Pope Francis has consistently spoken out against the temptation of “making the Gospel an ideology”, as he did in Bogota on September 7, 2017. Earlier in a homily on May 19, 2017, Francis warned about making “doctrine .. . an ideology”. What is ideology? And how does the Gospel and doctrine become ideological? He doesn’t really say. Still, the best place to look for an answer to this crucial question as to what is ideology is his July 28, 2013 Address to the Leadership of the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM).
What is ideology?
What, according to Francis, renders the Gospel an ideology? In this address, we get an answer to this question. Ideology is a perennial temptation, he says, “to interpret the Gospel apart from the Gospel itself and apart from the Church.” What does Francis mean by this?
The Church’s life of faith is, according to Francis, an indispensable epistemic and hermeneutical context for properly interpreting the Gospel. Furthermore, the Gospel is not to be reduced to interpretations of faith, but rather the Gospel itself provides its own meaningful content, its own message, which is a transcultural substance of faith that is the normative basis of our non-ideological interpretations (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, nos. 40-41, 45, 116-117, 129). Any approach that succumbs to the above described temptation would be epistemically and hermeneutically defective because it measures the Gospel by an external standard that is foreign to the revelatory narrative.
Moreover, Pope Francis is self-consciously aware that there can be no interpretation of the Gospel without presuppositions. He explicitly rejects a “neutral” (his own word is “antiseptic”) hermeneutics—in other words, a presuppositionless hermeneutics, that is, “detached and unengaged, which is impossible.” He adds, “The way we ‘see’ is always affected by the way we direct our gaze. . . . The question [is], rather: How are we going to look at reality in order to see it?” He replies: “With the eyes of discipleship.” In other words, with the eyes of the supernatural gift of faith we see reality, make judgments, and then act as missionary disciples.
Examples of ideology
What are some examples of an ideological rendering of the Gospel that Francis gives in the 2013 CELAM address? Sociological reductionism, for one, which “involves an interpretative claim based on a hermeneutics drawn from the social sciences. It extends to the most varied fields, from market liberalism to Marxist categorization.” For another, there is what Francis calls “psychologizing,” “which ultimately reduces the ‘encounter with Jesus Christ’ and its development to a process of growing self-awareness. . . . It ends up being an immanent, self-centered approach. It has nothing to do with [self-] transcendence and consequently, with missionary spirit.”
Still another is what the pope calls the “Gnostic solution.” This too purports to offer a “higher spirituality.”
It was the first deviation in the early community [see the works of Irenaeus] and it reappears throughout the Church’s history in ever new and revised versions. Generally, its adherents are known as ‘enlightened Catholics’ (since they are in fact rooted in the culture of the Enlightenment).
Turning now to the question regarding the rendering of doctrine as an ideology, how does one become an “ideologue of doctrine,” as Francis puts it? Briefly, by ideologues of doctrine, on the one hand, Francis seems to means people who just want the Church to “indoctrinate,” to “rubberstamp” its teaching, say, about marriage and family, indeed, to take “dead stones to be hurled at others.” They are legalist, and hence ideologues of doctrine. Typical of Francis’s rhetoric here is to claim that the legalist is dogmatic or rigid, offering general and abstract norms. In response to such a view, Francis says, in his concluding speech at the 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family, “The Synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness”. He adds elsewhere in the same vein, “Their [ideologue of doctrine] hearts, closed to God’s truth, clutch only at the truth of the Law, taking it by ‘the letter’”. One can find similar comments throughout his pontificate.
On the other hand, by ideologues of doctrine Francis seems to mean those who manifest a “hostile inflexibility,” succumbing to the temptation that in thinking about doctrine there is only one way to express or formulate in sentences those fundamental doctrinal truths. So, if one varies from those particular traditional formulations, he is ruled out as lacking in orthodoxy (see “Pope Francis’s Address to the Synod Fathers,” October 18, 2014). Thus, the great danger posed by ideologues of doctrine, according to Pope Francis, is that even “with the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity” we may “hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance” (Evangelii gaudium, no. 41). Francis urges us to resist doctrinal rigidity, that is, immobilism at the level of theological formulation or expression, because it may lead to petrifaction of the understanding of faith.
Informing the pope’s resistance is the Lérinian legacy of Pope John XXIII, who draws on Vatican Council I, which had in turn drawn on the monk and theologian St. Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445). I have written extensively about this legacy most recently in my book, Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma (Peter Lang Publishing, 2018) This legacy is, arguably, based on the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, propositions and sentences, which was presupposed by John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. John stated: “For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I (Dei Filius 4.13-14), and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum 23.3 of Vincent of Lérins:
Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.
Some brief comments here are in order. The terms used by Francis are inexact, and the contexts in which they are used is not always evident to the reader, but nonetheless we can get within range of what he is pointing at.
Critique of ideology
So, regarding the “psychologizing” ideology, one might think in terms of what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as the “new individualism.” With the emphasis of this individualist search for authenticity promising “to help you find yourself, realize yourself, release your true self, and so on” (A Secular Age, 475), we can understand why Francis holds this approach to be immanent and self-centered. Adds Francis, “[I]t can take the form of a spiritual consumerism tailored to one’s unhealthy individualism” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 89).
Regarding the “gnostic solution,” we get a definite clue to understanding the pope’s meaning here and why he calls “enlightened Catholicism” a version of Gnosticism. Gnostics appealed to a secret heritage that was a source of revelation parallel to Scripture and hence they claimed to have unlocked the true meaning of Scripture. Similarly, like a gnostic, “enlightened Catholics” claim to have a more profound understanding of revelation and hence they break, according to the then Joseph Ratzinger, the “connection of the living faith with the authority of the Church, embodied in the episcopal succession.”
In his own words, the gist of Pope Francis’s critique of “enlightened Catholicism” is: “The temptation to neglect the ‘depositum fidei’ [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]”. We may put Francis’s critique of “enlightened Catholicism” in line with Vatican I’s teaching:
For the doctrine of the faith which God has revealed is put forward not as some philosophical discovery capable of being perfected by human intelligence, but as a divine deposit committed to the spouse of Christ to be faithfully protected and infallibly promulgated. Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy Mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding. (Chapter 4, nos. 13-14)
Ideologues of the Gospel and doctrine
These three examples are insightful (albeit brief) critiques of ideologues of the Gospel. I have written at length in Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II (Lectio Publishing, 2015) about both aspects that I have suggested above are implied in his view of those Francis calls doctrinal ideologues. Legitimate questions arise from Francis’s critique of doctrinal ideologues despite claims by some to the contrary. I’ll highlight two issues here.
First, the pope’s overall emphasis on legalism is such that he never addresses the antithesis of legalism, namely, antinomianism (from Greek anti, against + nomos, law), leaving us with a lopsided picture of contemporary culture. And we surely live in a culture of antinomianism, of moral subjectivism, emotivism, relativism, situation ethics. Furthermore, confusion over Francis’s view of the moral law arises, in particular, from the contrast that he draws between “letter and spirit”. What does he mean? He doesn’t say. Is Francis placing the Spirit over against the content and demands of the moral law? Surely not, but undoubtedly these statements above beg for clarification. Moreover, and most to the point, Francis never actually addresses the question: if the moral law is holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12), which he surely believes it is (see Amoris Laetitia [AL], no. 295), then what is its validity in all situations of the Christian life?
The importance of this question especially arises in Chapter 8 of AL, particularly given the reintroduction of proportionalism in the moral logic of pastoral reasoning (AL, Footnote 329, and nos. 298, 304-305). This logic seems to tilt in the direction of a situation ethics at the level of pastoral care, and hence, despite Francis’s disclaimer to the contrary (AL, nos. 295, 300), of the gradualism of the law, meaning thereby that there are “different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations” (John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, no. 34). I say despite his disclaimer that he is not proposing a gradualness of the law because the pope is arguing that there are exceptions to moral rules. Indeed, he claims that, according to Aquinas, a general moral principle “fails” as one descends into the details of a particular situation-and-person-specific context of discernment.
Unlike Aquinas, however, Francis overlooks the distinction between “moral absolutes” (exceptionless moral norms, or negative moral norms that hold semper et ad semper) and “prima facie obligations” (affirmative norms). This results in a conflict between the objective moral law that holds semper et ad semper (“always and forever”), such as, adultery is objectively wrong, on the one hand, and pastoral practice on the other. Regarding pastoral practice, Francis says, “In such situations [‘where for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate’ (no. 298)], many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers’ [Gaudium et spes, no. 51].” Is Francis suggesting here that under those circumstances sexual intimacy is morally permissible, a subjectively good choice, for the sake of maintaining a faithful “invalid marriage” so that the children do not suffer? Opinions differ about his response to this question. I have written about this issue in an earlier Catholic World Report article and so I won’t repeat myself here. For now, let us just note that the pope attempts to free himself from “legalism,” a “cold bureaucratic morality” (AL, no. 312), and hence from being a “doctrinal ideologue,” by applying a moral logic of pastoral practice that seeks situational exceptions to the moral law and hence creates a conflict with what Francis clearly accepts on theological grounds, namely the moral absolute and hence exceptionless moral norm that adultery is wrong (AL, nos. 303-305). Hence, the specter that the Church maintains a double standard, which is exactly what Pope Francis rejects (AL, no. 300), looms large in discussions of the moral logic of pastoral reasoning.
Second, regarding doctrinal truth, confusion over Francis’ view of doctrine also arises again from the contrast that he draws between “letter and spirit,” insisting that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit.” What is the difference between the “letter” of the doctrine and its “spirit”? Francis doesn’t say. Perhaps Francis’s answer to this question is expressed by him in the following claim, “In reality, doctrine has the sole purpose of serving the life of the People of God and it seeks to assure our faith of a sure foundation” (Address to the Plenary Session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, January 31, 2014).
But how does doctrine serve that purpose? And how does doctrine have a secure foundation?
Lérinian legacy of Vatican II vs. a pastoral approach to doctrine
Yes, the pope warns against reducing doctrines “to a set of abstract and static theories,” and in that sense urges the pastoral purpose of doctrine. Still, he doesn’t set up an opposition between doctrine and pastoral care: “Theology and pastoral care go together. A theological doctrine that cannot be guiding and shaping the evangelizing purpose and pastoral care of the church is just as unthinkable as a pastoral care that does not know the treasure of revelation and tradition with a view to better understanding and transmission of the faith” (“Discorso Del Santo Padre Francesco Alla Comunita Accademica Del Pontificio Istituto Giovanni Paolo II Per Studi Su Matrimonio E Famiglia”). Yet, Francis’s rhetoric about doctrines raises question about whether he is anti-doctrinal. A representative example of such rhetoric is found in AL.
He claims there that “at times we [the Church] have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, from removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families” (AL, no. 36). He speaks of an “excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace” (Ibid). Francis adds, “[This] has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.” Speaking of situations common in our culture that contradict the Church’s teaching on marriage, the pope says, the Church must refrain from
imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would ‘indoctrinate’ that message, turning it into ‘dead stones to be hurled at others. (AL, no. 49)
Now, some interpreters (e.g., Richard Gaillardetz) of Pope Francis’s rhetoric have wrongly suggested that he is really defending what they call a “pastoral approach to doctrine.” But this approach tends to reduce the content of faith (fides quae creditur) to its purpose, and this is not Francis’s Lérinian position. In fact, like John XXIII, he calls for the preservation of the “integrity of the faith.” Says Francis, “We see then that the task of evangelization operates within the limits of language and of circumstances. It constantly seeks to communicate more effectively the truth of the Gospel in a specific context, without renouncing the truth, the goodness and the light which it can bring whenever perfection is not possible” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 45).
Furthermore, a pastoral approach to doctrine wrongly suggests that the unchangeable truths of doctrines is unknowable such that nothing determinate and true can be said and known about them. This approach is historicist in perspective, in short, collapsing the dogmatic distinction of unchanging truth and its formulations into a historical context, meaning thereby, as Christoph Theobald, SJ, puts it, “subject to continual reinterpretation according to the situation of those to whom it is transmitted.” This historicist “turn” in a pastoral-oriented model of doctrinal change results in a model in which both truth itself and its formulations are subject to reform and continual reinterpretation and re-contextualization such that “doctrine changes when pastoral contexts shift and new insights emerge [because] particular doctrinal formulations no longer mediate the saving message of God’s transforming love.”
But this model of perpetual hermeneutics fails as an interpretation of Pope Francis because it is inconsistent with his Lérinian perspective of Vatican II. According to that perspective, it is reality, which can be known by us, and in that sense provides our faith with a “sure foundation.” For dogmatic formulations, to quote the British Catholic theologian Gavin D’Costa, “must bear some determinative relationship to truth itself . . . unless one has a view that language has no proper referencing function to reality.” And perpetual hermeneutics would be inconsistent with the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch” (no. 170). Still: “we do approach these realities with the help of formulations of the faith which permit us to express the faith and to hand it on, to celebrate it in community, to assimilate and live on it more and more.”
Pope Francis aims at freeing us from the ideologues of doctrine by appealing to the Lérinian legacy of Vatican II. Admittedly, he has not always been consistent in his expressions of this legacy, and hence that has given aid and comfort to some of his interpreters that he is really proposing a pastoral approach to doctrine.
At his best, Pope Francis looks to Vincent of Lérins since the pope is persuaded that a Lérinian approach to doing theology in the stream of the Church’s living tradition avoids the temptations of rigidity or immobilism at the level of theological formulation or expression, and hence a doctrinal ideology. Francis does not hold the truth itself to be variable with time and place, but only its formulations, urging an expansion of its expression, namely, as he puts it, “seeking ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.” In a nutshell, this is the hermeneutics of continuity in renewal and reform. But what changes is “the forms for expressing truth … in order to develop and deepen the Church’s teaching.” He makes this point abundantly clear throughout Evangelii Gaudium. Thus, one needn’t turn to a pastoral approach to doctrine in order to avoid becoming an ideologue of doctrine. The Lérinian perspective of Vatican II can avoid ideology by accounting for (a) the need for new expressions of truth; (b) explain why propositions of dogmas/doctrines are unchangeable, irreformable, or definitive; and (c) distinguish between unchanging truth and theological formulations.