The news has hit like bombshells.

One day after the funeral of Australian Cardinal George Pell, with all the pomp of such a Vatican-like event, we learned that last March, under a pseudonym, Pell had written a scathing condemnation of Pope Francis and his entire pontificate. Now another cardinal, Gerhard Müller, has put forward a book-length memo in a similar vein.

For those of us who revere Pope Francis and his Christ-like papal ministry, we might dismiss these screeds as the rantings of dyspeptic old men with axes to grind in their tiny Vatican world. (Müller was dismissed by Francis as Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2017; Pell’s term as head of the Secretariat for the Economy was not renewed in 2019.)

But it is becoming obvious that these startling revelations from the pinnacle of the Roman Catholic hierarchy point to a more generalized fault line in the Church, one that runs through its entire ranks, clerical and lay. The question becomes: Is Pope Francis’ vision for the Church being repudiated, as Pell and Müller described it, as “catastrophic” or “toxic”? 

Such divisions are not new. The experience of the very early Church reveals a similar scenario. The Acts of the Apostles relate the disagreement among those who had known Jesus personally as to whether non-Jews should have to embrace Judaism before baptism as Christians. In other words, could Gentiles be directly evangelized?

That debate resulted in what is known as the Council of Jerusalem. One wonders what would have happened if the forces of conservatism had prevailed and Gentiles excluded. What then would have been the history of the Christian Church? And what of those who held this restrictive position? Did they leave the Church and continue to promote their opinions? 

Some criticisms of Pope Francis are understandable (for example, delays on the part of the Vatican to address credible accusations of sexual abuse against bishops and priests; frustration at the pope’s inaction on clerical celibacy or the priestly ordination of women.) However, on balance it is clear to thinking Catholics and to the wider world generally that this pontiff has brought a “new springtime” to the Church, much like that of Pope St. John XXIII and his decision to “open the windows [of Catholicism] and let in the fresh air.”

Another look then at the inspiration for Pope Francis’ objectives: 

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J. is a product of the Vatican II Latin American Catholic Church. His chronology parallels almost exactly that of its last 60 years.

The Latin American Bishops’ Conferences implemented Pope John’s Council in extraordinary ways basically through a series of continent-wide gatherings of the People of God held about every 15 years from 1968 until 2007. To understand the effect this has had on the future pope, and at the risk of over-simplification, several features of this history are important to note:

  • They were gatherings of the entire People of God: laity, clerics, vowed religious and hierarchy
  • They based their agendas on the concrete realities of their people
  • They were deeply influenced by the methodology of liberation theology: social analysis, theological reflection and consequent pastoral action.
  • God’s Word continually informed these processes.
  • They called the entire Church to a adopt a “preferential option for the poor.”
  • They understood that social structures are under the judgment of biblical imperatives
  • It gave rise to Base Christian Communities – local groups led by lay women and men which regularly engaged in analysis, prayer and action.

This is the Church in which Jorge Mario Bergoglio grew up, in which he chose religious life, rose to its hierarchy, and which he has so clearly brought to the papacy. His is an ecclesiology of openness, inclusion, respect for God’s action in every human being. It is diametrically opposite to an ecclesiology of those who favor “wrapping a shroud of rigidity around Jesus.”

Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

6 thoughts on “Pope Francis’ theology promotes openness, inclusion, respect for every human being

  1. Father Nangle, the generalized fault line in in the Catholic Apostolic Church has been there from the beginning. Nothing new. What has changed is the number of clerics that made up the differences in the beginning. In the beginning there were a dozen or so apostles and perhaps two or three dozen disciples of Jesus. Today we have the college of Cardinals and all the bishops of the world a much harder to manage group to bring about consensus of belief. However, father the scandal is not the fault it is the clerical sex abuse. The reason Brother Francis is having difficulty is because he has had a glimpse of the problem below the water line. The iceberg is much larger below water than what is seen/known above the water. May God’s peace be with you.

  2. Thanks, Fr Joe. Special thanks for your clear analysis of Pope Francis as a man of faith and action. Let’s stay behind him as Francis encourages Russians and Ukrainians to cease fire and negotiate. Le’t’s pray that the role of Francis as the main moral voice in the world will be heard by all sides. It’s not 1962 and the war in Ukraine may be more dangerous than the Cuban Missile crisis. yet, James Douglass in JFK the Unspeakable points out that it was the moral call to peace not war of Pope John XXIII that was accepted by Soviet Premier Khrushchev in 1962. Joe surely remembers the envoy, (noted by author Douglass) Norman Cousins, sent by JFK to see Khrushchev after the crisis who wrote : “Pope John’s appeal during the missile crisis had carried considerable weight in his thinking. In fact, [Khrushchev said] it was the first ray of light in the fast-developing darkness.”
    Pope Francis has the good mind, will and love of mankind that John XXIII had. There are those who love and praise war but humanity overall looks through the darkness to moral leadership. Jose Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis is the man they will clearly see.
    Thanks, Joe, for making that clear.
    jack gilroy

  3. Pope Francis was chosen through the power of the Holy Spirit for this moment in history . Like Jesus he has upset the status quo of Clericalism and rigidity , he is a light in the darkness of conservatism , he is open and compassionate and full of humility .

  4. Thank you so very much, Father Joe, for highlighting a crucial aspect of the Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S. J., and of his papacy: he lives in and is alive to history, which is dynamic and unpredictable. And he invites us to do so with him.

    After all, his father, Mario José, had, with his family, fled his beloved Italy in 1929, just seven years before his son’s birth. According to Maria Elena Bergoglio, Pope Francis’s sister, the family did not leave for economic reasons. “It is because of fascism that our father emigrated … [he] repeated often that it was the advent of fascism that really pushed him to leave.”

    Young Jorge would have heard many stories growing up of the “native land.” Their father, said Maria Elena, spoke often of the beauty of the Piedmont, “how life was, the values.” It
    remained, she said, “a life-long dream.” There was a “lesson that our father taught us with his difficult life choice,” adding, “Jorge is against regimes.”

    This week we see him again exercise a preferential option for the victims of regimes. As Pope Francis today ends his historic visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, he undertakes yet another to South Sudan in the company of Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and of Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In this rare— perhaps the first of its kind— ecumenical journey, Jorge Bergoglio continues to live in, and to make, history, as you, Father Joe, have done these many decades. From your paradigm-changing work in Peru, to your leadership in the Peace and Justice movement, to your crucial
    role today in the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative: like Francis with whom you walk, you teach us to live in history. My profound gratitude.

  5. It is a question for clarification. It is about the REAL presence of the BODY and BLOOD of Jesus in Eucharist. Of course, I understand some have trouble with this and consider it only a spiritual symbol, BUT, is not the Catholic belief still the former–? I also wish more Catholics might see the presentation of the 88 confirmed miracles of the REAL presence of Jesus’ Body and blood. This exhibit and its information was traveling around. to various churches.

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