The Roots of Pope Francis’s Social and Political Thought:
From Argentina to the Vatican

thomas r. rourke
rowman and littlefield, 230 pages, $80

Thomas R. Rourke does a masterful job of applying two interpretive keys: the hermeneutics of charity, and the duty to understand a thinker as he understands himself. What emerges is a necessary, though not sufficient, book for anyone who wishes to understand the social thought of the current pontiff. Pope Francis’s thought involves a series of dichotomies: North-South, imperial-populist, ideological-historical, abstract-concrete, and so on. Rourke shows in detail the intellectual formation that gave rise to this eccentric version of the social magisterium. In doing so, he raises the question (albeit unwittingly): Should Francis’s social thought, shaped as it was by non-normative circumstances, be taken as normative for the universal Church—as Francis seems to intend?

Rourke has considered reams of material on the current pontiff, formerly Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, and put it in context—several contexts, in fact.

One context is that of the Latin American Church in the post-Vatican II period—a church trying to address harsh social and political conditions in a way that was responsive to Vatican II and papal guidance, in a society wracked by extremes of revolution and reaction, while also producing its own forms of thought. Of special relevance is the development of “the theology of the people,” which Bergoglio, while a cardinal, favored with many signs of approbation. Sharing with the more prominent liberation theology a concern for “integral liberation,” the theology of the people eschewed class analysis for cultural rootedness and historical continuity. It saw the people as agents of their own liberation, rather than as tools of revolutionary cadres. Bergoglio detected Western imperialism in the modes of analysis preferred by liberation theology. Imperialism can come in ideological and cultural forms, not just as centralized economic and political power.

Another context is the Society of Jesus, with particular emphasis on Bergoglio’s reading of the Jesuit missions in South America. Those missions are crucial, even “paradigmatic,” for the Jesuit pope. The original Jesuit missionaries worked to “inculturate” the Gospel among indigenous peoples. They aimed at an integral “Christian civilization” combining faith, work, art, and communal solidarity. The Iberian imperial powers later sought to destroy all that for their own purposes. Hence the gigantomachia that structures Francis’s thought: imperial versus popular. “Our faith is [a] combat,” says Francis. One must choose sides.

Francis has declared that he wants “a poor church for the poor.” One could equally maintain that he wants “a Jesuitized church for the people.” The early Jesuit missionaries, their theology and their practices, are normative for him, and their fate is permanently instructive. They were missionaries, so the Church is “to go to the peripheries”; they evangelized, the Church is essentially evangelical; they were one in solidarity with the peoples they encountered, solidarity should be worldwide today; they aimed at inculturating the Gospel in all dimensions of life, so inculturation of the Gospel is the indispensable basis for politics and economics.

G. K. Chesterton made a relevant point in his biography of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis, and especially his ardent followers, posed a temptation to the Church. The temptation was to make the entire Church Franciscan. One part was to determine the whole. The proper response was to incorporate the Franciscan charism, but recognize that the Church and its spiritual gifts and life were more—much more—than the radical embrace of poverty. Chesterton notes that the pope at the time “decided rightly.” His wisdom was not Francis’s. As the scholastics knew, when two authorities disagree, there is room (and need) for discussion. To what extent, if any, should the charism and experience of the Jesuits be normative for the Church universal?

The Jesuit missionaries meditated on “the sacred humanity of Christ” in prayer, then worked to realize and contemplate it in the flesh of his body, the baptized and renewed Indians. These Indians were to be “a new creation.” This is the historical core of Francis’s view of the Latin American pueblo, of his “theology of the people.”

One would have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by the portrait. But here too reason has its rights and its questions. Francis’s view of the Latin American pueblo is the template he employs to detect and name enemies of the people. As a result, his default position is not just populist but binary. This involves distinctive positions (or biases) in theology, in social analysis, and in connection with justice.

“The people become a veritable Incarnation of the Word and hence themselves a source of ongoing theological and pastoral reflection.” Scripture, Tradition, the Magisterium—and “the people,” as theological sources. An obvious question is raised by “the people as theological resource”: Today, would one consult American Catholics on the licitness of contraception, or the norms of sexual morality generally? Or the elements of a well-formed conscience? Or concerning the reality of the Real Presence? Recent Pew surveys would indicate the sad reality. Two Latin American priests whom I consulted, one Colombian, the other Mexican, concurred with the general point of a disjunction between popular piety and practice on the one hand, and Church teaching on the other.

In any event, non-popular criteria are surely needed, in order to discern whatever elements of wisdom may be found among the people. Athens needed the purifying questions of Socrates. One therefore could note that it is identifiable individuals, members of an elite, who have made the case for “the people.” Rourke devotes a special section to them: Lucio Gera, Rafael Tello, Juan Carlos Scannone, and Alberto Methol Ferré. Given their anti-Western commitments, it is striking that the creators of theology of the people employ the Western category of “culture” to understand the pueblo. This usage indicates the importation of modern categories of thought.

Here I can only indicate the important issues underlying this move. Vatican II and Paul VI committed the Church to addressing problems of poverty and development on a global scale. The key terms employed were “authentic development” and “liberation.” The Latin American Church took up the challenge, but it needed analytic tools. Church social doctrine was available but deemed inadequate. Two Western forms of thought were available: dependency theory and Marxism. Liberation theology adopted both. The theology of the people adopted the former but was wary of the latter, for both theoretical and practical reasons. “Culture” became the encompassing concept, and it led inexorably to the concept of “the people.”

Pierre Manent has pointed out that the concept of “culture” entered Catholic social thought after the Church was politically disestablished, as a sort of compensation. It is a recent addition, without any express warrant in Scripture or Tradition. It must carry its own weight, intellectually speaking, and any form of thought that makes it central must be open to inspection and question. To commit the entire Church to it and to its normative application to “the people” is a theological category-mistake, since “culture” is found in the necessary middle ground between the fundamental principles of Catholic social thought and the empirical data that should inform any reading of the signs of the times. In my judgment, political philosophy and its categories are necessary and superior to those involving “culture.”

In the Jesuit Constitutions, St. Ignatius wrote that “in the Society there must be no partiality in favor of one or another sector of the social and political hierarchy.” The archpartisan of the people, however, declares that “justice must be seen” principally in one perspective, “in the perspective of the poor.” In fairness, one must ask whether this is the adequate perspective that justice calls for. What about the other parts of the body politic? It is striking how little the advocate of “the people” allows the people’s enemies to make their case.

Bergoglio was assisted in his intellectual formation by a man he called “a great thinker,” the lay philosopher Alberto Methol Ferré (1929-2009). Methol Ferré distinguished “source churches” from “reflection churches,” with the former being sources of renewal for the Church universal, because they “reflect the signs of the times in the best sense, implementing the Gospel in the manner best suited to the circumstances of the age.” After five hundred years, wrote Methol Ferré, the Latin American Church was poised to assume a leadership role in and for the whole Church. Bergoglio imbibed this view and sees his pontificate in this light. Rourke does likewise: “Alberto Methol Ferré was right: This is the time for Latin America to become a source church.”

For Rourke, the ascendancy of the Latin American Church is a matter of both faith and philosophy: “The Holy Spirit has determined that a man of his particular background occupies the Chair of Saint Peter in our time, and people of wisdom will listen to what he has to say.” This pious judgment guides his sympathetic analysis. Prudence, however, and a less self-assured search for wisdom, would dictate that one exercise one’s critical faculties as well.

The final and fundamental dichotomy of the pontiff’s thinking is between two spirits, the Holy Spirit and “the evil spirit.” Many have noticed his frequent invocations of the devil, chalking them up to his traditional piety, of a piece with his traditional views of gender. What is remarkable, though, is how often the work of the Holy Spirit is cast in progressive terms, as in recent comments about the death penalty, and how quick the pontiff is to identify the instruments and embodiments of the evil one. In both cases, the imprimatur of the papal office is given to judgments that have not been vindicated by theological disputation. We must apply that scrutiny “on the fly,” as it were. The integrity of the faith, and the honor of philosophy, require as much.

Paul Seaton teaches philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland.

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