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What It Costs to Be Pope Francis. The Pope through Asian eyes

by Felix Wilfred, Emeritus Professor, State University of Madras, India.

(Keynote address delivered at an International Conference on Pope Francis, held at the Pontifical Faculty Jnanadeepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, India, November, 2019) 

Arguably, Pope Francis is one of the most hated persons in the Church today. He also seems to be one of the most controversial leaders in the world, at large. There is a war against Pope Francis and challenge to his leadership and agenda – often politically motivated – which he seems to withstand. It is clear to anyone that Francis differs from his immediate predecessors in his mindset, approach, style, demeanour, and priorities.  I shall strive to show why many feel ill at ease with his papacy, and others resist him fiercely. We shall go into the factors and influences—both inside and outside Church circles—that seem to have led to this situation.  

1. Surveying the Siege Within 

The hostility against Pope Francis begins with his own closest collaborators. We may recall here that in 2016 four cardinals—Joachim Meisner, Walter Brandmüller, Carlo Caffara, and Raymond Burke—raised critical questions regarding the pope’s stand on family and morality expressed in Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis was accused of heresy; thus, these cardinals sought to offer so-called ‘filial correction’ to an errant pope through their infamous letter of ‘dubia’ (literally, ‘doubts’). Others go to the extent of unearthing irregularities in the conclave and questioning the very validity of his papal election. A former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, openly asks Francis to resign. He is joined by other prelates of no less influence and weight. There are many foul and vitriolic accusations hurled against Francis. For his detractors, his words and acts are not in keeping with the orthodox tradition of the Church. His teachings are found to be “ambiguous”, “modernist” and “syncretistic”. He has, according to his detractors, disrupted the tradition of the Church and its teaching. One of the vicious narratives—a small but potent minority of Church leaders and Catholic fundamentalists are trying to weave—is that his pontificate is heading for a schism in the Church. 

Viganò’s Cassandric language characterising the pontificate of Francis seems to present an impending apocalyptic doom. This is what he says,  

Now the Church is lifeless, covered by metastasis, devastated. The people of God grope, illiterate and robbed of their faith, in the darkness of chaos and division. In recent decades, the enemies of God have progressively burned two thousand years of tradition. With unprecedented acceleration, thanks to the subversive goal of this pontificate supported by the powerful Jesuit Apparatus, a deadly coup de grace is being prepared against the Church.[1]

For his disparagers, Pope Francis woefully lacks in-depth theological knowledge and scholarly background. They contrast his teachings with that of Pope John Paul II in whom they find the embodiment of Catholic orthodoxy. Those who are beholden by Pope Benedict XVI, as the club of his disciples (Schülerkreis), think that he is a theological giant whereas Pope Francis is theologically a dwarf and a light-weight.[2]  For many such people, who fit everything in an Eruo-centric frame, and for whom “deep” theology means playing with concepts, its minutiae and nuances with a feigned  air of intellectuality, the theology of Francis appears to be ephemeral and superficial, and they look down on it as “populist”. [3]On the other hand,  Massimo Borghesi  has shown admirably in his research how the “simplicity” of the theology of Francis is  a point of arrival behind which lies a dense intellectual background  and influences that went into the shaping of his thought in Argentina.[4]  

Then there is a legion of Catholic fundamentalists belonging to tribal and militant  Catholicism who find the best only in the past and are wary of the surprises of God every new moment. They find the thoughts and ways of Francis abominable and abhorring. They even dare to warn the pope and hope for a natural biological solution: his death. 

2. Reasons Behind this Siege from Within 

A question certainly rises in all our minds: Why this aggressive posture, and passionate and full-blooded opposition to Francis in the Church? There is a need to dig deeper. I attempt to propose a few points for our studied consideration.

I think we may not be able to gauge the epochal significance of this papacy if we relate Francis to the teachings of Vatican Council II (hereinafter VC II) alone. Under the past two pontificates—of John Paul II and Benedict XVI—theological debates abounded on the reception and hermeneutics of VC II: whether VC II is to be interpreted in continuation with the Councils of Trent and Vatican Council I, or whether it represents a caesura, a break with this tradition. This was the pivotal point at the Extraordinary Synod of 1985.

There was a heated discussion on whether the Universal Church comes first or the Local Church. Western theologians like Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper clashed on these points. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) drew up a document in which it affirmed the ontological and temporal priority of the Universal Church.[5]Theologians are racking their brains as to what all that means. Further, people from Asa, Africa and Latin America were warned that their inculturation project should not be at the risk of losing the Greco-Roman heritage which, they were told, is an integral part of the Christian kerygma itself. Asian theologians and others from the Global South were flabbergasted.

Francis does not entertain any jugglery of theological concepts to awe his audience. He does not want to drive through the highway of theological debates about VC II in which case the opposition to him may not have been as fierce as we are witnessing. His would have been simply an inflexion within a basic theological model of VC II. One could debate with Francis on the significance of VC II with the hope that he would be speaking a conventional idiom and language, and any differences on the matter could be sorted out. But the problem with Francis is that he treads the rough ground of everyday life and enters into the byways and lanes of life. He relates the core of the Gospel to down-to-earth realities of life. This is not something new to him. This was what he was doing as a shepherd in Buenos Aires; in short, he interprets VC II from the margins, from life at the periphery. This is a choice he made through his painful experiences and struggles while giving leadership to his Jesuit order at a time of political convulsion in his native Argentina.[6]

Pope Francis draws on his personal experiences. All this is unpalatable. He views his mission not only to put into practice the teachings of VC II. Hermeneutical debates and minutiae now cramp these teachings. He also wants to come to terms with something that did not emerge forcefully enough in VC II, the poor, who make up the very heart of the Gospel. The Good News to the poor to whom Jesus promised the Kingdom of God, is Pope Francis’ central agenda. He is not merely trying to do reforms and renewal but is attempting, against many odds, a paradigm shift in the life and engagement of the Church. The radical consequences of this commitment to the poor unsettle the establishment, both in the Church and in the present world-order. It challenges clericalism and careerism, the evils of which he never ceases to decry and castigate. No wonder, he has become too unsavoury to the acolytes of a constricted tribal Catholicism ruled by an elitist clergy. This seems to explain the high voltage of censure and resistance from within.  

I must add that what is at stake is not orthodoxy and tradition. In reality, Francis’s call for greater accountability and transparency (including financial transactions) in the Church and in its leadership, begins with the Roman Curia. This causes heartburns and stirs up fierce resistance. But there is an effort to camouflage these deeper roots as a matter of doctrine and orthodoxy, thereby trying to strike Francis with this weapon hoping that it will garner support in their battle against him.

3. Capitalism and Capitalists Up in Arms 

Francis is hated because of his stinging criticism of laissez-faire capitalism and the global market. What he says and does is so challenging that capitalists and market-ideologues and practitioners feel unnerved. Pope Francis takes Wall Street head-on. He does not mince words in chastising an impersonal and deterministic economy bereft of humanising purposes. In this economy, values vanish into thin air. His call for equality and justice, and denunciation of structures of injustice has infuriated the elites, the corporates and the capitalist lobby. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium(hereinafter EG), Francis calls the market economy “a murderous system which kills people.” It is capitalism that has caused increasing inequality in the world and the impoverishment of developing countries. For him, unbridled capitalism and greedy accumulation of money and wealth are “dung of the devil”. No wonder that he has gained many enemies in the capitalist world. Notorious among these are many North American right-wing conservative Catholics, and even several ecclesiastics. Steve Bannon, a former adviser to Trump at the White House, is the leader who galvanises the anti-Francis crusade. For him, Pope Francis is bad for business. He supports populist politicians masquerading to defend the so-called ‘Christian West’ against migrants and instigates xenophobia.     

While Francis was flying to Maputo, Mozambique, a journalist told him, “Holy Father, the Americans hate you.” His reply was, “I am honoured that the Americans attack me.”[7] It meant that he was speaking some uncomfortable truths to the capitalist system and its driving force of the market. The argument of his capitalist critics rests on shaky grounds: First, the pope lacks knowledge of economics; so, he should not venture into a realm which he is not familiar with. Second, he is a person of religion, and he should confine himself to his turf—the religious realm—and not meddle with issues of the economy that are not within his area of competence. We need to investigate more in-depth into the anti-Francis mood of capitalists. By the way, the arguments against the pope speaking about ecology—in Laudato Si—are the same. 

American capitalists see in this Jesuit Pope Francis the heritage and the legacy of the six Jesuits murdered at the Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador on the night between November 15–16, 1989. Fr Ignacio Ellacuría and his five companions of UCA in San Salvador were dragged out from their rooms in the middle of the night and brutally shot dead, along with Elba Ramos who cooked for the community, and her sixteen-year-old daughter Celina Ramos.   Some years later, I visited San Salvador on the invitation of my long-time theologian-friend, Jon Sobrino, who was part of that community but escaped death, because he was away on that night. Sobrino showed me around. I was deeply moved when I saw the blood-stained clothes of these martyrs. 

During the civil war, Ellacuría and his companions became the powerful voice of the powerless, the poor, the kidnapped, and the murdered. They were against exploitative capitalism and ruthless imperialism; they were against the terror unleashed by the armed forces against the poor. Ellacuría was the chief advisor to Archbishop (now Saint) Oscar Romero. The inspiration to stand up for justice, for the poor, led to the massacre of these exemplary Christian witnesses by the army personnel trained in the USA with the blessings of the USA administration. Ellacuría, the rector of UCA, and his companions were branded as ‘communists’ and as the inspiration behind the guerillas. In the minds of the imperialists, Pope Francis standing up for the poor and the marginalised evokes the image of El Salvador’s martyrs and their fearless resistance.  Francis is the scapegoat upon who is heaped the long-harboured resentment of North American capitalism, imperialism and militarism. They see in Pope Francis the revival of the old enemy of liberation in Latin America. 

Some prominent members of the US Catholic episcopacy too seem to be soft-pedalling on capitalism and playing second fiddle. As more than one American bishop stated, the pope’s critique does not apply to American capitalism which is ‘soft-capitalism’!  

4. Right-Wing Populists: New Defenders of Christianity 

Pope Francis is hated by right-wing populists and nationalists in Europe and elsewhere. Reason?  He speaks out on the plight of the immigrants and refugees, and appeals for a welcome policy towards them. In one of his speeches, the pope said how he is concerned about “the reemergence, somewhat throughout the world, of aggressive tendencies toward foreigners, migrants, as well as the growing nationalism that disregards the common good.” He is opposed by right-wing political outfits like the Northern League party in Italy headed by Matteo Salvini, till September 2019 deputy prime minister and home minister of Italy. Salvini, a divorcee, is never known as a practising Catholic, but holds a rosary in his hands at public appearances on TV; holds a crucifix while addressing press-conferences; and invokes the Virgin of Immaculate Conception for his political victory. He is someone staunchly opposed to Pope Francis and his policies in the Church and the world. Unfortunately, populists like Matteo Salvini are supported by people in the Church who oppose Pope Francis. 

The recent victory of the far-right in the parliamentary elections of the European Union has further strengthened the increasing opposition to Francis. These right-wing politicians seem to enjoy the blessings and ecclesiastical patronage of some prelates since these politicians are viewed by them (prelates) as defenders of Western Christianity against the invasion of Islamic migrants. Such an ecclesiastical sponsorship projects these populist politicians in a favourable light among the conservative Catholics voters.

5. Papacy with a Contextual Vision of Faith and Theology 

Papacy, like all other ministries in the Church, is in service of faith. The vision of faith inspires Pope Francis and leads him to adopt a different approach of the Church to the world. The new relationship he envisages also marks his theological orientation.  

Faith is a way of seeing. Like the external eyes, faith is an inner eye or the third eye. It lets us see the reality in a different light. It is like the enlightenment of Siddhartha under the peepal tree. That experience made him the enlightened one: the Buddha. Without going into details, let me simply refer here to the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, which is also a story of enlightenment. No wonder, that the early Church called the sacrament of faith, baptism, as photismos, meaning, illumination or enlightenment. Well-known are the transformation of Paul on the way to Damascus and the conversion of St Augustine. If we hold all these in mind, we will understand what faith means as a new way of seeing. Everything looks different.  Communicating this enlightenment is true evangelisation. 

This is very different from the understanding of faith as a set of propositions to believe in, to be preserved and transmitted. St Thomas Aquinas rightly reminds us “Actus credentis non terminatur ad enuntiabile sed ad rem” (the act of faith does not end in propositions but in reality). When we conceive faith in terms of statements to be believed in, we will end up in such a curious situation that caused an infelicitous schism in the Church. I am referring here to the theological dispute ‘filioque’ which split Eastern Christianity from the West. The dispute was whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son. Consequence? A divided Christendom. To be credible, any belief needs to have reference to our life and the life and salvation of the world. The connection between doctrinal tenets and what they imply for the wellbeing of humanity and nature should become more evident today in order to be credible. 

This tells us about the importance of context in the exercise of faith and in doing theology. Karl Rahner was, perhaps, the tallest theological figure of the twentieth-century Catholicism. His explanations of the meaning of articles of faith by applying the transcendental method were very profound and refreshing. And yet his theology had no reference to contexts like World War II, to crimes against humanity such as the concentration camps, holocaust, and genocide of six million Jews who were systematically and in a planned way eliminated by a diabolic regime. 

For Pope Francis, faith and theology are dynamic and contextual. They need to be lived and practised with reference to our experiences today, with reference to our struggles, hopes and aspirations. Faith and theology are responses to God’s continuous speaking. By his deep engagement with all that touches the people, especially the poor at the margins, the vision of Pope Francis’ faith and theology acquire great vitality and dynamism.    

6. Francis’ Understanding of the Church and Its Ministry

The traditional image of the Church could be likened to a fortress: unassailable and unchanging. I am reminded about the episcopal motto of Cardinal Ottaviani who played the leader of traditional Catholicism at VC II. It read: “Semper Idem” (ever the same!). Compare the fortress image with that of Pope Francis: Church as a field hospital—attending to people’s urgent needs in critical situations.  

When I hear accusations that Pope Francis does not follow the traditional teaching, I am reminded of the great Cardinal Augustine Bea’s words who made an immense contribution at VC II. When he presented some of his views at the Council, he was opposed because he was saying what was not traditional teaching. Cardinal Bea answered, “well, this is not traditional teaching, but life today is not traditional!”. The expectation from the pope is that he keeps to tradition in his teachings. But what these Catholic fundamentalists do not understand is that in the history of the Church’s teachings, continuity has not always been the norm. There have also been instances of a breakthrough in tradition and traditional teaching. It is illuminating to see, for example, how the Church—from the negation of religious freedom which was included as one of the errors in the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX—came to uphold and defend religious freedom as it happened with Dignitatis Humanae in VC II. How could any reasonable person think of continuity between these two Church documents? Some of the things Pope Francis says and does fall in this tradition of rupture and breakthrough, and may not be fitted into the scheme of continuous tradition. To imagine Church-teaching were a seamless garment manifestly contradicts the facts of history. The breakthrough is painful for many, but like the birth-pangs, it brings new life to the Church, society and the world. As a matter of fact, the breakthrough moments have been most significant in the growth of the Church and its mission. With Francis, we are experiencing such a breakthrough in the history of the Church.

7. A Pope who Dares to be Different

I am not comparing popes. Indeed, each one is different. They come from different contexts and varied worlds of experience. These inevitably affect their way of thinking, vision of the Church, and their relationship to the world and society. 

Pope John Paul II took up his papal ministry as someone who had experienced first-hand the world of communism, atheism, and the Cold War tensions. He lived in a country of an oppressive totalitarian state with allegiance to Marxist ideology. No wonder, he tended to see the rest of the world in danger of communism and exposed to Marxist atheism. He interpreted that communism and Marxism were insidiously at work in Latin America, while people were, in fact, struggling against dictatorships, oppression, kidnappings, tortures and killings. 

Pope Benedict XVI experienced painfully the revolution of 1968, the student protests of the time, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. He witnessed in his own native country Germany and all over Europe, the decline of traditional Catholic Christianity with a mass exodus of people from the Church. He interpreted such developments as resulting from secularism and relativism and as signs of God’s absence in modernity. Hence it was vital for him to restore the traditional faith and Catholicism in their pristine glory. This was evident already when he was Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), preceding his papal ministry. Before the conclave, he could warn the cardinals about the danger the “dictatorship of relativism” poses to the Church. All these experiences and thoughts influenced his decisions and policies as the pope.  

One of the leading psychologists of the twentieth century, Abraham Maslow (1966), made a very telling statement which, I think, has considerable hermeneutical implications. He said, “A man with a hammer can see only nails everywhere”. Orthodoxy has been the primary agenda of the CDF. It has been known in history for denouncing and ostracising any shade of doctrinal deflection or woolly expression. This curial institution gave the impression of a tomb where the Church’s doctrines were embalmed and preserved. 

Things seem to have quite perceptibly changed with Pope Francis’s advent who accords primacy to orthopraxis, namely, following the path of the Gospel and putting it into practice. Fortunately, the overblown importance the CDF enjoyed has abated by now, and it is being downsized to its right proportions. This will materialise further, hopefully, when Pope Francis brings to fruition the much-awaited reform of the Roman Curia.

Pope Francis is someone with both his feet on the ground; he is not lost in the Platonic world of ideas. This does not mean that he has no vision. He is a pope of true Gospel-vision. With this vision, we hope the pope will introduce much-desired reform in the communication with the local Churches and respond to their exigencies and experiences. The curia is a service apparatus, which should become evident in its attitude and how it deals with the local Churches and the bishops leading them.

We can only pity the papal nuncios who are shunted from one country to the other without being able to strike roots anywhere. Many of them, despite their best intentions, are not adept in assessing the situation of the local churches—often due to their lack of knowledge about and familiarity with the culture, social structure, language, life-situation and history of the local people—and yet expected to play a crucial role in matters of such gravity as the selection of bishops for the local Churches. Pope Francis has started to bring more and more pastorally seasoned bishops from the local Churches for a leadership role at Vatican curial offices. That helps avoid careerism in the Roman Curia. But then the Pope is bearing the brunt of all these moves. 

On the one hand, the Roman Curia often projects its identity in the image of an institution meant for the self-preservation of the Church; and, on the other hand, Francis’ engagement for the reform of the Roman Curia, stems from his vision of the Gospel, from the dream of a purified and transformed Church. We could read between the lines his reformist agenda when he says in his very first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:

I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation (EG 27). 

8. Shouldering a Burdensome Legacy

For the past forty years, what had happened in the Church before Francis appeared on the scene constitutes a problematic and complicated legacy.  Many collaborators Francis has inherited in the Curia, and many bishops appointed worldwide during the last few decades, unfortunately, do not chime with Francis’s spirit. They were trained and brought up in a different legacy. In the immediate post-VC II period, the criterion for the choice of bishops was whether the candidate was open to dialogue, had the aptitude to put into practice the teachings of VC II, and had the skills to guide the local Church in the spirit of collaboration and co-responsibility.  In the last few decades, the criteria, instead, seems to have dramatically shifted to loyalty—whether someone adheres to doctrinal tradition and orthodoxy. People were appointed whose orthodoxy was tested based on their views on reproductive and sexual morality, their stance vis-à-vis liberation theology, communism, relativism, and their stance on communion for the remarried divorcees, and so on. Many seas in the United States, for example, were filled by candidates with strong traditionalist ideology and this group of prelates constitute a block opposing Francis and undermine his reform agenda.  

Another disturbing legacy Francis inherited is the clerical sexual abuse that continues to vex the Church and drain a lot of its energy and resources. I think we need also to ask whether the traditional theology of Holy Orders has not also been responsible for the present quagmire in which the Church finds itself with the issue of clerical sexual abuse. I mean the theology of ex opere operato. This theology, as is well-known, originated in the polemics against Donatism. It was a completely different context. Transported lock, stock and barrel to our times, without discernment of changing times, this theology gave the impression that the sacramental seal trumps the failings and misdeeds of a cleric, even when these go manifestly against human dignity and rights as is the case with clerical sexual abuse. Further, in medieval Canon Law, there was a provision called privilegium clericale. It was the exemption of the clergy from the temporal justice of the state. Civil courts were to have no jurisdiction over the clergy even in criminal cases, and civil courts could not punish them. Their misdeeds could only be tackled in ecclesiastical courts. This legal tradition created a mindset of protecting the clerics at all costs. Its effects spilt over in the case of today’s issues of clerical sexual abuse. 

We could identify a general template at work in handling this issue. Instead of taking to task the perpetrator of sexual abuse, the clerics were shunted from one place to the other in a bid to protect them. All these shoddy dealings were shrouded in secrecy with no room for transparency. This is because many ecclesiastics think that sexual abuse is a sin to confess in secret and repent from and to be forgiven, and not a matter of public crime to be prosecuted. Sexual abuse is a serious matter of human dignity and involves a violation of fundamental human rights. To claim that the Church is a different society with the implicit understanding that its clerics are not subjected to civil jurisdiction when they violate human rights is totally unacceptable. But this seems to have been the ideology behind the cover-ups of most cases of clerical sexual abuse.  

Francis stepped into his pontificate burdened with the enormous weight of clerical sexual abuse on his back. The media was digging out embarrassing materials and publicising outrageous cases from different parts of the world, and even from unsuspected quarters in the Church. It was a moral pandemic which Francis inherited and had to face a world that was becoming ever more stridently critical of how clerical sexual abuses were handled under his predecessors. Pope Francis realised the gravity of the matter. But he is not someone who thinks problems could be solved through magisterial statements and declarations. In trying to respond to the crisis, he took into confidence the entire Church and the world-episcopate. In February 2019, he convened a four-day extraordinary consultative meeting with the presidents of bishop’s conferences as how to go about with the issue of clerical sexual abuse which was eroding the Church and its credibility. It was the most open step to address an issue which has been devastating for the Church. Francis continues to bear the brunt of the inherited policy-failures in this matter.  

9. Facing Risks and Addressing Ambiguities 

We have too many ‘goody-goody’ Church-leaders who act in a ‘touch-me-not’ fashion. Bland and uninspiring leadership seems to be the norm. If these prelates make any mistake, they pretend that they are unblemished and perfect and pass on the blame to someone else instead of honestly owning it up. I am reminded of an old Roman saying. “senatus non errat, et si errat, non corrigit ne videatur errasse” (The senate does not make any mistake, and if it does, it does not correct so that it is not seen to have erred!). It is the fear of making mistakes and ignorance that prevent many Church-leaders from taking bold decisions. It requires much courage to own one’s mistakes. Indeed, it takes much courage to speak the truth. Here Pope Francis has set a model for Church-leaders to take risks, as he famously said, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (EG 49). This open and courageous vision of the Church leads Francis to take risks and face puzzling and ambiguous situations. Let me illustrate this with some instances.  

On 21 September 2018, Pope Francis signed a historic agreement with the Chinese state.  Ever since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, the relationship with the Vatican has undergone severe tensions and strains, causing an unfortunate split in the Chinese Church between the so-called underground Church and the open Church. Pope Francis faced a dilemma. If you give in to the Chinese government, then the freedom of the Church and its mission will be seriously hampered. On the other hand, if you refuse any negotiation with the CCP, then the split in the Chinese Church will continue and cause a lot of confusion among the faithful. It is a precarious situation. There was opposition. Cardinal Joseph Zen, emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, felt that a deal with the CCP would be “to send the flocks into the mouth of wolves”. He even named it a betrayal—a betrayal of the loyal Chinese underground Church.

Pope Francis could have postponed a decision on the matter, saying, that it was not yet the opportune moment to take one. This is what most administrators do in the Church: postpone, instead of engaging with difficult problems. As it is said, for the coward, the opportune moment never comes! The pope is aware of the importance of the present moment to arrive at a decision; which he took indeed amid contestations. There is a risk. In hindsight of history, the agreement with China could be the most outstanding achievement of Pope Francis’ papacy, but could also turn out to be the most monumental blunder. The pope was aware of the risks and yet took a clear decision.

On 4 January 2019, Pope Francis goes to Dubai and meets with the Great Imam at Al Azhar with whom he makes a joint historic declaration of peace, fraternity, and religious harmony. The meeting was historic; so too the content of the joint statement. This statement acknowledges the plurality of religions as willed by God: a revolutionary statement! Henceforth Christian relationship to other religions takes on a new dimension and calls for a different approach. Let me quote from this statement: 

Freedom is a right of every person; each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.[8]

Far-reaching are the consequences of this joint declaration for the theology of religions. Here is a landmark in the Christian theology of religions. If God wills the religions like race, gender difference, the colour of the skin, and so on, then we need to take them very seriously and work with them (religions) for the salvation of the world. 

The significance of this meeting with the Imam of Al-Azhar and the signing of the declaration stands out in bold relief against the background of the controversial lecture of Benedict XVI in Regensburg on September 12, 2006, which allegedly stated that Christianity is rational. In contrast, Islam is not (quoting the last Christian Byzantine Emperor Manuel II). In Muslim perception, the claims made in this lecture were an insult to Islam. Coming indeed from none other than the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the claims added to the gravity of the issue. It caused a huge commotion and street protests in many Islamic countries. A Pakistan-based Islamic body issued a fatwa against the pope. Thanks to quick diplomatic moves of the Vatican, the situation was diffused, and the Church was saved from further embarrassment. In any genuine dialogue, it is not only a matter of what I am saying is right or not. It is important how what I am saying is perceived by my dialogue partner. I think the recent visit of Pope Francis to Al Azhar and the joint declaration with the Imam there has contributed to healing the wounds of the past and has helped to win back the trust of our Islamic brothers and sisters.   

Pope Francis does not gloss over difficult issues but takes the bull by its horns. One clear example is the issue of homosexuality which is not merely a moral issue but a humanistic issue. That there are people who have innate homosexual tendencies similar to heterosexuality is something no one can ignore. Only by the fact of possessing this tendency and inclination, homosexuals automatically do not become sinners. In this case, the Pope showed that everything need not be subjected to moral judgement. We leave certain things to God to judge. Hence his reply to the journalist as he was travelling back from Brazil after his first visit abroad as pope “If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” It implied that homosexuals should not be marginalised but accepted and integrated into society. Opposition to the pope has got intensified since his proposal that civil union of the same sex be considered. His remarks appeared in a documentary called “Francesco”, prepared with the approval of Vatican.   

Besides the issue of homosexuality,[9] he has confronted boldly the long-standing pastoral issues connected with family. He convoked two synods on this issue. One of the most disputed questions at these two synods was about giving communion to the divorcees who are remarried. It was an extremely sensitive issue in Europe and the USA with opinions very divided. When he drew up his post-synodal exhortation, he did not avoid this thorn in the flesh. He faced it and made his view known with solid arguments. In a footnote in Amoris Laetitia (footnote 351 no. 305) the pope expressed the possibility of communion to the divorcees and remarried due to mitigating situations. His argument is in the spirit of the Gospel. Quoting Evangelii Gaudium the pope says, “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47). Indeed, the Eucharist is not only for the healthy and the holy, but has also therapeutic or curing effect. All hell broke loose from this footnote! Pope Francis was accused of turning against the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith and tradition.[10] His understanding of faith is much broader and more profound; and he stands his ground. 

Let me cite one more instance which speaks volumes about Pope Francis’s boldness to act amid uncertainties and ambiguities. I am referring here to the convocation of the Synod of Amazonia (October 6–27, 2019). Such a regional synod itself was a bold innovation. The pope created an environment of freedom of thought and expression and gave the synodal reflections and proposals considerable attention and thought. For example, he let such recommendations be made as the ordination of married men, women’s ministry. But the synod was marred by the controversy around the wooden statue of a lady (Pachamama) presented to the pope. The two-foot-high figurine became the focus of ire and wanton vandalism. For those who presented it, the statue in question had multivalent meaning—mother earth, Virgin Mary, fertility and life in Amazonia—whereas it was a provocation for those who saw just one thing in the statue: an idol!  

If we analyse deep, we will note a resistance to this synod by the Euro-centric right-wing Catholicism, a fringe group but powerful, which believes the legacy of Plato and Aristotle is an integral part of the Christian kerygma. This Catholicism and ancien régime Christianity look with cynicism at efforts like that of indigenous peoples of Amazonia who live and understand faith according to their ethos and genius. The resistance, fear and anger of Euro-centric Catholicism has discredited the synod and trivialised Pope Francis’s initiative. Through this synod, Pope Francis allowed the face of another way of being Christian and Catholic be manifested at the heart of Rome. It proved to be a provocation for Euro-centric Catholicism which considers itself judge over other cultures, languages, Churches, and all other forms of Christianity. 

10. A Pope of Inter-religious Public Theology 

The themes of the interdependence of everything, harmony, friendship and fraternity are dear ones in Asia. These are the ways that interreligious understanding, harmony and cooperation have been promoted over millennia and centuries. Pope captured this Asian spirit of interreligious relationships so well, which was evident during his apostolic visit to some Asian countries. In fact, at the very beginning of chapter eight of Fratelli Tutti, pope quotes from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) which said, “the goal of dialogue is to establish friendship, peace and harmony, and to share spiritual and moral values and experiences in a spirit of truth and love.” (FT 271). 

The interreligious journey of Pope Francis has taken him to visit places of worship of brothers and sisters of other faiths. He visited a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka; he has visited synagogues, mosques, etc. What the pope has done is a beautiful example inviting the Christians to visit frequently the places of worship of our neighbours reverently and with a sense of sacredness. 

During the stay in Sri Lanka, his visit to a Buddhist temple was not something planned ahead following the canons of diplomacy and protocol, but something that happened spontaneously. The head of the Buddhist temple who was there to receive the pope at the airport invited him to his temple. Without further ado, the pope agreed to a friend’s invitation and made adjustments in his programme to visit the Buddhist temple. “He called me, so I went”. This is how the pope describes so cutely how natural his visit to the Buddhist temple was.[11] It is interesting how the Asian experience of his visit to a Marian shrine in Madhu in Sri Lanka triggered the pope’s thought and feelings to the Asian way of interreligious relationships. He witnessed first-hand how in a Christian Church – the Marian shrine of Madhu – Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims were on pilgrimage. While this is a quite common sight in Asia, this was a new experience for the pope who was very much struck and touched by this inter-religious meeting of peoples of different faiths. The Pope asked himself if these people come to our churches to pray, why should I not go to their sacred place. This he gives as a further reason for visiting the Buddhist temple. 

Francis’ approach to interreligious friendship and fraternity goes beyond comparing and contrasting verbal formulation of doctrines. In the Buddhist and Hindu tradition, this is considered “upaya” or simply means which is not the same thing as seeing the truth, or walking on the path of truth which is prajna or wisdom. Francis is not caught in the prison of verbal doctrinal formulation and their orthodoxy, which builds walls rather than bridges. It insulates the Church and prevents it from reaching out to other religious traditions. 

The new dimension to interreligious dialogue Pope Francis gives also derives from his ecclesiology. It is not a church incurvate in se – bent on itself. Right from the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has projected a centrifugal Church which is right in the midst of the world, reaching out to the conditions of the society, aspirations and dreams of people. The kind of inter-religious dialogue he promotes precisely chimes with his ecclesiological orientation directed to the world and its pastoral situation, very much in the spirit of Gaudium et Spes. In his words and deeds, I think, Pope Francis blends interreligious dialogue with a pastoral practice, oriented to the world. To speak through the lens of Vatican II, Francis bridges so beautifully Nostra Aetate and Gaudium et Spes. From a theological point of view, what he does is indeed a public theology. The realisation of his vision of universal fraternity entails that religious resources for peace and harmony be brought to bear upon the struggles and conflicts in the world and society. In other words, the pope sees interreligious relationships embedded in the movement and journey towards a world of universal fraternity. 

11. The Francis Factor and Asian Theology of Religions and Dialogue 

Let me highlight the tremendous importance of Fratelli tutti, as it comes as a great encouragement to the Asian theologies of religions and dialogue, and Asian approaches to mission. The approach to interreligious dialogue through friendship and fraternity is one which values dialogue in itself, and does not view it as a means for evangelisation. This is a point that Asian bishops and theologians have sought to bring out since several decades amidst stiff opposition. Fratelli tutti is a confirmation of the Asian efforts. As far back as 1987, Asian bishops and theologians made this point very clear when they said, 

We affirm that dialogue and mission have their own integrity and freedom. They are distinct but not unrelated. Dialogue is not a tool or instrument for mission and evangelisation, but it does influence the way the Church perceives and practices mission in a pluralist world…Dialogue offers opportunities for Christian witness…[12]

The new openings created by Pope Francis needs to be highlighted against some unfortunate developments in the past under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There has been continuous suspicion of Asian theology and harassment of Asian theologians who have been trying to develop a mission theology and theology of religions that reflect Asian experiences and resources. For example, one would recall the contributions of Fr Michael Amaladoss and deceased Fr Jacques Dupuis. They have been teaching in India for several decades learning from their experiences of dialogue with peoples of other religions which they tried to crystallise and articulate in their theologies. Really sad and most unfortunate is the fact that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as its Prefect, went to the extent of imposing such a severe punishment as excommunication on an Asian theologian, and that too at the fag end of the twentieth century for alleged doctrinal errors hardly anyone took note of at that time, and probably no one remembers today! 

I have been wondering how this Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) which was so particular and quick to impose excommunication on an Asian theologian, Tissa Balasuriya, had almost nothing effective to say nor did it intervene decisively in the sexual abuse case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick [now deposed and laicised by Pope Francis] of Washington DC, even though this case was well-known to this Congregation, as the lengthy report of Vatican on this issue reveals. How does one compare the excommunication punishment imposed on Tissa Balasuriya with the handling of the case of McCarrick by this congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith? 

On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how come that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took charge, under John Paul II, of the disciplinary issue of sexual abuse by the clergy, while one would normally expect that the Congregation for the Clergy would deal with such issues. Things getting worse with the case of McCarrick, the matter was presented “directly to Pope Benedict XVI. Ultimately, the path of a canonical process to resolve factual issues and possibly prescribe canonical penalties was not taken. Instead, the decision was made to appeal to McCarrick’s conscience and ecclesial spirit by indicating to him that he should maintain a lower profile and minimise travel for the good of the Church.”[13] Now, compare the haste with which Balasuriya was punished, we do not really know for what, with excommunication, and the lethargy and inertia towards the case of McCarrick and a failure to take canonical action in the face of a scandal of Himalayan proportions.  

I recall these facts to underline the exceptional significance of Francis’s pontificate for Asian Churches and the sense of relief they feel from the tensions of the past. I also want to highlight the universalistic message of Fratelli tutti, which can take Asian Christians to new frontiers of encounter with peoples of other faiths and encourage them (Christians) further to work jointly with brothers and sisters of other faiths for a peaceful and harmonious world. 

Conclusion: Pope Francis Leading a Listening Church of the Poor 

The Church is a tent; it moves with the people. It shifts. It is not a weakness. Faith in God turns the Church into a pilgrim, a Church always on the way. Hence there is no room for any sense of triumph as if one has reached the final goal. True to the pilgrim nature of the Church, we have a universal pastor in the Church who does not use his formal authority to impose. Here is a pope who listens – listens to the local Churches and to Bishops’ Conferences worldwide. Pope Francis listens to the voices of the indigenous peoples (Synod of Amazonia), voices of the victims of clerical sexual abuse, voices of prisoners, of the physically challenged, the voices of peoples of other faiths, the voices of refugees and migrants. The result is a different papacy. It is not a papacy of ermine cape, silk and fine red shoes, a life of aloofness in the cultural ambience of nobility, but a life lived in elegant simplicity residing in the community of Santa Marta, settling his own hotel bills, looking for his spectacles in an optical shop, and carrying his own bag on travel, like most people.

At the same time, Pope Francis is battling to carry forward the spirit of VC II and its legacy with a new focus on the poor and the marginalised. The major stumbling block he encounters on this journey is the stiff resistance to change among a powerful segment within the Church. There is a fixated mindset among Church-leaders and Church-institutions. Any radical reform takes place when there comes into being a new mindset. To inculcate the flexibility of mind and openness to change, Francis refers to Cardinal John Henry Newman’s words, whom he recently canonised. “Here on earth to live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect”. Francis’ efforts at decentralisation and synodal governance in the Church provoke a reaction. This difficulty he encounters both in the Roman Curia and in the leadership of local Churches, infected with feudal trappings and medieval mindset. 

From what I have said, it should be clear now, to be Pope Francis is not a bed of roses, but of thorns. It is a terrible experience of even isolation and loneliness. Marco Politi, a biographer of Pope Francis, has titled his work “Francis’s Loneliness. A Prophetic Pope. A Church in Stormy Seas’.[14] In his own house, in his own Curia, Pope Francis is misunderstood and sidelined. Pope Francis needs the support of all of us. We support him in that we follow his vision of faith, his path of the Gospel and his image of the Church and his continuing engagement with society and the world, at large.  

The pope is working on the Reform of the Roman Curia. When I was president of the International Theological Journal Concilium, we prepared a special issue on ‘Reform of the Roman Curia’ to support the pope in his reform initiative.[15] We released the volume in Rome. Copies in Italian and Spanish were handed over to the Pope. Later we came to the conclusion, that to carry out the renewal of the Church, the existing Code of Canon Law is inadequate. Hence, we brought out an issue on ‘Revision of Canon Law’.[16] The idea proposed was to reshape Canon Law in such a way that it supports the pope’s initiatives for renewing the Church.[17]  

I think that the voice of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania is not loud enough. It is time that the voices from the global South resound. We need to tell Euro-centric Christianity and Catholic fundamentalists that we stand by the vision and praxis of Pope Francis because we see the splendour and joy of the Gospel reflected in his words and actions. What Francis says and does vibrate with our own experiences in this part of the world. Yes, he is, indeed, a pope from “the end of the earth”. 

[1]; cf. also Robert Moynihan, Finding Viganò: In Search of the Man Whose Testimony Shook the Church and the World (Gastonia NC: TAN Books, 2020).; Marco Tossatti, Viganò e il Papa: Un testimone racconta (Hong Kong: Chorabooks, 2019). 

[2] On the other hand, despite his disciples’ adulation, even while alive Benedict XVI’s theological legacy seems to be getting buried. History will remember him, probably, not so much for his integralist theological views as for his wise and honest decision to resign when he felt that physically and mentally, he could not carry on with the leadership of the Church. Cf. Felix Wilfred, “The Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, in Concilium 2013/2, 123-127. To add a personal note, I could experience his theological views first-hand when I was a member of the International Theological Commission which he presided then as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. 

[3] There was a whole conference organised at the University of Vienna (in which I also participated) on the theological genius of Pope Francis and his theological programme. Over against those who maintain that the pontificate of Francis may not leave any lasting impact on the Church due to his lack of any in-depth theological orientation, the conference showed how deep and wide his theological vision is as found in his documents Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si. See Kurt Appel – Jakob Helmut Deibl, eds., Barmherzigkeit und zärtiliche Liebe. Das theologische Programm von Past Franziskus (Freiburg: Herder, 2016). 

[4] Massimo Borghesi, The Mind of Pope Francis. Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2018). 

[5] For the text of the CDF document see:

[6] Cf. Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (London: Allen & Unwin, 2014); see also Paul Valley Pope Francis: Untying the Knots; Marco Politi, Pope Francis among the Wolves. The Inside Story of a Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). 

[7] [accessed on 3 February, 2021]

[8] For the text of the document, see [accessed on 3 February 2021]. 

[9] It may be recalled here that decades ago when the debate on homosexuality was at its early state, Concilium brought out a highly appreciated special issue entitled “Homosexualities” Concilium 2008/1. 

[10] For a summary of the traditionalist arguments against Francis in the matter of communion to the divorced and remarried, as well as in other doctrinal issues, see Ross Douthat, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).  It would appear that the author reproduces the nineteenth-century antithesis of a Church well-entrenched in its tradition standing in opposition to modernity. Only that the roles have changed. In this case, the Pope would represent a liberal and relativist Christianity a la modernity, whereas the Catholics are invited to preserve the doctrine and tradition of the Church against a pope who is dangerous for its unity and purity of doctrine. 

[11] Cf. Harold Kasimow – Alan Race, eds., Pope Francis and Interreligious Dialogue (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).  

[12] This statement came out of a joint meeting of the bishops and theologians of FABC and of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in Singapore in 1987, which I had the opportunity to participate and address. For the text of the final statement, see Living and Working Together with Sisters and Brothers of Other Faiths in Asia (Hong Kong: FABC – CCA, 1989). It is striking that this encounter used the terminology of “brothers and sisters” for believers of other religions, and hence Fratelli tutti on the brotherhood and sisterhood of all beyond religious affiliation finds excellent resonance in Asia. 

[13] See 20201110_en.pdf [accessed on 30 January 2021].

[14] Marco Politi, La solititudine di Francesco: Un papa profetico, una Chiesa in tempesta (Roma: Editori Laterza, 2019).

[15] Concilium 2013/5

[16] Concilium 2016/5   

[17] Cf. Felix Wilfred, “Theology and Canon Law: Journeying Together”, in Concilium 2016/5, 41-52. 

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