A Pope with ‘Both Feet in History’

Pope Francis greets Hermana Blanca Nubia Lopez as he blesses the cornerstone of Talitha Qum homeless shelter in Cartagena, Colombia (CNS photo)
Pope Francis greets Hermana Blanca Nubia Lopez as he blesses the cornerstone of Talitha Qum homeless shelter in Cartagena, Colombia (CNS photo).

Book-length interviews of the pope are a new literary phenomenon that Catholics, along with theologians and church historians, are learning how to deal with (until Paul VI, papal interviews of any length were a rarity). They’re not simply an outgrowth of the “media-industry” complex surrounding the modern papacy, but rather a way for the bishop of Rome to reach out to the broad audience in his pastoral care—including intellectuals, secularists, atheists, and religious and political leaders. Francis’s ecclesiology in particular is shaped by this understanding of just what the pope is and who constitutes the people. He has made the long interview a feature of his media-friendly papacy, from the one in La Civiltà Cattolica with Antonio Spadaro in 2013 to the one on mercy with Andrea Tornielli in January 2016.

But the latest interview, with Dominique Wolton, is different. Wolton is not a Catholic journalist but a sociologist who specializes in the relationship between democracy, technology, and the economy, along lines similar to the encyclical Laudato Si’. He conducted twelve conversations with Francis over a year-long period from February 2016 to February 2017, a time during which Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and other events changed the international political situation. At more than four hundred pages, it is much longer than the other interviews, though it also includes extensive excerpts of Francis’s speeches on social and political matters. The well-publicized portion dealing with Francis’s therapy sessions with a Jewish psychoanalyst when he was a forty-two-year-old Jesuit in Argentina during the Dirty War is not the most important part. The focus is on the social and political engagement of the Catholic Church; Wolton gets it, right from the beginning, when he calls Francis “the first pope of mondialisation,” a rough French equivalent to “globalization” but with a more positive connotation, writing that the pope has “both feet in history.”

While the book does not extensively address ecclesial or theological matters, or the intra-Catholic tensions that have arisen during this papacy, Francis nonetheless tackles the issue of traditionalism, which is for him one of the ways the Church is affected by the global chaos. “The tradition is in movement,” he says, defending a dynamic idea of the Catholic tradition without getting into specific new concerns such as ordained ministry for women or LGBT issues. Rather, he identifies “old” issues to show how the Catholic tradition has changed (on slavery, for instance) and how it may still: about the death penalty, for example, Francis says that “we are working at changing the Catechism on this point.” On war and peace, Francis does not respond directly to Wolton’s question about changing the Catholic doctrine of just war, but he says that we should think about “just war” in terms of “defensive war.” “No war is just,” he says. “Only peace is just.” But he nonetheless remains cautious on this point, taking care to avoid a pronouncement that would signify a formal magisterial shift—a shift that some would like to see this pontificate make.

The understanding of tradition as “dynamic” is apparent throughout these long conversations: “When tradition becomes ideology,” Francis says at one point, “it is no longer tradition. It is no longer alive.” Critics might think this is an expression of his alleged liberal Catholicism, but that’s not the case. Francis says the definition of marriage should extend only to unions between a man and a woman, but that the term “same-sex unions” is acceptable otherwise. Yet he also acknowledges new cultural and social realities, such as the fact many Catholic couples who met at one of the World Youth Days in the last thirty years cohabited before getting married: “This is our epoch.”

Francis’s view of tradition as “dynamic” also applies in theological and liturgical areas. In a long paragraph on Church, tradition, and inculturation, and against “traditionalist ideology,” Francis says that “what Vatican II has done with the liturgy has been huge”—a good interpretive key to understanding the motu proprio Magnum Principium on the liturgy, issued on September 9 during his trip to Colombia.

The well-publicized portion dealing with Francis’s psychoanalysis when he was forty-two is not the most important part.

Francis also shows concern, in this time of quest for psychological and ideological reassurances, about the temptation to turn Catholicism into an ideological and psychological uniform. Of young people who see the Church as an institution whose business is to police behavior he says: “They look for strong structure that can defend them in life. They become policemen; they enroll in the army of the Church. They look for strong institutions, in order to defend themselves… I am afraid of rigidity. I prefer a young person a little messy because his contradictions will help him to grow.” Francis is concerned about Christians obsessed with doctrine: “When the Church becomes moralistic…. the Church is not a morality. Morality is the consequence of the encounter with Jesus Christ. Without this encounter with Jesus Christ, the ‘Christian morality’ counts for nothing.” Ideological moralism has consequences for the Church, says the pope: “You can see rigid priests. They are afraid of the Gospel and prefer Canon Law.” The book further suggests that the focus of his papacy is on new ways of understanding the communication of the Christian faith: “Communication has always something that is disorderly (messy), it makes spontaneity grow. On the contrary, rigidity is only order.” This is not just a matter of style, but rather a part of what the Church is: “The real treasure of the Church is in the weak and the sinners.”

There is a long section on the role of women in Bergoglio’s life, especially his boss in the chemistry lab where he worked before entering the seminary, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, a Communist from Paraguay who was murdered by the Argentine military regime during the Dirty War. Francis said that she made him read, among other things, the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. “That Communist woman,” he says, “taught me how to think.”

And in the vague fashion typical of Francis, he also talks about a bigger role for women in the Roman Curia. The interesting part is when he says that “the Curia is indispensable. There are a lot of very good people working there! Some of them are really holy, men of God. A falling tree makes more noise than a tree that grows.” This marks a change in tone from the three Christmas addresses (2014, 2015, and 2016) to the Roman Curia about the diseases of the central government of the Catholic Church in the Vatican. On the other hand, it seems pretty settled that the summer residence of Castel Gandolfo has become and will remain a museum, one of Francis’s ways of getting rid of the “papal court.”

Also in the interview, Francis makes few but nevertheless intentional references to three key documents of Vatican II: the fruits of the liturgical reform; the constitution Gaudium et Spes about laïcité and the secular state; and the conciliar document on God’s revelation, Dei Verbum. He does not go into his theological relationship with Benedict XVI, but the difference between the two popes is made clear, though with care: He seems aware of how critics, nostalgic for Benedict, might jump on anything that seems critical. Theologians might find baffling Francis’s praise for Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity”—for theological work today is the biggest and most difficult legacy of Ratzinger’s pontificate—and perhaps his approval of Joseph Ratzinger’s intervention, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith between 1982 and 2005, for a more correct interpretation of liberation theology in the 1980s.

He shows enthusiasm for the joy of the faith among Christians in Africa, and worry over the thin line European Catholicism is walking.

On the role of the Church in politics and society, Francis appears far more cautious than the caricatures of him as “radical” on all issues would have him. On the one hand, he takes a clear stand on the issue of our times, mass migration: “Our theology is a theology of migrants […] we do not have the right to not help those who arrive” from countries that are at war. On the other hand, he acknowledges clearly that a fear of terrorism factors into the political questions over migration and refugees in Europe.

For a pope who shows a non-nationalist or anti-nationalist worldview, it is notable that he doesn’t hold “peripheries” and “frontiers” as oppositional concepts. In speaking about politics, Francis’s map comprises the one globe but also includes nations and states. Francis explains the ecclesiological meaning of going to the peripheries as an expression of his anti-Gnosticism and anti-sectarianism. Theology and politics are distinguishable, but not easily separable; he speaks of himself as a social-political animal, explaining that “my encyclical Laudato Si’ is not a green encyclical; it is a social encyclical.” This goes together with his worry about the temptation of the Church to become “imperial”—that is, part of, or subject to, political power. At the same time Francis defends one of the most important elements left in the Catholic Church from the temporal power of the Papal State: the role of Vatican diplomacy, which today “builds bridges.” He favors a relationship between the Church and politics in which political parties can be informed by Christian values, but he is not in favor of “Christian parties” for Christians or Catholics only, because “they lead to failure.” One of the most difficult concepts to translate, not just linguistically but theologically for Catholics in the United States, is Francis’s appreciation for secularity, rooted in the constitution of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes: “The secular state is a good thing, there is a healthy secular dimension,” as long as it is “a secular state open to transcendence.” To the French interviewer he repeats his criticism of the ideological extremisms of French system of laïcité.

Francis’s Church is not just anti-ideological, but a “Church that preaches more with its hands than with words.” He repeats once again: “I don’t like to be called ‘the pope of the poor’ because this is an ideologization. I am the pope of all.” His decentralized ecclesiology has also consequences for the priorities of the Church. To the question of whether ecumenism or dialogue with Islam is more urgent, he replies: “It all depends where you live.” Francis sees the presence of God in the ongoing process of mundialization, and this is one of the reasons the Church contributes to this process with dialogue, in a world where politics, society and the economy are changing rapidly.

Very interesting, as well, are sympathetic remarks regarding the World Meeting of Popular Movements, which Francis addressed in the Vatican in 2014 and 2016, and in 2015 during his trip to Bolivia:

“Think about the movements of workers today. All over the world there are popular movements of workers. These people are marginalized sometimes even by the leaders of the workers' unions, because these leaders of the workers’ unions can become a ruling class, a middle class that is superior to them at least. It is an international popular movement that demands that the rights [of these workers] are respected. But there is a brutal repression against them in some countries, and if you talk too much, you put your life in danger. One of the leaders of these popular movements, who took part in the audience of the world meeting of popular movements in the Vatican, was in killed in Central America. [Francis is referring here to activist Berta Caceres, murdered in Honduras in 2016]. It is difficult. That is why, when the poor unite, are a powerful force, also a religious force.”

Francis also is unafraid of ruffling some feathers: he repeats that what the Armenians suffered in the early 20th century was a “genocide,” “the word that cannot be said”—referring to his long-standing tension with the government of Turkey and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He says that, in the way it works today, “the free market economy is madness. The government has to regulate a little. What is missing is the regulating role of the state.” On international affairs, Francis has words of praise only for an odd couple, given their tense mutual relationship in the recent history of the European Union: Angela Merkel (a Lutheran), and Alexis Tsipras (a left-wing atheist), the prime minister of Greece since 2015, especially for what Greece has done and is doing for refugees. Trump is mentioned only once in passing, when Francis recalls the famous press conference on the flight from Mexico when he said that building walls “is not Christian.” He has words of criticism for the West’s attempt to export democracy to the Middle East, from Iraq in 2003 to Libya in 2011.

The most personal part of the book is about the connection between the political and the personal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He says that the most human of the senses is the touch, and he speaks of the difference between the ways and the amount that people touch each other while interacting in Latin America and Europe compared to North America (personally, one of the things that this Italian Catholic noticed when arrived in the United States nine years ago). He shows his enthusiasm for the joy of the faith among Christians in Africa, and is worried about the thin line European Catholicism is walking today: between a mature Christian faith, aware of the dangers of politicization of the faith on one side, and an old and barren land both demographically and from the point of view of the future of the Church on the other side. He talks about his cultural identity as “double”: Latin American and Italian-European—a first in the history of the modern papacy as a global role in a world of nation states. He confesses that sometimes he feels like a prisoner of the Vatican, unable to get out in the streets alone, but he understands the practical problems of that. He admits that during his famous in-flight press conferences he feels “like descending in the lions’ den. There is a lot of pressure. There have been some slips. Two or three times I have made mistakes.”

Yet in the end, Francis makes sure not to tell us what these mistakes were.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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