It isn’t easy to write an intellectual biography of a man who frequently asserts that “realities are more important than ideas.” There is no doubt that Pope Francis is a highly intelligent and supple thinker, but unlike his two immediate predecessors, he did not earn a doctorate in either theology or philosophy. As anyone who has read his encyclicals and apostolic exhortations will know, this pope prefers rhetoric, the art of persuasion, to dialectic, the science of conclusive proof. That said, it would be a mistake to draw the contrast too strongly. As Massimo Borghesi shows in his comprehensive survey of the sources that have shaped the pope’s thinking, Francis has read broadly over the course of five decades. This reading informs the way he looks at the world and how he exercises the Petrine Office.
Borghesi’s account is richly documented and quotes generously from Pope Francis’s own words, including four audio recordings that the pope provided specifically for this project. The original Italian edition of the book is subtitled “an intellectual biography,” and The Mind of Pope Francis does indeed follow a generally chronological sequence. In doing this, it relies heavily on Austen Ivereigh’s biography The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.
Like Ivereigh, Borghesi understands the pope’s life and work to be an ever-shifting negotiation of various polarities found in both church and society, polarities that have been locked in struggle throughout his adult life. For example, in the Argentina of the 1970s, Borghesi identifies a polarity between a “revolutionary messianism” (which for him includes liberation theology) and “the anticommunist crusade of men in uniform” (the military dictatorship of Argentina’s Dirty War). Among the Jesuits during the same period there was another polarity between the traditional values of religious life as they had been lived in Argentina, and the new vision of Jesuit life proposed at the Order’s thirty-second General Congregation, one focused on the defense of the poor and the promotion of justice. In a trenchant analysis of Amoris laetitia, Borghesi frames the debate over that apostolic exhortation in terms of yet another polarity: mercy and truth. And related to this is the polarity between the doctrinal element of the church’s teachings and the pastoral element.
Bergoglio’s response to these polarities and others has been to recognize the value in each pole while recognizing the dangers in absolutizing one over the other. He does not, according to Borghesi, propose a “synthesis” that reconciles the two. For one thing, that sounds too much like Hegel (or Marx, for that matter), and Borghesi has an almost obsessive preoccupation with separating the pope’s thought from that particular German tradition (though not from the German Romanticism derived from Hegel’s competitor, Friedrich Schelling). Any synthesis one might arrive at, through dialogue and discernment, is provisional, always subject to renegotiation as the situation changes. This is what it means for reality to be greater than ideas. One reason this pope welcomes dissent and debate is his understanding of the need to respect and preserve an open-ended negotiation of the different values at stake in these polarities. It is always necessary for those representing different sides to keep talking to and with one another, as long as they realize that their unity is always greater than whatever may divide them at the moment.
This general framework for understanding how Francis has approached the conflicts he has had to address as pope is very fruitful, although it carries with it the risk of oversimplifying the different sides of various conflicts in order to emphasize their opposition to one another. This is a temptation to which Borghesi succumbs at times, for instance in his portrayal of the liberation theology of the 1970s and ’80s.
Borghesi has various names for the basic style of thinking that Pope Francis has developed for dealing with conflict, often calling it an “antinomian dialectic.” By using the term “antinomian” Borghesi does not mean to suggest that Francis’s approach is opposed to the moral law, but rather that it recognizes the irreducible—and potentially creative—presence of different sorts of antinomies in human life. For decades, Francis has been attracted to thinkers who recognize this “antinomian dialectic.” Some of them have developed systems of thought—in philosophy, theology, political theory, or history—that work out its details. Others have reexamined the history of the church or of Christian theology from the vantage point it provides.