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.

Bergoglio therefore reserves special criticism for religious leaders who rejoice in imposing their views on the public. He lambasts the phenomenon of “clericalism,” when priests make religious demands of their followers in regards to political or social questions. Bergoglio rejects these priests because he believes religion exists to serve the people and thus cannot issue edicts that the people do not seek out. In fact, Bergoglio believes that the separation of civil and ecclesiastical authority reflects divine intent. Since God grants humanity “freedom to sin,” Bergoglio reasons, the Church must “defend the autonomy of human events,” even if doing so encourages widespread violation of Catholic doctrine. Religious leaders, in Bergoglio’s view, must not mistake their obligation to encourage their parishioners with a mandate for coercion. They must accept the limits of their position.

In accordance with this stance, his guidance for priests regarding political issues is nuanced. He argues that even though they are obligated to bring Christian ethics to bear on today’s problems, they must strenuously avoid “partisan politics.” To that end, Bergoglio formulates a narrow credo for the priest who wishes to enter the political sphere: “Do not preach against anyone...refer to the value that is in danger and that must be safeguarded.” He must stay above the fray of political debates to the greatest extent possible. Bergoglio is not naive, however, and recognizes that sermons have political ramifications even if priests make no explicit political demands. He thus advises priests to always remain mindful of their rhetoric.

However, his call for rhetorical caution is at odds with his own fiery pronouncements on politics. He decries inadequate social programs for the elderly as “covert euthanasia” and declares that if society hopes to achieve “social justice,” it must guarantee “social benefits, dignified retirement, vacation time, rest, and freedom of unions.” Certainly, it is excruciatingly difficult to interpret these statements apolitically, as Bergoglio’s preferences are only achievable through the same “partisan politics” he decries. Likewise, one wonders how Bergoglio squares these statements with his decision not to vote because, in his words, he “cannot be wrapped in a political flag.” By removing himself from the political process, he makes the realization of these goals much more unlikely. To complicate matters, he argues elsewhere that politics can serve as a “very elevated form of social charity.” This statement implies that individuals can fulfill a core religious obligation through politics. However, it follows that religious leaders should play a larger, not smaller, role in political affairs. Bergoglio appears torn between his devotion to social goals and his distaste for the process of actualizing them.

However, one must not confuse Bergoglio’s wariness of politics with scorn for humanity. Bergoglio is wary of ecclesiastical involvement in politics precisely because he venerates the human experience. If the Church were to start commenting on concrete political matters, he reasons, its followers would no longer decide these matters for themselves. As such, they would forfeit an essential element of their personhood. “If God, in creation, ran the risk of making us free,” Bergoglio wonders, “who am I to get involved?” Bergoglio’s abdication from the political realm therefore underscores his embrace of humanity. He is unwilling to infantilize his followers, despite their manifold failings. Indeed, he believes they are free to accept his counsel but obligated to chart their own course. His is a religion for adults.