Inside the Mind of Pope Francis

A recently translated book by the former archbishop of Buenos Aires and current pontiff reveals a religious leader who understands the limits of religion.
Pope Francis celebrates a mass on All Saints' Day at the Verano cemetery in Rome on November 1, 2013. (Reuters)

What is the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity? Writing for Commentary in 1948, Irving Kristol argued that while Judaism took human experience as its starting point, Christianity began with principles it believed to be eternally true and demanded that human life conform to them. Judaism, he averred, posits “an unbreakable bond between the love of God and the love of all reality” and sanctifies all dimensions of life. Christianity, in contrast, encourages asceticism as a means of transcending our creaturely nature.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio—now better known as Pope Francis—strongly disagrees. In On Heaven and Earth, a series of conversations with Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina translated in April, he asserts that Christianity must understand the needs of humans. He rejects attempts to impose dogmatic principles onto human life, and thinks that the Church must be sensitive, and even sometimes deferential, to cultural change. Indeed, he notes, “religion has a right to give an opinion as long as it is in service to the people.” In so arguing, he presents a vision of Catholicism that is both deeply principled and unabashedly heterodox.                  

Bergoglio insists that the Church cannot transcend culture. He is unafraid to illustrate how the Church has changed in response to shifting cultural trends, pointing to, for instance, its recent acceptance of divorcees as full members. He takes this point further by suggesting that more changes might be necessary. In an astonishing concession, he opines that the Church’s sensitivity to the course of human events might someday lead it to discard the celibacy requirement for the clergy. This suggestion is difficult to square with the Catholic catechism, which declares that those who follow the “consecrated life” bear the “obligation of practicing chastity in celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, poverty and obedience.” To Bergoglio, however, this obligation is not necessarily eternally binding. Moreover, “cultural reasons” might one day render it unwise.

To be sure, Bergoglio does not embrace modern society wholeheartedly. He condemns its excessive attention to material concerns as “narcissistic, consumerist, and hedonistic.” Moreover, he argues that the theological precepts formulated by the Church Fathers in the third and fourth centuries—Catholicism’s “inheritance”—are “nonnegotiable.” However, he indicates that Church’s deeply-held precepts were “deepen[ed]” and “refine[d]” over time in response to social pressures. In his view, even our understanding of God is culturally specific, as every society takes the divine image and “translates it in accordance with the culture, and elaborates, purifies and gives it a system.” He therefore expresses satisfaction that many of his seminarians are college educated, as the “cosmopolitan perspective” they developed in the academy will attune them to cultural change.

Bergoglio’s concern with culture makes him wary of disrupting it. To that end, he hesitates to wield his religious authority in contemporary political debates. He proudly declares that he rarely spoke out on political matters during his tenure as a bishop in Buenos Aires, and that when he did, his objections were procedural, not philosophical. For instance, he denounced the government’s decision not to appeal judicially authorized gay marriage based solely on his determination that the judge had overreached and that the government was preventing appeals. Believing that appeals to religion in the public sphere are inherently intrusive, he refused to invoke scriptural authority.

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Judah Bellin researches higher-education policy at the Manhattan Institute.

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