The Church and the world are obviously fascinated with our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, and desire to know everything they can about him. As the very first Roman Pontiff from the Americas, he is a reminder of the Church’s earliest beginnings in our hemisphere, that saints were emerging in South America even before the Church could get organized in what is now the United States. Indeed, the Jesuit Martyrs (e.g., St. Isaac Jogues) and our country’s first native born saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, postdate the very first canonized New World heroine of faith, Rose of Lima. All of this history has been renewed in our consciousness by Argentine-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Unlike Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, our new Roman Pontiff is not the author of a hundred significant theological books; nor has he published widely, as Pope John Paul II, the Ethician of Lublin did. However, Pope Francis has produced enough materials in print for most of us to know his theology better.
For one thing, Cardinal Bergoglio was classically trained, and knew well many of the signposts of wisdom in our contemporary world. Like anyone in search of psychological depths, he admits to liking great authors, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky; as well as great films, like Babette’s Feast. Like Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, he served as an academician, and knows existentially political abuse of power. Like his predecessors, he has publicly confronted those who would marginalize or destroy the Church. And he is intensely aware of scandals and weaknesses reflected in many members of the Church; accordingly, his responses promise to be realistic, swift and therapeutic. Among the reasons given by him as to why he chose the name Francis is a deep Franciscan-inspired zeal “to rebuild the Church” (mirroring St. Francis of Assisi’s specific vocation regarding a chapel).
In Pope Francis, His Life in His Own Words (ed. F. Ambrogetti and S. Rubin, Eng. trans., 2013), Chapter 12 includes the text of the Pope’s Declaration of Faith, a brief credal summary remotely comparable to Pascal’s famous manifestation of belief. Among other propositions, some are especially appreciated in our Age of Chaos and Absurdity. Just reading them affords great insight into the Pope’s soul.
One begins with, “I believe in my history, which was infused with the loving gaze of God” calling him to priesthood. Another, so important today, reads: “I believe in the kindness of others…”; also (contrary to pseudosophisticates), “I believe in the religious life.” (He is a Jesuit; John Paul II and Benedict were diocesan priests.) Still another bids us: “I believe in the embracing patience of God…” The Declaration ends, as usual with Francis, with a reference to the daily surprises of life that the Lord offers us.
Our new Pope, continuing the style of his great predecessors in Peter’s Chair, has long been known as one who tries to find the good in everyone. Moreover, his substantial learning, as well as his wisdom, does not lessen, but in fact intensifies, his ability to listen to and to learn from others.
Of particular interest to me is Pope Francis’ approach to catechesis in the area of moral theology. Here – so much like John Paul II – he insists upon emphasizing the kerygma; specifically, the message of Christ Jesus our Lord. Moral theology, also known as ethics, is not and should not be identified merely with a list of dos and don’ts. Methodology is all important here; again, the kerygma itself, not what amounts simply to a sterile, often casuistic, analysis of a human act. While such an analysis is needed, of course, it must be enveloped within Christ’s overall law of love. To translate this into concrete terms, we come to recognize an evil act within the context of Christ’s total message of love. In other words, we ask ourselves whether and how a human act can draw us closer to the God who reveals himself in Christ; or, on the other hand, whether and how such an act can lead us astray from Christ.
Living morally, as well as preaching, catechizing and teaching morality in the context of the kerygma always requires as much. Christianity, after all, is not so much a book of rules as primarily a meeting with the living Lord Jesus, who invites us to his ever-ready merciful and informing embrace.
Mark Pope Francis’ words here: “The fact that you’re allowed to do this but you’re not allowed to do that. The idea that someone is to blame and that someone else isn’t to blame. In doing this, we relegate the treasure of the living Christ, the treasure of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, the treasure of an extremely rich catechism, with the mysteries of faith and the creed, and end up focusing on whether or not to march against the passing of a law that would allow the use of condoms [or other unacceptable means]...” (ibid, 104)
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.