Making sense of Pope Francis on faith, evangelization, and proselytizing (Part I)

Pope Francis diminishes the significance of the fides quae creditur, the beliefs which one holds to be true, affirms, and asserts, in the initial evangelical encounter. However, there is no such thing as a non-doctrinal encounter.

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Luis Ladara, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the Vatican Jan. 30, 2020, during the congregation's plenary meeting. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Editor’s note: This is Part I of a two-part essay.

The Nature of Faith

What is the nature of faith, according to Pope Francis? The Apostle Paul calls us to believe with one’s heart and to confess what one believes (Rom 10:9). This is a twofold Christian imperative—the creedal and confessional imperative—that is at the root of creeds and confessions of faith. Faith involves both the fides qua creditur (“the faith with which one believes”) and the fides quae creditur “the faith which one believes”). If I understand Francis correctly, his emphasis is on the former; faith as it is experienced, encountered, and lived.

Still, Francis’ manner of expression leaves not only unclear but also unanswered—and he does so consistently—the question how both asserted truth and lived truth, the fides quae creditur, the beliefs which one holds to be true, affirms, and asserts, and the fides qua creditur, experiential, living, active faith, belong to faith as a whole. In short, he leaves in the dark the Church’s teaching that faith is both, and simultaneously, a personal and cognitive-propositional encounter with the divine revelation of God’s Word in the authoritative sources of the faith, Scripture and Tradition.

In Francis’ concluding homily of the Synod of Bishops dedicated to young people, he states, “The faith that saved Bartimaeus did not have to do with his having clear ideas about God, but in his seeking him and longing to encounter him. Faith has to do with encounter, not theory.  In encounter, Jesus passes by; in encounter, the heart of the Church beats. Then, not our preaching, but our witness of life will prove effective.” This contrast between “encounter” and “theory,” between “preaching” and “witness” is puzzling.

The latter contrast and the attendant claim made by Pope Francis that “witness” not “preaching” will alone prove effective is rejected with good reason by Pope Paul VI. Let’s be clear the contrast Francis sets up suggests that “preaching” is unnecessary since Francis states that on its own “our witness of life will prove effective.” This is precisely what Paul VI denies in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi §22, “All Christians are called to this witness, and in this way they can be real evangelizers.” Nevertheless, contra Francis’ position, Paul VI adds, “this [witness] always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called always having ‘your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have’ [1 Peter 3:15] – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.” (emphasis added).

Missing from the evangelical encounter in Pope Francis’ thought is Paul VI’s teaching, described above as what I will call “integral evangelization.” The latter includes explanation and justification of Christian beliefs, with the aim of persuasion, convincing others, by the power of reason and arguments. It also involves claiming that one asserts, affirms, and holds certain beliefs to be true. Yes, in passing, remaining in the background, Pope Francis speaks of the Church’s commitment to evangelization, of encouraging a greater openness to the Gospel, by “developing new approaches and arguments, a creative apologetics, on the issue of credibility.” However, this point remains on the back burner; indeed, it is overshadowed by his opposition between “witness” and “preaching,” as I argued above, but chiefly by his rejection of proselytizing. The latter is about rational persuasion, convincing others, by the power of reason and arguments, and Francis confuses it with force or pressure, in fact, with manipulation. Indeed, in his recent address, “Theology after Veritatis Gaudium,” he speaks of a “spirit of conquest” that he associates with “a desire to proselytize – which is baneful! [meaning thereby harmful or destructive]– and an aggressive intent to disprove the other.” Francis once again contrasts evangelization and proselytizing, by “the deepening of kerygma and dialogue as criteria for renewing [theological] studies, we mean that they are at the service of the journey of a Church that increasingly places evangelization at the center. Not apologetics, not manuals – as we have heard – [but] evangelizing. At the center there is evangelization, which does not mean proselytism.” (emphasis added in the last two sentences) So, which is it, yes or no to apologetics?

One thing is consistent: no proselytism. “Never, ever advance the Gospel through proselytism. If someone says he is a disciple of Jesus and comes to you with proselytism, he is not a disciple of Jesus. We shouldn’t proselytize, the Church does not grow from proselytizing.” In sum, says Francis, “proselytism is not Christian.” Why? I will return to this question below. At the forefront is Pope Francis’s constant insistence, recently repeated in his video message to the National Catholic Youth Conference, that in an evangelical encounter with those who do not know Christ we must witness to Christ but “not with [doctrinal] convictions, not to convince [or persuade], [and hence] not to proselytize.” Why is this aspect of integral evangelization missing from Francis’ understanding of witness/evangelization in the initial evangelical encounter?

Witness/Evangelization versus Proselytizing

The brief answer to this question is that Pope Francis diminishes the significance of the fides quae creditur, the beliefs which one holds to be true, affirms, and asserts, in the initial evangelical encounter. However, there is no such thing as a non-doctrinal encounter. Gerhard Cardinal Müller makes the point that Francis misses. “An encounter with God involves doctrine in an inseparable way.” That is, “an encounter with Jesus is not empty and content-free. Instead, it is an encounter with the Person of the Son of God, which implies that in the encounter I am confessing my faith in Jesus as the Son of God. In fact, the content of faith is already present in the encounter and makes it possible, so it does not appear afterward.” In the evangelical encounter, St. Paul confirms the position of Cardinal Müller. The “word of faith that we proclaim” is near you: “[I]f you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10: 9-10, 13).

Furthermore, Francis also thinks, inexplicably, that explanation and justification of Christian beliefs, with the aim of persuasion, by the power of reason and arguments is proselytizing. This is particularly the case not only in interreligious dialogue but also in ecumenical dialogue. I have argued in Chapter 7 of the revised and expanded second edition of my book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II (Lectio Publishing, 2019), that absent in Francis’s view is the truth-oriented dynamic of evangelical encounter. As Vatican II put it, man is ordered by “his nature to seek the truth, especially religious truth.” He is also “bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order [his] whole life in accord with the demands of truth.” (Dignitatis Humanae §2) This absence of the epistemic justification and truth of Christian beliefs is particularly evident in Francis’s view of the “dialogue” of religions. His view not only creates confusion, but also runs the risk of degenerating into outright religious indifferentism.

Regarding ecumenical dialogue, in a 2016 interview arranged by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, prior to the trip to Sweden for an ecumenical gathering anticipating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Pope Francis expressed something that he has voiced consistently during his pontificate: “to proselytize in the ecclesial field is a sin.” He adds: “Proselytism is a sinful attitude.” In a recent address to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, he repeats this point, “proselytism is poisonous to the path of ecumenism.” And even more recently, in his prepared address for his visit to Roma Tre University, he repeated this point, although more generally, namely, that in witnessing to the Christian faith, he did “not wish to engage in proselytism.” In this last statement by Francis, we find once again the opposition between witness and proselytizing.

As a rule, Francis distinguishes witness/evangelization from proselytizing. Unfortunately, he never defines what he means by proselytizing. Yes, he insists that it is bad. However, he does not tell us why. Nor does he distinguish between unethical and ethical means of proselytizing. It helps to turn to a document produced by a working group organized by the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, titled “The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness.” The group formulated some basic points about what would constitute improper “proselytizing” in an ecumenical context:

1. Unfair criticism or caricaturing of the doctrines, beliefs, and practices of another church without attempting to understand or enter into dialogue on those issues.

2. Presenting one’s church or confession as “the true church” and its teachings as “the right faith” and the only way to salvation.

3. Portraying one’s own church as having high moral and spiritual status over against the perceived weaknesses and problems of other churches.

4. Offering humanitarian aid or educational opportunities as an inducement to join another church.

5. Using political, economic, cultural, and ethnic pressure or historical arguments to win others to one’s own church.

6. Taking advantage of lack of education or Christian instruction, which makes people vulnerable to changing their church allegiance.

7. Using physical violence or moral and psychological pressure to induce people to change their church affiliation.

8. Exploiting people’s loneliness, illness, distress or even disillusionment with their own church in order to “convert” them.

Only the second point raises fundamental ecclesiological questions for Catholicism, but the rest are more or less acceptable as unethical means, without any real theological difficulty. The ecclesiological question has to do with ecclesial unity and diversity in the one and only Church of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church. I have addressed this ecclesiological question at length in the sixth chapter my book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II.

For now, we can reject unethical means of proselytizing, as listed above (1, 3-8), while engaging in explanation and justification of Christian beliefs from the outset of our evangelical encounter, with the aim of persuasion, convincing others by the power of reason and arguments; also claiming that one asserts, affirms, and holds certain beliefs to be true. As a rule, Francis seems to think that it is unethical, indeed, unChristian to try to convince or persuade others in the initial evangelical encounter of the rationality and truth of the Christian faith. He wrongly conflates that aspect of integral evangelization involving rational persuasion with force or pressure, indeed, with manipulation and forced conversion. He contrasts evangelization with proselytism; the former being free, the latter “makes you lose your freedom.”

But how? He never says why convincing others takes their freedom away. Indeed, he adds, “proselytism is incapable of creating a religious path in freedom. It always sees people being subjugated in one way or another.” Harking back to the place of witness that he stridently opposes to the verbal communication of Christianity, he adds, “proselytizing is [about] convincing.” Francis cites Revelation 3:20 to make his point: “Look, I am at the door and I am calling; do you want to open the door?” In a gloss on this verse, Francis says, “He does not use force, he does not break the lock, but instead, quite simply, he presses the doorbell, knocks gently on the door and then waits.”

However, rational persuasion, convincing others by the power of reason and arguments, does not override human agency; in fact, it presupposes it. As Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae states, “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power” (§1).

Encounter versus “Theory”

Let us turn now to the contrast Francis draws between “encounter” and “theory.” “Being a Christian is not adhering to a doctrine …” he insists, “Being Christian is about an encounter.” Similarly, his recent Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Christus Vivit, bears out once again this contrast, suggesting that he does not give an integral place to the fides quae creditur in his understanding of the life of faith. Francis says (approvingly quoting St. Oscar Romero): “In the words of a saint, ‘Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, rules to be followed. Seen that way, it puts us off. Christianity is a person who loved me immensely, who demands and asks for my love. Christianity is Christ’.” Statements like these and others make it impossible to interpret Francis as denying the isolation of the fides quae creditur from the fides qua creditur. If anything, it is Francis in such statements who is suggesting not only that encounter is non-doctrinal but also that being a Christian does not essentially involve doctrine. He seems to think according to a scheme wherein faith begins with the personal encounter with Christ, and subsequently, as a secondary matter, ends with doctrinal beliefs, convictions.

This scheme is evident in the contrast Francis draws between “encounter” and “theory.” This contrast raises a question, in particular, that Francis does not address but which is crucial to understanding the integral place of beliefs that one holds to be true, affirms, and asserts in the life of faith. Are the truths of faith expressed in the creedal statements of Nicaea and Chalcedon (more particularly, orthodoxy) constitutive of the message of the Gospel, that is, of that initial evangelical encounter? Alternatively, is orthodoxy mere “theory,” just “ideas,” mere thoughts or mere sets of words, altogether separate from God, not conveying or grasping divine reality itself, the truth about that reality, fulfilling the truth-attaining capacity of the human mind to lay hold of divine reality?

Francis does not say. What he does say leads me to think that, according to Francis, “orthodoxy” is mere theory, just ideas or words, etc. Indeed, one of Pope Francis’ first principles in Evangelii Gaudium is, “realities are greater than ideas.” “Realities” refers here to social and cultural antecedents, yes, even events. “Ideas,” says Francis are “conceptual elaborations.” This point raises the questions whether doctrines are merely conceptual elaborations, according to Francis. It is not at all clear of what they are conceptual elaborations (I return to this matter below). Still, what is clear is that such elaborations have a pragmatic purpose, according to Francis, because they “are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis.” Prioritizing “ideas,” he claims, may result in “ahistorical fundamentalism.”

In the Apostolic Constitution, Veritatis Gaudium, Pope Francis states in the first part of the second sentence, “For truth is not an abstract idea, but is Jesus himself.” Now, we might think that Francis is rightly insisting that truth itself must be authenticated existentially—that is, experienced, lived out, practiced, carried out—and hence cannot be reduced to propositional truth—to being merely believed, asserted, and claimed. Perhaps he is merely saying, as John Paul II once said, “No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!” However, the contrast in this first sentence is between abstract truth and reality rather than between two complementary ways of understanding objective truth: propositional truth and existential truth. In other words, faith involves at the same time both a profound personal engagement with the revealing God but also and necessarily an irreducibly cognitive dimension. The Catechism of the Catholic Church §150 correctly captures both the personal and the propositional in its understanding of faith and revelation. “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.”

Francis’ prioritizing of “realities” over ideas is consistent with his rejection of abstract ideas. What is, then, an abstract idea? Francis does not say, but I think we must say that abstract ideas are propositions that we assert to be true, and the context does not determine the truth-status of the proposition. Therefore, abstract ideas are abstract truths, or what Oliver Crisp calls “a dogmatic conceptual hard core,” and this notion is essential to the idea of “propositional revelation.” It is fitting to refer to the recently canonized St. John Henry Newman who held that revealed truths, what he called “supernatural truths of dogma,” have been “irrevocably committed to human language.” God’s written revelation, according to Ian Ker’s reading of Newman, “necessarily involves propositional revelation.” This propositional revelation in verbalized form, or what Newman called the “dogmatical principle,” is at once true, though not exhaustive, “imperfect because it is human,” adds Newman, “but definitive and necessary because given from above.” Aidan Nichols, OP, stresses Newman’s very point: “Whatever else doctrines are, they are propositions, and no account of revelation which would exclude propositions wholly from its purview could do justice to the role of doctrines in Catholic Christianity.”

For example, Jesus Christ reveals to us the truths about marriage by referring us back to the creation texts of Gen 1:27 and 2:24. Here we have Newman’s “dogmatical principle” at work. “Male and female he created them” and “for this reason . . . a man will be joined to his wife and the two [male and female] will become one flesh.” For another, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). And: “Christ is risen from the dead” (1 Cor 15:20). Other examples of abstract truths that are asserted may be taken from the Pastoral Letter of First Timothy: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1:15). “God our Savior… desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4). “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (2:5). “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (4:4).

We find in Dei Verbum §2 the traditional doctrine of revelation. God reveals himself in the economy of special revelation in his words and actions. Dei Verbum holds that the economy of revelation in Sacred Scripture consists of a pattern of deeds of God in history and words, of divine actions and divinely-given interpretations of those actions, that are inextricably bound together in that revelation. Indeed, what British Anglican philosopher, Richard Swinburne, asserts is correct: “It is in case very hard to see how God could reveal himself in history (e.g. in the Exodus or the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus) without at the same time revealing some propositional truth about himself. For events are not self-interpreting. Either God provides with the historical events its interpretation, in which there is a propositional revelation; or he does not, in which case how can anyone know that a revelatory event has occurred?”

Furthermore, propositions are, then, an authentic mediation of God’s self-revelation because faith involves belief, and to have a belief means that one is intellectually committed, or has mentally assented, to the truth of some proposition or other. Faith involves belief, Aquinas argues, and “belief is called assent, and it can only be about a proposition, in which truth or falsity is found.” In short, propositions of faith are true because they correspond to reality; they are as true judgments an “adaequatio intellectus et rei,” corresponding to what is, and hence “a claim to the possession in knowledge of what is.” To be clear, what does it mean to say that truth is propositional? A proposition is true if and only if the state of affairs to which it refers is the case; otherwise, it is false. “On the third day Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead” is true if and only if on the third day Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.

Does Pope Francis accept propositional revelation? In other words, does Francis hold that there are revealed truths? I honestly do not know for certain, but there are reasons for thinking that he rejects propositional revelation. Does Francis deny that propositions are, then, an authentic mediation of God’s self-revelation? He says, “God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.” Alternatively, does he only mean to deny that only propositions count as revelation? If so, his view would be consistent with Dei Verbum’s view of revelation. However, Dei Verbum’s teaching on revelation is missing in Francis’ thought. In this connection, it is not clear at all, in his thought, how faith involves belief, and hence that faith is inseparably related to belief, meaning thereby that to have a belief means that one is intellectually committed, or has mentally assented, to the truth of some proposition or other.

I argued above that abstract ideas are abstract truths, namely, propositions that we assert to be true, and the context does not determine the truth-status of the proposition. Keeping with his view that ideas are conceptual elaborations, then doctrines, according to him, would just be the results of conceptual elaboration concerning the Gospel. Thus, given his rejection of the idea of abstract truths, his idea that revelation is about God revealing himself in history, his view that doctrines are merely conceptual elaborations of antecedent events, his position cannot do justice to the role of doctrines in Catholic Christianity.

I am not at all suggesting that Pope Francis would reject any of the biblical propositions mentioned above. However, given his view that prioritizes “realities over ideas” they would be “conceptual elaborations” of the Gospel and not in themselves revealed truths. Hence, this results from Francis’s rejection of propositional truth and the corresponding realist idea of truth underpinning it—he has an instrumentalist and pragmatist view of doctrine—and hence propositional revelation. His view would imperil the entire character of Christian faith and theology. I return to this point in the next section.

Furthermore, according to Francis, the reality that is greater than any idea is the event of the Incarnation. This event impels us not only to an ongoing conceptual elaboration of its meaning but also to put the word into practice. Francis explains:

The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization. It helps us to see that the Church’s history is a history of salvation, to be mindful of those saints who inculturated the Gospel in the life of our peoples and to reap the fruits of the Church’s rich bimillennial tradition, without pretending to come up with a system of thought detached from this treasury, as if we wanted to reinvent the Gospel. At the same time, this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism.

Thus, if doctrines are merely conceptual elaborations of the Gospel, and those elaborations purport to be in continuity with the tradition, as Francis suggests here, what is the nature of the continuity that binds together the revealed Word of God to the true doctrines asserted by the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Church and hence to the essence of orthodoxy? Francis does not deny the import of continuity but neglects to address the question regarding the nature of this continuity.

In an early interview, A Big Heart Open to God, Bergoglio cites a passage from the Commonitorium primum of Vincent of Lérins: “Thus even the dogma of the Christian religion must proceed from these laws [of progress]. It progresses, solidifying with years, growing over time, deepening with age.” Vincent’s distinction between progress and change, the import of which is not lost on Francis who, like Vincent, compares the transmission of faith with biological development of man. Hence, development must be organic and homogeneous. Vincent writes: “But it [progress of religion] must be such as may be truly a progress of the faith, not a change; for when each several thing is improved in itself, that is progress; but when a thing is turned out of one thing into another, that is change.” Francis continues in this interview:

St. Vincent of Lérins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens.… So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgments. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding.… Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.

Bergoglio is affirming here a growth of human understanding, its refinement, maturation, and development of the dogmas of the Christian religion. Clearly, the emphasis of Vincent of Lérins is other than the development in our understanding of the Gospel, of the revealed message; rather, although inclusive of revelation because dogmatic development and understanding must be homogeneous with that revelation, Vincent is concerned with development within the proper limits of the same dogma, according to the same meaning, the same judgment. In short, it is a hermeneutics of dogma.

Francis’ references to formulations mean the dogmas and doctrine of the Church as such. They mediate the substance of the deposit of the faith, the revealed truth of the Gospel. If we note carefully, I think it is fair to say that the Gospel message is transcultural, according to Francis, but dogmas and doctrines, which are its manifestation, are actually subject to variation, given their historically conditioned character. Thus, their dogmatic formulations are subject to correction, modification, and complementation.

So Francis does not face the problem of the hermeneutics of dogma. G. C. Berkouwer (1903-1996), the Dutch Reformed master of dogmatic and ecumenical theology, for one, faced the problem: “That harmony [in dogmatic development] had always been presumed, virtually self-evidently, to be an implication of the mystery of the truth ‘eodem sensu eademque sententia’ [“according to the same meaning and the same judgment”].” He adds, “Now, however, attention is captivated primarily by the historical-factual process that does not transcend the times, but is entangled with them in all sorts of ways. It cannot be denied that one encounters the undeniable fact of the situated setting of the various pronouncements made by the Church in any given era.” How, then, exactly, is a single and unitary revelation homogeneously expressed, according to the same meaning and the same judgment, given the undeniable fact, says Berkouwer, “of time-conditioning, one can even say: of historicity”? Berkouwer insightfully states, “All the problems of more recent interpretation of dogma are connected very closely to this search for continuity.… Thus, the question of the nature of continuity has to be faced.”

Bernard Lonergan faces it head on:

Dogma emerges from the revealed Word of God, carried forward by the tradition of the Church; it does so, however, only to the extent that, prescinding from all other riches [of language] contained in that word of God, one concentrates on it precisely as true… Second­ly, if one separates the word from the truth, if one rejects proposi­tional truth in favour of some other kind of truth, then one is not attending to the Word of God as true… [Thirdly,] it is not enough to attend to the Word of God as true, if one has a false concepti­on of the relationship between truth and reality. Reality is known through true judgment. …What in fact corresponds to the word as true is that which is [the case]. [Fourthly,] it was the word of God, considered precisely as true, that led from the gospels to the dogmas. …There is a bond that unites them [and] that bond is the word as true.

Focusing on propositional truth such that a doctrine is true if what it asserts in in fact the case about reality means that conceptual elaborations of what Newman called “supernatural truths of dogma,” results in Trinitarian and Christological dogmas, and they cannot have a merely pragmatic purpose, as Francis suggests above. Rather, they must have a relationship to objective reality. Pope Francis has a faulty and lacking conception of the relationship between truth and reality.

Furthermore, according to Francis, to affirm that the evangelical encounter with Jesus involves doctrine in an inseparable way entails an ideology. Is, then, orthodoxy an ideology? Throughout his pontificate, Francis has often criticized what he calls a “hostile inflexibility” and “lifelessness” regarding doctrine. This term reflects his objection to a tendency to ideologize faith. It shows itself, according to Francis, in those who manifest a “doctrinal rigidity,” a “closed door mentality,” who are Pharisaic stone-throwers who embody a “merciless moral rigorism,” an “ahistorical fundamentalism,” as Francis also puts it, or in those who claim to “know” the truth, running the risk of an immobilism at the level of theological formulation or expression, because it may lead to petrifaction of the understanding of faith. How is authentic faith transformed into ideology? (I will return to this question in the final section, in Part II, of this article.)

Given Francis’ view of the relationship between “encounter” and “theory,” he leaves us confused about how he thinks of the relationship between the truth that is to be experienced, lived out, practiced, carried out, on the one hand, and the truth that is to be believed, asserted, and claimed on the other. In other words, Francis’ emphasis is on the fides qua creditur, which is the faith with which one believes by adhering to God the Father in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this emphasis is necessary and important. However, what about the fides quae creditur, which is the faith which one believes, the conceptual content, the beliefs which one holds to be true, affirms, and asserts?

Before becoming pope, we find a similar emphasis on the fides qua creditur in the thought of then-Cardinal Bergoglio, “Christ’s truth does not revolve primarily around intellectual [propositional] ‘revelation’, which is more like the Greek way of thinking.” He explains, “Christ’s truth revolves around adherence in faith, an adherence that involves our whole being—heart, mind, and soul. This adherence is an adherence to the person of Jesus Christ, ‘the Amen, the faithful and true witness’ (Rev 3:14), whom we can trust and whom we can support because he gives us his Spirit, who guides us ‘into all the truth’ and allows us to discern between good and evil.”

However, Francis’ view is inconsistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church §150 that I cited above. Again, the Catechism teaches on the matter of the relationship of dogma (fides quae creditur) and our spiritual life (fides qua creditur), “There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and hart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith” (§89, emphasis added). Finally, yet importantly, the Catechism clearly teaches that faith involves both the fides qua creditur—the faith with which one believes—and the fides quae creditor—the faith which one believes. “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith ‘man freely commits his entire self to God’” (§1814).

In sum, Francis leaves unanswered—and he does so consistently—the question how both asserted truth and lived truth, the fides quae creditur, which is the faith which one believes, the conceptual content, the beliefs which one holds to be true, affirms, and asserts, and the fides qua creditur belong to faith as a whole. In short, he leaves in the dark the Church’s teaching that faith is both, and simultaneously, a personal and cognitive-propositional encounter with the divine revelation of Christ.


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 Eduardo Echeverria 25 Articles
Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.

29 Comments

  1. This is an excellent article! Well-written for even a non-academic layman like me to grasp. But what can we do in response to this calamity, other than pray?
    I look forward to Part 2.

  2. A sophisticated intuitive approach to faith, that of Pope Francis. Faith as it is experienced, encountered, and lived rather than practice of what we believe distinguishing the problematic of permanence v modification. Echeverria apparently has it right. Encounter v theory is consistent w modernistic conceptual language found in the Catechism “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” Consequently I would further Dr Echeverria position that “There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas” to include the following. True if we omit coercive authority. That authority revolves around the premise of inviolability of conscience and to what extent we must believe and to what extent is conscience inviolable – during personal encounter with Christ and experimentally. Fundamentally we believe because God has spoken. Not because of reasoned enquiry that satisfies conscience. The Bedrock of conscience is not reason rather the intuitive capacity to identify right and wrong, good and evil inherent in Man. Otherwise we are entirely free to determine truth and the viability of conscience from our personal individual perspective. That premise repudiates in effect the universal character of truth and the primacy of its objective character. That is why the Pontiff makes such appeal to the inviolability of conscience in Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis leans on personal encounter with Christ as influential in practice of the faith. And in agreement with Dr Echeverria he leaves us in the dark in respect to faith lived and faith believed. The query returns to “personal and cognitive-propositional encounter with the divine revelation of Christ” to which must be added the absolute necessity to believe what has been revealed rather than believe only that which satisfies reason. Faith in Catholicism has traditionally been held to possess primacy.

  3. I found out all I needed to know as to Bergoglio by eagerly following the then new pope’s homilies, which turned out were mainly populist feel-good fluff, with much in the way of orders but zero in the way of instruction on how to follow those orders.

    Then came his encyclical on prayer (the interior life) showing he and his writers totally clueless on that subject, and spending half of what supposed to be an instruction, on how to properly love God, by railing against vaguely defined opponents, and saying not much more than, “If you do not see it my/our way, then you are a poo-poo-head.”

    I knew we were in trouble from very first homilies, him a spiritual/intellectual lightweight populist installed by those who thought he would be malleable and easily led by the nose, except he has shown a rebellious streak and canny moves to teach them who is now The Boss.

    • Personal encounter with Christ, now what could that mean. Sounds vaguely familiar with what my dear Baptist aunts would tell me. My reply now would be that, of course, I personally encountered Christ God at my birth and death. What I must do now is try to live my life as best I can according to His will which he laid down perfectly in his words, deeds and promises. Other than that, what do I need that He did not provide in His sacrifice? If I need more than that, then I am truly deficient in my understanding of His revelation; a condition that will not be ameliorated by the sophistry of this writer or Bergoglio.

  4. ‘To put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which makes the word fruitful ‘ – clear , simple words of the Holy Father that any one can relate to .
    In a world drowning in the ‘proselytism ‘ of ads thrown at us at every turn , may be The Spirit is calling The Church , to move ahead , to more witnessing with the heart , which would include worship as well , as seen by the devotions that the Holy Father calls The Church to …
    He could also be using the power of the keys , in gentleness and wisdom , lifting up the lentils , enlarging the family , that so far have seen many being caught up , kept out or pushed out , about terms that need not have been used for such – one nature / two natures , the manner of procession, primacy/supremacy etc: .
    He probably thus imparting the blessing , to be counted in , being free to ask The Spirit to work in the heart , while one remains faithful to the simpler aspects of faith , witnessing to same , esp. in using the will to forgive, and accepting forgiveness from The Lord for one not being a better witness , yet trusting that He is patient with us in same as well ..

    https://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/pope-francis-the-world-needs-catholics-who-go-out-and-proclaim-jesus – his simple enough words from today as well , that our hearts be moved with awe and wonder and praise such that the sharing of faith becomes not an occasion of pride with condescending pity that could then bring on fear and lack of trust towards God ; his desire to see life itself cherished , by not measuring same , in the false scales of worth based on intellect , knowledge etc : , instead to be in the truth of The Incarnation – his own life and examples bearing ample witness to same .
    Glory be !

    • That is lintels , not lentils , isn’t it – 🙂
      well , the lentils for which poor Esau sold out his birthright and the Holy father , being a goodhearted Father figure with his compassion for the poor and hungry , desiring to share the birthright of The Firstborn , in our Lord with more persons, seen as Family – to help bring more peace ,that is worth lots more than peas ! 🙂

      • Wouldn’t want to say , by walking backwards ,since no threat as that of a Noah like scene , rather , see only the clear simple new Wine being served , as of The Spirit at the Pentecost. 🙂

  5. Regarding both the “faith with which one believes” and the “faith one believes,” perhaps St. Pope John Paul II offers a clue in his The Acting Person. He writes:

    “As to the position of the relationship of anthropology and ethics in this approach [phenomenology] it may be formulated—by analogy to operations used in algebra—as placing a term before brackets. We place outside the brackets those factors of an algebraic expression which in one way or another are common to all the terms of the expression, that is, which are somehow common to everything that remains within the brackets. The aim is to simplify subsequent operations and not to reject what is withdrawn or to sever the relations of what is outside to what remains in brackets.”

    With all due respect for his Office. . . but as a man of perhaps other skills as well as lesser intellect, lesser transparency, and lesser forthrightness, is it Pope Francis’ intent (?) to not only focus elsewhere, but now to marginalize/delete (but never explicitly “reject” and “sever”!) what is outside the brackets (the “faith one believes”)—sometimes by berating (as “bigots”) and predictably by exiling those less disoriented than himself, and even by replacing them with sycophant enablers.

    Or, perhaps Pope Francis, too, has fallen victim to a morally corrupt infestation greater than himself? In either case, the Bergoglio-embroglio is not at all that “inexplicable.”

  6. Is this Francis or his team of ghostwriters? He admits that he is no theologian but failsvto recognize that he is writing theology and not merely the Gospel.

    • Don Juan, this absolute best of articles about Pope Francis is the most solid, well researched and truthful I’ve found anywhere, and your question may one day, sadly, be have to be answered in the affirmative. Indeed, this article should be read by all Catholics of the world. We have been tested and tried by 8 non-Catholic (bad) Popes in the past and the people’s love for the Papacy did not make them crumble before those betrayals to Jesus, just as The Apostles did not crumble before the betrayal of Jesus by one of their very own.

      At the core of Francis argument is an invented, cunning separation of “encounter” with Jesus and “theory” (Holy Doctrine and Theology) making Doctrine sound “unloving”, dry and irrelevant. This is a sly, sentimental argument. Having studied Church History, nowhere is there an emphasis in all of 2,000 years of Catholicism about an “encounter” with Jesus, which sounds a whole lot more like Protestantism and other invented spiritualities with an emotional, sentimentalist, fantasy core and which is TOTALLY absent from all the Bible, all of Church Tradition and all the Saints.

      I’ve known many people way holier than me and the large majority do not talk about a spectacular, hyper-mystical “encounter” with Jesus, where after that, just your “glorious presence” and your total silence (to avoid being accused of “proselytizing”) brings people to Jesus. Catholic History has been the absolute, total opposite of that and we have had very many who have died in defense of what the Pope calls “theory”. No one dies for “theory”. Jesus and Holy Doctrine are ONE (John 14:15-17, “If you love me, keep my commands…”), just like Jesus and the Church in His Mystical Body are ONE. When you diminish Holy Doctrine for “encounter” you will very surely encounter a FALSE Jesus, of which we have way too many today. Holy Doctrine is the beating Heart of the TRUE Jesus and all of Reality. Our holy Catholic ancestors held on tight to the TRUE Jesus. Let’s do the same and not allow deception! Let us have Jesus as the only, Absolute King of our hearts!

        • Thank you, Father Morello, for your kindness and appreciation! Thank you so much for being a faithful Catholic Priest! May it all be for the Glory of God and the blessing of His People!

      • Yes, I completely agree. This essay is spot-on. I was simply reducing the argument Echevarria makes to its inevitable one-sentence conclusion.

      • In fact, true mystics – St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Jesus – would not countenance any subjective ‘meetings’ with God unless they conformed to the doctrine of the Church. It was there greatest fear that they would be led astray by the devil. Indeed, St John of the Cross tells us to ignore such mystical encounters and go the safer way of humbly following the teaching of the Church.

      • Love that phrase “Holy Doctrine”, good Mr. Phil. :^)

        I believe St. Paul would concur:

        “To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any *different doctrine*, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which *promote speculations* rather than the divine training that is in faith; whereas the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith. Certain persons by swerving from these have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.” (1 Tim. 1:2-7, stars added)

  7. An analogy inspired by chance. A warm embrace of Man wearied broken seeking spiritual solace, mercy rather than judgment. Lift the Lintels and enlarge the family. Faith as experienced in personal encounter rather than Faith as lived. Jpg’s analogy accidentally misspoken as Lentil Soup reminds of hungered Esau. Feigned heartfelt [rather soupy] offer by crafty Jacob. Final A weeping Esau’s vain plea for reconciliation.

  8. When the Pontiff Francis states: “God has revealed himself as history,” that is the anti-gospel of Walter Kasper.

    Walter Kasper publishes and teaches heresy.

    One of Kasper’s works is “God in History.” (I believe published around 1968). In it, Kasper states:

    “The God who sits enthroned over the world and history as a changeless being is an offense to man. One must deny him for man’s sake, because he claims for himself the dignity and honor that belong by right to man….Such a God springs from a rigid worldview; he is the guarantor of the status quo and the enemy of the new.”

    CWR has run many articles about Kasper’s writing and speech. Inspired by those criticisms, especially the remarks about Kasper’s ambiguity and evasiveness regarding Catholic “propositions” about truth and revelation, I bought and read Kasper’s “Jesus The Christ” (1974, reissued 2011).

    Kasper doesn’t write with the intention of teaching the truth of the Gospel or the Catholic truth claims about Jesus and his laws about marriage and sexual morality. Kasper writes with the intention of subverting the trust of young people in those truth claims. His book “Jesus The Christ” is targeted at college undergrads and seminarians, and has been used for 45 years as a text in “Catholic” colleges and seminaries around the world. So for example, Kasper first asserts for his young readers the disbelief of Bultmann (whose most famous quote is roughly (I am going from memory) “now that we have electric lights (etc), we cannot continue to believe in the mythology of the world of the Gospels.” Kasper asserts the subversive general principle that it is contrary to God’s nature to act supernaturally; and then he makes lists of miracles (accounts that manifest the supernatural), and then Kasper subversively suggests that “we probably don’t need to believe” in these accounts in the Gospels.

    Subversive.

    Kasper writes to subvert belief.

    Everyone knows that the Pontiff Francis is a longtime follower of Kasper.

    So these men whisper in the ear of the young that they can be free to deny the Gospel accounts, including in the menu of denial the Transfiguration, the command of the storm in the Sea of Galilee, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s son and Lazarus. And…the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

    This is the dilemma of these men: they are “successful career clerics” who teach young people that they can feel free to disbelieve in the Gospel accounts, but no matter what, it is imperative to believe in the s Pontiff Francis (or else you are a Protestant…as one more sycophant Italian Cardinal declared last week).

    They are pathetic men: we are free to dismiss men who died to declare the Gospel, but we are bound to revere their status as ishops snd Cardinals snd the Pontiff, and Andrews then with Royal titles “Excellency” and “Eminence.”

    Now that position they are asserting is stark raving clericalism.

    In closing, no, these men don’t believe in truth propositions. They just insist we revere their position of power, rather than the witness of the martyrs and apostles and evangelists.

    They are egomaniacs.

  9. I may be mistaken but if I am reading Dr. E correctly Pope Francis seems to fit the definition of a Modernist given by Pope St. Pius X a century ago.

  10. On Pope Francis’ terms, would not Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian constitute proselytism? Indeed, I am struggling to see how the preaching of John the Baptist, of the Apostles, even of Christ Himself, does not fall under the definition.

    • What you are saying, sister Mary Smith, is absolutely TRUE! By classical definition, proselytizing is simply bringing an atheist or a person of another religion/spirituality into Catholicism, nothing more and nothing less. Whatever fanatical proselytizing some Protestants do is no excuse to eliminate Jesus-Centered Catholic proselytizing. In the Grace of God Almighty that’s what all True Saints DID!! That’s what Philip did with the Ethiopian and what the Church has done for 2,000 years. Excellent, Mary!!

  11. There is an inner contradiction to Pope Francis position. He is doing what he is telling others not to do. He is rationalizing and persuading, though not very clearly. The lack of clarity is inevitable from such an erroneous outlook. It is also clericalist. As in the only person ultimately able to do this in his world is a priest from the pulpit.
    I know some priests who are delighted with his approach. I think this delight comes mainly from being absolved from the responsibility of persuading, and also persuading the laity that they too should rise from their comfort and persuade.

    • Sharp, very sharp, brother Thomas Hood!! The best way to destroy deception is actually to directly use that deception and untwist its twisted logic and then turning back unto them the accusing TRANSFERENCE and PROJECTION they use of their own negative internal chaos, sin and darkness. Only this way will they be afforded an opportunity to repent, convert and surrender to the True Jesus! Tyranny does not heal tyranny, sin does not heal sin, “compassion” does not heal evil, only Jesus-Truth does!

  12. There is a sense in which persuasion is not the order of the day. This is because nobody can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him. That is to say, it is not our work but God’s work, and we are simply a means to an end.
    Furthermore, the commission given by Jesus to the apostles is not to go and persuade anybody. It is to present them with a command: repent and believe the gospel, and be baptized to the saving of your souls.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. VVEDNESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit
  2. Making sense of Pope Francis on faith, evangelization, and proselytizing (Part II) – Catholic World Report
  3. Making sense of Pope Francis on faith, evangelization, and proselytizing (Part II) - Catholic Daily

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*