Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis, washes the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass at a church in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2008 (CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters)

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.


The church for Francis is itself a rich symphony of differences and polarities, a reality that is always greater than any set of ideas.

The story begins in the 1960s during the future pope’s training as a Jesuit. His studies were dominated by a calcified Neo-Scholasticism that was only slowly giving way to the new theologies emerging in the 1950s and ’60s. Under the influence of Miguel Ángel Fiorito, however, the young Bergoglio developed a lifelong interest in the study of Ignatian spirituality. A book by the French Jesuit Gaston Fessard, La Dialectique des ‘Exercices Spirituels’ de Saint Ignace de Loyola, became “a major force in Bergoglio’s intellectual formation,” Borghesi writes. Fessard presents the Spiritual Exercises as a method for discerning a path forward in the presence of a God who is found in the smallest details of life, but who also exceeds even the most expansive horizon for the future that we can imagine. Francis says he was also influenced by Michel de Certeau, another French Jesuit. De Certeau’s biography of the early Jesuit Pierre Favre deeply impressed the young Bergoglio because it emphasized the mystical character of the Ignatian charism, rather than portraying Jesuit spirituality as a rule-bound training regimen for soldiers of Christ. These and similar works laid the spiritual groundwork in which Bergoglio found corresponding intellectual tools in later decades.

During the period when he was a leader of Argentina’s Jesuits, Bergoglio was drawn to a number of Latin American thinkers who provided some of these tools. From the philosopher Amelia Podetti, Bergoglio first learned to think in terms of going to “the peripheries.” He was also drawn to her reading of Augustine’s City of God, which still influences how he thinks about church and state, faith and politics. Meanwhile, he was becoming involved in the so-called “theology of the people” represented by figures such as Lucio Gera, Rafael Tello, and Juan Carlos Scannone.

But Borghesi believes it was the Uruguayan philosopher and social critic Alberto Methol Ferré who had the greatest influence on Bergoglio. And so an entire chapter of The Mind of Pope Francis is devoted to presenting Methol Ferré’s thought, with barely a reference to Bergoglio himself. According to Borghesi, Bergoglio took from Methol Ferré a particular critique of the liberal, technocratic-hedonistic model for society that has dominated our globalized world. Bergoglio also adopted Methol Ferré’s ideal of the Latin American church as a “source church” rather than just a reflection of the church in Europe.

Next, Borghesi turns to the influence of Romano Guardini, whose work Bergoglio was sent to study in Germany in 1986. Although the four maxims the pope often repeats (time is greater than space; unity prevails over conflict; realities are more important than ideas; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) can be traced back to a nineteenth-century Argentinian politician, Juan Manuel de Rosas, their conceptual underpinnings are largely borrowed from Guardini. Borghesi lays these underpinnings out in helpful detail, and also examines Guardini’s influence on the pope’s diagnosis of modern society in Laudato si’.

Finally, Borghesi explores the influence on Francis of the founder of Communion and Liberation, Luigi Giussani, whose book L'attrattiva Gesù (“The attractiveness of Jesus”) helped shape the pope’s views on the centrality of encounter with Christ, the priority of the pastoral, and the preeminence of mercy.

Along the way, Borghesi presents many other figures—too many to cover here—including Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Reading this book, one is left with a deep sense of Pope Francis’s intellectual curiosity and aptitude, as well as his originality. In searching for Francis’s intellectual roots, Borghesi has set himself a difficult task: it is really only with Guardini that clear and direct lines of influence become apparent. For other figures, we have the pope’s testimony that he read and learned from their work as a whole, but few direct statements on which particular elements of their thought impressed him. And it is here that one difficulty with this book emerges. Borghesi likes to offer sweeping overviews of a whole system of thought (Methol Ferré’s, for example), but that means the reader is sometimes left to wonder exactly which parts of the system in question actually influenced Francis, and how the ideas of one thinker connect to those of another in the pope’s thought.

Still, Borghesi does succeed in providing a compelling survey of the pope’s various intellectual sources, and in suggesting how they contributed to his fundamental understanding of the world and the church. The church for Francis is itself a rich symphony of differences and polarities, a reality that is always greater than any set of ideas. In highlighting this, Borghesi helps us grasp the intellectual roots of Pope Francis’s belief that differences and disagreements within the church must often be allowed to run their course—because no one, not even the pope, is in a position to say in advance what they may teach us. No doctrinal or theological vision, no matter how conceptually sophisticated, is equipped to resolve all the disagreements preemptively. Finally, Borghesi helps us to see that Pope Francis’s originality comes not only from the depth of his intellectual formation, but also from his practice of looking for the resolution of conflicts not only through careful listening and thoughtful reflection, but also through prayerful discernment. It is exactly the kind of originality one might expect from the first Jesuit pope.

The Mind of Pope Francis
Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey

Massimo Borghesi
Liturgical Press, $29.95, 344 pp.

Published in the April 12, 2019 issue: View Contents

J. Matthew Ashley is associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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