settle for “desktop theology. Your place for reflection is the frontier.” One can only be amused by this joining of “desktop”, which comes from computer-land, with a “place on the frontier”, which comes, in American movie terms, from the Wild West. The notion of not “doing” theology at the “desk” but on the frontier is probably more Jesuit than Dominican. The Jesuit motto implies that we can theologize while on active duty, whereas the Dominican motto suggests that we need to figure things out before we are turned lose on the world. Both have their point.

Cardinal Christoph von Schönborn once said that Aquinas was the only saint ever canonized simply for thinking. Probably we must now add Newman. The point of Christianity, no doubt, is that the world is full of things to think about. Unless you think about them, you probably will not know what to do with them. Christian theology adds that the most important things that are around to think about are revealed to us, beyond our natural powers. Not to think about them will result in not knowing what to do or what reality is about.

For those of us who were born on farms, as I was, the following remark of Pope Francis will recall the sense of smell that Aristotle considered. “Even good theologians, like good shepherds, have the odour of the people, and of the streets and, by their reflection, pour oil and wine onto the wounds of mankind.” This last phrase refers to the Good Samaritan. I suppose, with modern health laws, one must be very careful what he does upon coming upon an accident or a person in stress. Moving a wounded body can get one into serious problems. But the main point is well-taken. Good shepherds know the actual “smell” of their sheep; they do not just imagine it or talk about it.

Pope Francis then changes metaphors. He returns to his oft-repeated remark that the present world is like a battle-field, or, as he puts it, “Theology is the expression of a Church which is a ‘field-hospital’, which lives her mission of salvation and healing in the world.” Over the years, I recall reading of “field-hospitals” in the American Civil War, in World War I, and World War II, as well as the dealing of the wounded in more recent combats. In the earlier wars, the great killers were not the swords or bullets of the enemy, but gangrene, influenza, and various forms of infection and disease. The invention of sulpha drugs, blood transfusion, and antibiotics makes a different scene, no doubt still tragic.

The image of the world as a “field-hospital” with patients needing immediate spiritual care is in some instances a useful one. The major spiritual problems of the world exist among the well-off. Some think an asylum might be a better image. But I tend to think of the world as a school that the students refuse to attend because they do not want to know what they need to know to be saved.


The central theme of Pope Francis, as it was often of Pope Wojtyla, is mercy. Pope Francis put it this way in his letter to Argentina: “Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude, but it is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus.” This position is true, provided that we recall that the God of mercy is also the God of justice, the God who insists that we keep the Commandments, and the God who cannot forgive us or have final mercy on us unless we repent of our sins. Such things are also elements in any full theology of mercy.

Pope Wojtyla, in his reflection on the Divine Mercy, said that God would forgive everything that could be forgiven. Scripture itself informs us of what cannot be forgiven. We are not free to change this root position as it is itself rooted in our freedom. This admonition is not contrary to what mercy is, but essential to its full understanding. As Pope Francis implies: mercy is more than “just a pastoral attitude.” It is something that first must be thought about.

All the divisions of theology—dogmatic, moral, aesthetical, legal, spiritual—are to be aware of mercy. Thus, “understanding theology is understanding God, who is love.” That God is love is the great theme of the Gospel of John. Aquinas wrote of it. Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est concerns mercy and love. Pope Bergoglio does not want a “’museum’ theologian who gathers data and information on Revelation without, however, really knowing what to do with it.” Certainly this remark also implies that a theologian who has no information or data on Revelation would hardly know what to do with his activity.

A theologian should not be a “passive onlooker on history.” There are things to be done as well as things to be thought about. The whole history of our kind from at least Plato is that the origin of things to be done lies in things first thought about. Theology tells us that unless we “listen” to what is handed down, we will not know what it is we are asked to know and do. “The theologian…should be a person capable of building humanity around him, passing on the divine Christian truth in a truly human dimension, and not a talentless intellectual, an ethicist lacking in goodwill, or a bureaucrat of the sacred.”

I would myself shy away from expressions like “building humanity around me”. Such wording sounds too much like Rousseau’s saving mankind but indifferent to the real persons next door. Yet, we do exist to “pass on the divine Christian truth in human way.” This awareness is surely what the Incarnation was about. We not only pass on divine truth in a human way, but the divine Truth was the Word made flesh. He told us things that were human, but He also told us things more than human—“Take this and eat, for this is my body.” There are, to be sure, dried up intellectuals, ethics professors who practice vice, and bureaucrats who treat the sacred as their private property.

The last words are those of Pope Francis: “Understanding theology is understanding God, who is love.” We only know this truth because it was revealed and passed on down to us in Tradition. But once it was revealed and reached our ears, we found that we could think about it and everything else in a new light. Indeed, as Popes Wojtyla, Ratzinger, and Bergoglio intimate, each in his own way, we can never stop thinking about it and, in its light, doing something about it.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).