Pope Francis is extremely skeptical and unsparingly critical of Catholics who are obsessed with the minutia of doctrine and the fine points of church law. He has often called them—especially those who are theologians or clerics—rigid and even hypocritical.
They, in turn, have complained that the Jesuit pope is woefully weak and insufficiently trained in explaining and defending Roman Catholic theology.
One of the most recent to do so was Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela, the eighty-year-old Archbishop-emeritus of Madrid. He blasted Francis in front of some seventy future Spanish priests at a May 17 dinner in the southeast city of Murcia.
It was done behind closed doors and the cardinal, aware that most of today’s seminarians share his more traditional views on the Church, took the liberty to criticize the current pope.
But, fortunately, a few of those in attendance were actually scandalized by the cardinal’s remarks.
“There was an evident disregard for the pope, for not being a good theologian and for his lack of evangelizing skill,” said one of the seminarians, according to José Manuel Vidal, a leading religion writer in Spain and editor of the on-line publication, Religión Digital.
Another priesthood student said Cardinal Rouco unfavorably compared Francis to Benedict XVI and John Paul II several times in order to drive home his obvious dislike for the current Bishop of Rome.
Theology in a laboratory
The now-retired cardinal was ordained to the priesthood in 1959 after earning a licentiate in theology at the Pontifical University of Salamanca. His bishop sent him immediately after ordination to the University of Munich where, in 1964, he got a doctorate in canon law.
Rouco returned to Spain where he spent the next two years in a seminary teaching theology and ecclesial law. He then went back to Munich where he was university professor from 1966-1969, a period when he was also a chaplain to Spanish immigrants living in Bavaria.
He was then professor and eventually vice-rector at the University of Salamanca until 1976 when Paul VI named him auxiliary bishop of Santiago de Campostela, the same place John Paul II would elevate him to archbishop in 1984. John Paul transferred Rouco to Madrid in 1994 and made him a cardinal a few years later.
During his twenty years in the Spanish capital, Cardinal Rouco Varela was a conservative ecclesiastical and political power player. He rose to this lofty position with virtually no pastoral experience. Never once did this diocesan priest serve in a diocesan parish.
Instead, he was an academic trained as a “laboratory theologian” and it is from such a lab theology that he carried out his episcopal ministry. Anyone who has been following the Vatican closely the past four years knows what Pope Francis thinks about such a theoretical and cerebral way of studying the faith.
“Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith,” he said at the very start of his pontificate.
“God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths,” he stressed in his very first interview as pope.
“I am afraid of laboratories because in the laboratory you take the problems and then you bring them home to tame them, to paint them artificially, out of their context,” Francis said.
His bottom line: “You cannot bring home the frontier, but you have to live on the border and be audacious.”