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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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  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.

    • “his contempt for Tradition and doctrine”.

      Sophia, I have never come across any such contempt. Can you cite some examples from non-trad sites?

      • It is never part of Tradition to legalize homosexual civil union.

        That is just one example. We have no glee from it and we never relish doing it.

        Maybe you do not realize how embarrassing it is to have to call out a Pope -for anyone whether of high or low estate.

        And we would prefer that the things that give rise to it, had never happened.

        For this is what Jesus said, as Judas turned his back, “Better for that man he had not been born.”

  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.

  5. This article misses the influence of the “Peronist Party” on the young Fr Bergoglio in BsAs. He was a member of the “Acción Católica” or Catholic Action, a movements widely viewed as aligned with “el Peronismo”. His aversion and distrust with anything associated with “capitalism” could be trace to these early years. Somehow like St JPII and his youth aversion against communism and nazism and his love for freedom.

    • Oscar, there were obviously some areas that were praiseworthy in the Peronist policies (and many that were not), and Catholic Action might have been aware of it. These young men and women were dedicated to the Church. CA has been much maligned by people from the extreme left and from the extreme right. Pope Francis, who has condemned authoritarian nature of communism, riles against unbridled capitalism which is driven by sheer greed. I applaud him for that. He would like to see free enterprise that is more inclusive and fair. Every disciple of Christ should applaud him for that.
      Too many labels are being dished out by so many non-Catholics and un-Catholics these days. I do not fall for that. I trust the Pope’s faithfulness to our Lord and his Church.

  6. Author Gregg concludes: “Correlation isn’t causation. Yet parallels exist between the styles of el conductor and Francis. These include (1) an imprecision of language which strikes many as intentional; (2) a rhetorical tendency to caricature critics rather than seriously engage their arguments; (3) an emphasis upon action that’s inattentive to the fact that coherent action depends upon coherent thought; and (4) an attachment to el pueblo—something invested with almost mystical qualities by Perón and Francis, but which often morphs into populism.”

    In addition to Latin American pastoral theology (article), is there a connection between Peron’s el pueblo (Gregg’s #4) and Sensus fedei as exaggerated in the Synod on Synodality documents of 2021?

    • Benedict XVI spoke to erroneous notions of ‘sensus fidei’ in a 12/2012 letter to the ITC:

      “In the believer…. The sensus fidei is a criterion for discerning whether or not a truth belongs to the living deposit of the Apostolic Tradition. It also has a propositional value for the Holy Spirit never ceases to speak to the Churches and to guide them towards the whole truth. Today, however, it is particularly important to explain the criteria that make it possible to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeit. It is certainly not a kind of public ecclesial opinion and invoking it in order to contest the teachings of the Magisterium would be unthinkable, since the sensus fidei cannot be authentically developed in believers, except to the extent in which they fully participate in the life of the Church, and this demands responsible adherence to the Magisterium, to the deposit of faith.”

      That paragraph opposes any erroneous notion which any Synod may promulgate. When the magisterium ‘of Francis’ attempts to supersede the apostolic faith deposit, red alerts and sirens abound in the authentic sensus fidei. Those who cannot see or hear are either dead or dumb/blind/deaf. Jesus at Luke 9:59-60 says to let the dead bury the dead; the faithful are to continue to proclaim the Good News (in season and out), believing and knowing that prayers in His name–particularly during persecution and division–are answered.

    • May I add, people having their own customized golden rules or personal guidelines, could be more widespread than we think; and for the Christians among them their formularies might even supersede the Commandments. For example, “It’s a decision he made” or “a decision I made”. I hesitate to group what else I have heard but what I do know is that the four “maxims” or expressions in Evangelii Gaudium, “Time greater than space”, etc., can easily serve to make very odd alliances among them, leaving out the Christian substance for long periods of time while lending an authority to the most anonymous very misdirected counsels.

  7. How I miss Pope Emeritus Benedict and his coherent, well constructed and argued balanced worldview incorporating both faith and reason, bereft of ideology and sentimentalism. Bergoglio is so out of his depth when it comes to theology and doctrine, it’s almost as if the Jesuits purposely trained him wrong, as a joke.

    • I too loved Pope Benedict. In fact, I have loved every Pope that our Lord has given us in my lifetime, starting with Pius XII. Sadly, some people who are obsessed with certain rituals or have rejected Vatican 2, hate some or all of them.
      Doctrine and rituals are important to Francis, but he has a more profound appreciation of what it really means to be a disciple of our Savior. He wants us to realize that knowledge of scripture, the euphoria generated by certain rituals, and the recitation of long prayers are fine but that these do not separate us from other religious groups. What distinguishes us is our reaching out to feed Jesus, to clothe Jesus, to give our Lord shelter and whatever he needs. And we do these things when we do them to the least of His brothers and sisters – waifs and strays, the poor, the wretched, the unwanted, the ostracized and so on.
      The ritual-loving Pharisees hated Jesus because of this message. Would they have entered heaven with our Lord? His Vicar, Pope Francis, is hated today for trying to convey that same message.

      • You’re making a fundamental error by pitting doctrine/teaching against action/doing. And it is fundamental precisely because Christ himself is The Way, the Truth, and the Life; that is, what really distinguishes us is Jesus Christ. Period. As I wrote a few years ago, in appreciation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

        [R]eading and studying the Catechism, Church doctrine and dogma, and theology are not ultimately about knowing things or facts but about knowing the living Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Redeemer and Savior. True theology is an act of worship and prayer; far from being dry or dull (or rigid!), it is an encounter with the Triune God, who creates, draws close, calls, loves, and invites.

        Our actions as Christians flow from seeing, knowing, believing, and following Christ. Now, some Catholics will focus on, say, worship or acts of mercy or prayer, and there is nothing wrong with that. But when they fail to pursue such things and to understand them within the context of Christ and the Trinitarian life, then we have problems.

        As for Pope Francis, I think he is too often a contradiction wrapped in gestures and outbursts. I think he fails to understand the appeal of the Latin Mass, even while some of those who champion TLM do themselves no favors in their own outbursts and psuedo-piety. I’ve made it clear over the years that I think this is a troubled, often mediocre, and often confusing papacy–and not just because people don’t read what Francis really says. I have read it and I continue to read it. And, of course, I have championed Vatican II and defended it in many ways, even while pointing out that how it was implemented, especially in the years immediately following the Council, were deeply problematic and contrary to the texts of the Council.

        Anyhow, again, Scripture, doctrine, liturgy, charity, mercy, goodness, holiness, etc. cannot and should not ever pitted against one another, as doing so only reveals a problem with the “pitter”, not that which is of Christ and for Christ.

        • No Carl, I was not pitting doctrine/teaching against action/doing. How can I, as a faithful Catholic, do that? I know very well that they are intrinsically connected. Could you point out where I might have done that?
          I have seen many devout Hindus, Muslims and Zoroastrians living lives that could be labelled as good, exemplary. In fact, many Jews lived strictly in accordance with their teachings/doctrines. The prophets and John the Baptist did. But good as they were, their religion could not extricate them from the consequences of Adam’s disobedient act. You and I know that we needed the heavenly Adam who, with his absolutely sinless and totally obedient life, ushered in the New Covenant which contained the Father’s forgiveness and His acceptance of the human soul into His heavenly home. It is only in our union with Jesus (in and through his Church) that we could enjoy the graces flowing through him to us. We need to be committed to this union with Jesus, because it is only in this union are we saved. It is only in this union that we could have the grace to do what Jesus wants us to do. And there is so much that Jesus wants us to do. I believe that this is the deep understanding that Pope Francis is trying to get us to appreciate. We need to appreciate that he is doing his apostolic work with his human weaknesses, faults and frailties.

      • The Church is not a social charity institution along the lines of the state function in this.

        To denigrate doctrine and the Laws – what did Christ say about not abolishing the laws but fulfilling them – is to describe something that is not the Church.

        • Ramjet, I can see how people can have no qualms about deliberating misrepresenting someone’s views. I have seen Protestants doing it to Catholic beliefs and also some haters doing it to Pope Francis.
          I did not denigrate doctrine and the laws, and never will. To begin with the Church is not doctrine and the laws. Doctrine and the laws existed from the beginning. The Church is the section of Adam’s family that has committed itself to a union with Jesus – an intimate union.
          In this intimate union with Jesus we would, with grace flowing from him, act like Jesus. This means we will pray, fast, and reach out to any and everybody, even sinners and prostitutes.

  8. How torturous is the mind of Man, who can understand it but God? (somewhere in scripture). Dr Gregg sees the correlation though not the cause that influences the thought of Jorge Bergoglio. Suffering nine years of a pontificate for good or for evil is the better source of causality. Most of us are eclectic referencing when we wish to suit what? An agenda.
    Now agendas are all not bad depending on your agenda. Example. We’ll find traces of Peron [no need to get into the time is greater than the space bit, or that reality is greater than ideas] and Guardini in Francis’ thought, and explicitly revealing in his actions. Logically then if we can identify the agenda we identify the elusive cause. Why elusive. Guardini and Peron are poles apart yet are similar on visioning ends, an anomaly we find in Pope Francis. But for many the inscrutable Senor Bergoglio doesn’t give us that in his ends because of the duality of message and acts.
    Results are the measure. Taken from the greatest of sages, Our Lord, we judge a tree by its fruit. Even there we have a divide. The choice is ours. If there’s ambiguity it must be reduced to the direction of the Church. Doubt requires we stay fast with what we unquestionably know is true. Apostolic tradition.

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