VATICAN CITY — A recent letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has become the subject of controversy, after a Vatican office admitted to releasing a photo of the letter blurring some lines.
The letter responded to an invitation to review a series of books detailing the theological perspective of Pope Francis. While Benedict declined the invitation, saying he wouldn’t have time to read the books, he noted “that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation.”
The pope emeritus praised the series as an effort to “oppose and react to the foolish prejudice in which Pope Francis is just a practical man without particular theological or philosophical formation.”
While the letter remains the center of debate, it does raise an important question: What exactly is Pope Francis’ theological formation?
Those who know Jorge Bergoglio well are quick to point out that he is not a “systematic theologian” and that he cannot be called a theological expert in the academic sense of the word.
However, despite a lack of formal academic experience, biographers note that Francis has a sharp mind and an extensive knowledge of influential Catholic thinkers, especially in the Latin American context.
Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh told CNA that the first Latin American pope cannot be identified exclusively with any particular theological movement or approach.
“People knew where John Paul II’s philosophy school was, they could situation him because of his thesis, and because of his scholarly life; and the same with Benedict: Benedict could easily be located as part of a particular school,” Ivereigh said. But Bergoglio “is not a systematic theologian, so you can’t really identify him with any particular school.”
However, Ivereigh, author of the authoritative English-language papal biography The Great Reformer, told CNA that as a seminarian, studying at the Jesuit-run Colegio Maximo in Argentina, Bergoglio was the only student to ever get full marks in his classes.
“He was brilliant. Everybody recognized that he was intellectually brilliant from the beginning,” Ivereigh said.
Ivereigh said when Bergoglio was named seminary rector, years later, many of his students also commented that “he was incredibly widely read in literature of the world, European and Latin American, poetry, classics, novels. He was very, very cultured in that broader sense of the word.”
Alejandro Bermudez, executive director of CNA and editor of the papal biography Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend, said Bergoglio was “a Jesuit of the old school,” and as such, “he definitely had that very rounded formation, with several interests,” including poetry, classical literature and writings from the influential thinkers of the day.
However, after being placed into administrative and leadership roles at a young age, the future pope “spent a lot of time doing practical things and in a practical position,” which took him away from academic endeavors.
“The truth is: He did not have enough time to get into a deep theological formation,” Bermudez said.
“I'm not saying he’s a lightweight,” he said, adding that Francis “has a well-rounded theological formation for sure.”
Bergoglio was tapped as the Argentine Jesuit provincial in 1973 at the age of 36, during a tumultuous period in which the nation was led by a violent military dictatorship. In 1980 he was named rector of the Philosophical and Theological Faculty at San Miguel Seminary in Buenos Aires, where he taught theology and oversaw Jesuit novices until 1986. He was removed from that role when his emphasis on traditional theology and spirituality clashed with the Jesuits’ then-superior general, Hans Kolvenbach.
He was sent to the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt, Germany, to begin doctoral studies, which were based on the writings of German-Italian theologian Romano Guardini. However, after just a few months, he was sent back to Argentina as a confessor in Cordoba.
By the time he was named auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992, he still had not finished his doctoral thesis. Bergoglio continued to ascend the ranks of Church hierarchy, taking on increasingly administrative roles that plunged him further into political and practical affairs, and farther away from his doctorate, which remains unfinished to this day.
However, according to Ivereigh, simply because Francis can’t be attached to a particular theological school, “that doesn’t mean that he’s difficult to pin down, because, actually, his intellectual trajectory is very clear.”
The Pope’s intellectual influences include several prominent 20th-century thinkers.
Bergoglio was familiar with Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss priest considered to be among the most influential theologians of the 20th century. He was also familiar with Gaston Fassard, a French Jesuit priest and theologian who died in 1978, as well as other influential Jesuit thinkers of the time, such as German-Polish theologian Enrich Przywara and Frenchman Henri de Lubac.
The Italian-born German priest Romano Guardini, whose theology formed the basis for the future Pope’s unfinished doctoral thesis, was also influential on Bergoglio.
Guardini, who lived 1885-1968, also influenced Pope Benedict XVI, who referenced Guardini frequently.
However, despite the frequent references to Guardini and the decision of Bergoglio to focus his thesis on Guardini’s writings, Bermudez stressed the need to have caution when it comes to just how much influence Guardini had, since Bergoglio’s thesis was never finished.
“We just know that he was incredibly impacted to the point that he wanted to do his doctoral thesis on him. But there is no trace of the Pope explaining himself in any kind of writing or interview or whatever about how much, or how, Guardini impacted him.”
Latin American Influences
Bergoglio’s biographers say he was impacted especially by several prominent Latin American theologians who were influential in teologia latinoamericana, or Latin American theology, an approach that emphasized the Church’s closeness to ordinary people and their expressions of popular devotion.
According to Bermudez, those who had the biggest impact on Francis’ thought were Jesuit Father Juan Carlos Scannone — who is still alive and was a professor of the young Father Bergoglio — as well as Argentinian Father Lucio Gera and Uruguayan Alberto Methol Ferre, who Bermudez said was “super influential on a whole generation of Latin Americans.”
Bermudez explained that the teologia latinoamericana intellectuals had a clear vision for the need to develop a theology “that would line up with the idea that Latin America, as a large continent with one language and one religion, had some kind of a ‘manifest destiny.’”
“These were the people who understood that Latin America had a huge contribution to make to the world of theology, considering that close to half of Catholics were living on the continent,” he said.
This approach emphasized the preferential option for the poor and that popular piety and devotion would play a major role in unifying Latin American and in preserving and transmitting the faith across the continent.
“That’s where the Pope’s preference for the importance of Marian shrines and processions and events of massive faith comes from,” Bermudez said, explaining that because of the way in which people gathered to celebrate their faith in this “popular” way, the approach later became known as the teologia del pueblo.
“What is known today as the teologia del pueblo didn’t exist at that time,” Bermudez said, explaining that the “theology of the people” was a later evolution of Latin American theology.
Bermudez stressed that these ideas were different from liberation theology, which sprung up in Latin America in the 1970s and often emphasized a Marxist interpretation of the Gospel, viewing faith through the lens of class struggle, rather than giving primacy to spiritual freedom.
He explained that liberation theology largely rejected popular piety, believing it to be “some kind of backwards approach to religion that would keep people away from social change and structural change.”
Liberation theology was not relevant in Argentina at the time of Bergoglio’s formation, Bermudez said.
When Bergoglio was being formed, Bermudez said, “there was a lot of hope in a Latin American future in which Latin America would play a huge role in the world,” but he noted that in the years since, “crisis and corruption and political squabbles pretty much put an end to any hope that Latin America would raise up as one single nation.”
However, the influence of the teologia latinoamericana can clearly be seen in Francis’ words, actions and personal style, above all in his emphasis on community and solidarity, which Bermudez said stems from the belief that popular devotion “was a richness that allowed the people of Latin America to preserve and persevere in their faith.”
Another manifestation of this formation is the hope Francis has for Latin America’s role Church, since it covers such large swaths of territory, from the Rio Grande to the Tierra del Fuego.
“You can hardly find any other place in the planet when you can go through such a large territory and be celebrating the same faith and speaking the same language,” Bermudez said, adding that while he’s not sure if Pope Francis has a specific belief in the “great future” of Latin America, he still has a tremendous hope for the continent.
Likewise, Ivereigh said this influence can be seen even from Bergoglio’s time as rector of the San Miguel Seminary in Buenos Aires, where he kept a strict spiritual and academic regime for the Jesuit novices, while also encouraging them to pray the Rosary together and sending them out to minister in parishes on the weekends.
“His vision of the Church, I think, derives from his reading of the Spanish missionary experience in the colonial era of Latin America. He makes frequent references, particularly in Latin America, to that era,” Ivereigh said.
Bergoglio wanted the seminarians to “get out of their heads and have contact with the people; so study was important, but on weekends they were out there with the people, ministering in the parishes,” which was unusual for Jesuits at the time, who typically placed a heavy emphasis on academics.
After the Second Vatican Council, Bergoglio was “very skeptical of progressive attempts to depart from core Catholic traditions,” such as, in his view, downgrading the importance of popular piety, Ivereigh said.
“He was very strong on maintaining that,” Ivereigh said, explaining that Bergoglio’s approach was consistently about “going back to the original charism of the 16th-century Jesuits,” which placed a strong emphasis on missionary outreach.
“He certainly didn’t want to go back to the former time before the Council, but he didn’t want a modernization that would dilute the Catholic Tradition, and he wanted a deeper reform that returned the Jesuits to their deeper traditions.”
How His Formation Shapes His Papacy
Both biographers noted that, while the Pope has limited formal theological training, his formation and intellect can be seen in his daily words and actions.
For Ivereigh, Francis’ entire five-year pontificate has so far been “one big lesson in what they call in Latin and Italian pastoralita: It’s one big lesson in how to be pastoral ... putting people first, spending time with them, showing that everybody is valuable, showing that God cares about everybody.”
This is seen in Francis’ homilies and travels, but also in his interaction with the media and his general approachability, Ivereigh said, explaining that, in his view, the Pope is constantly trying to remove “unnecessary blockages” that get in the way of reaching people.
“Some of those blockages are the result of social and cultural change, which lead people, for example, to be suspicious of institutions or to see institutions as distant. But some of those blockages are also part of the Church’s culture,” he said. “So the proclamation has to be simpler, humbler and more kerygmatic. That’s been his big message of these last five years.”
In his view, Bermudez said the influence of Latin American theology, in particular, can be seen clearly in the Pope’s continuous encouragement for priests to take on the “smell of the sheep,” as well as his ideas about how the priesthood and episcopate should be based on the “conviction that the faith of the people is very powerful.”
Since the beginning, Francis has preached the importance of popular devotions, the need for greater hope and solidarity, the importance of truth, a sense of good and evil and an emphasis on divine intervention, Bermudez said.
“All that has been influenced by this experience of the common people, your day-by-day Catholic who lives from Church feast to Church feast and experiences their faith [in this way],” he said, adding that this approach has “completely impregnated his preaching and his vision of how to live our faith.”