Author: Pope Francis Is a ‘Mystic’ Trying to Solve Left-Right Dichotomy in the Church

Massimo Borghesi draws on Pope Francis’ intellectual formation to conclude that he is trying to resolve tensions between polar opposites.

Massimo Borghesi
Massimo Borghesi (photo: YouTube)

For Massimo Borghesi, author of Jorge Mario Bergoglio: An Intellectual Biography, Pope Francis is an “original and profound” thinker who has drawn on numerous Church thinkers of the 20th century to seek a “third position” between conservatism and progressivism.

In email comments to the Register, Borghesi, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Perugia, said the Pope has been influenced by thinkers who view the Church as “the complexio oppositorum, the point of contrasting unions that, on the natural level, do not find a solution.”

Francis, he said, “is a mystic” who sees his mission as resolving these tensions.

Borghesi revealed recently that on four occasions between January and March this year, he sent the Holy Father questions, to which the Pope responded through recorded audio files.

In them, the Pope shared more details on his intellectual formation and listed six intellectuals who have influenced him: French Jesuit Father Gaston Fessard, Argentinean philosopher Amelia Podetti, Uruguayan historian Methol Ferré, Polish-German Jesuit Father Erich Przywara, Italian-German Father Romano Guardini, and Swiss theologian Father Hans Urs von Balthasar. (See more on the backgrounds of these thinkers at the end of the interview).


Professor Borghesi, which of the intellectual thinkers (Fessard, Guardini, Przywara, Methol Ferré, Podetti and von Balthasar) was the most influential on Jorge Bergoglio, in your opinion?

In fact, they were all important at different times in his life. Gaston Fessard, the Jesuit from Lyon who was a friend of [Second Vatican Council expert theologian] Henri de Lubac, is — as I demonstrate in my book Jorge Mario Bergoglio. An Intellectual Biography — at the origin of Bergoglio’s intellectual formation.

The young Bergoglio is an assiduous reader of Fessard’s work La dialectique des “Exercices spirituels” de saint Ignace de Loyola. In it, the French Jesuit showed how Ignatian spirituality was determined by a polar tension between God and man, grace and freedom, the infinitely great and the infinitely small. From here rises the “tensioned thinking” of the future Pope. It is this thought that explains Bergoglio’s interest in the polar dialectic of Romano Guardini, when, in 1986, he went to Germany to do his doctoral thesis.

Since then, Guardini has become his point of reference. This idea of polarity, which finds its place of synthesis in Catholicism, also allows us to understand the central bond that unites Bergoglio to Amelia Podetti, the most important Argentine thinker of the 1970s, to Alberto Methol Ferrè, the most brilliant Latin American Catholic intellectual of the second half of the 20th century.


How responsible is Fessard for Francis’ alleged contradictions and perceived Hegelianism — the dialectic of holding two seemingly contradictory positions, or as one of his advisers once said, believing that 2 + 2 can be equivalent to 5?

Those who say this show that they know neither Bergoglio nor Fessard. Gaston Fessard is not “Hegelian.” Among other things, he was one of the most acute critics of French Catholic Progressivism in the 1960s and 1970s. That is why, despite his great intellectual stature, he disappeared from the French cultural scene at some point. He was personally placed alongside Hegel for a long time, but starting from Maurice Blondel’s position. The dialectic, which contrasts with Hegel, is of St. Paul, for whom Christ is the unity that overcomes the antithesis between slaves and free, men and women, Jews and Greeks.

For Fessard, as for Guardini and de Lubac, the Church is the complexio oppositorum, the point of contrasting unions that, on the natural level, do not find a solution. Bergoglio is part of this line of Catholic thought whose source is Adam Möhler and whose representatives are Erich Przywara, Romano Guardini, Henri de Lubac, Gaston Fessard. This explains his statement that “Time is greater than space.”

Francis is a mystic who conceives his mission as initiating processes that the Spirit will bring to a solution. It is not the Hegelian reason that reconciles history, but the Spirit of Christ, the Mystery.

As for Bergoglio’s “Hegelianism,” this is a ridiculous accusation. One of his principles states that “reality is greater than ideas.” Bergoglio, coming from the school of St. Thomas [Aquinas], is a realist. His criticism of the “Gnostic” danger, in a religious setting, has as its adversary the danger of idealism.

All of Bergoglio’s spirituality, following St. Ignatius, is a spirituality of the Incarnation. For the Pope, the Christian is immersed in the flesh of the world, also noticeably immersed. There is no witness without seeing, hearing, touching, embracing. We are a long way from the perspective of German idealism.


How much do you think von Balthasar is responsible for the Pope’s comments that “everything will be saved” and his alleged remarks, not completely disavowed by the Vatican, that there is no hell?

Also in this case, we are faced with ridiculous accusations, induced by the fanciful statements of Eugenio Scalfari — the journalist who, every time after his private conversations with Francis, “memorizes” his conclusions, attributing them to the pontiff. This shows great patience on the part of the Pope.

Francis’ ideas about hell are manifest. They are those of traditional doctrine. Not only has Francis spoken of the devil on several occasions as a real spirit, not merely a symbol of evil, but he also recalled the doctrine of hell. In 2016, he said verbatim: “[People face eternal damnation, what Francis calls a “second death”] because they did not approach the Lord: They are those who are always going down their own path, far away from the Lord, and passing by the Lord, moving away from him, alone. Eternal damnation is the constant turning away from God.”

Hell, since it is inhabited by Satan, exists. It is the place of spiritual death. Regarding von Balthasar, two mistakes are made. The first is the misunderstanding of his reading of hell, which is not the “the empty hell” reported in many media. The second is that von Balthasar’s influence on Bergoglio concerns the value of the aesthetic moment (beauty) in communicating the Good and the True. Von Balthasar also influenced Bergoglio in his criticism of Gnosticism, the disembodiment of Christianity.


You have said that the fruits of the Pope’s intellectual formation are a “profound Catholic thought which, outside of any conciliatory irenics, struggles, the drama of history, begins processes of unity whose evidence is entrusted to time, guided by God.” What do you say to the view that his intellectual vision, based on these thinkers, is fundamentally non-Catholic because it shows a modernist line of thought that is not in line with the teaching of the Church based on Holy Scripture and 2,000 years of Tradition?

I have already replied to that. Those who accuse Francis of modernism show they know nothing about his theological-philosophical formation. The authors I have mentioned — Przywara, Guardini, de Lubac, Fessard, von Balthasar, Methol Ferré — are at the center of “Catholic” thought of the 20th century. Bergoglio is a model disciple of the Council, not in the sense of progressivism that he has never shared, but in the sense of Paul VI, the pontiff in whom he most recognizes himself.

In Argentina, progressive Jesuits accused him of being a “conservative.” The biography of Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York, 2014), documents this very well. Bergoglio is certainly not a “conservative” on the social level but, on the doctrinal level, is steadfast in safeguarding tradition. Many critics mistake the two levels and cause a great deal of confusion.

The same criticism of Amoris Laetitia stems, to a large extent, from the prejudice of those who consider the Pope a dangerous progressive. They exchange the dogmatic level — the indissolubility of marriage — with that concerning canon law: the possibility for the Church to exceptionally allow the Eucharist in particular cases. The scandal was created artfully, driven by those who do not love this Pope and who take advantage of the ignorance of many on such a delicate matter.


What, to you, have been the greatest contributions to the Pope and the wider Church of these authors?

The contribution of the authors we have mentioned before — Przywara, Guardini, De Lubac, Fessard, von Balthasar — is of having outlined a “third position” different from both the conservative and the progressive one. It is the position that allowed the realization of the Second Vatican Council. Francis is a model son of the Council and of the theological-philosophical thought that promoted and sustained him.


In short, which thinkers of Latin America influenced him?

The two I have mentioned — Amelia Podetti and Alberto Methol Ferré — together with the authors of the School of the Rio de La Plata who gave shape to the Teologia del Pueblo (theology of the people). The latter, Lucio Gera and Juan Carlos Scannone in primis, represent the Argentine version of liberation theology. The “theology of the people” is a critical reading of liberation theology. It clearly rejects the contribution of Marxism, the primacy of practice over doctrine, the idea of revolutionary violence. Instead, it accepts the preferential option for the poor, applied to the whole of the Latin American Church with the Conference of Puebla (1979).

The theology of the people means the people not in a populist way, but as “pueblo fiel,” as a believing people. The struggle for justice does not take place in the abstract, ideologically, but through action, customs and beliefs that characterize the “Christian religiosity” of the Latin American people.

The Virgen de Guadalupe is the presence that enlightens the faith of the people and their commitment to justice. Those who accuse Francis of being a follower of Marxist liberation theology demonstrate their profound ignorance.


It is interesting that all these thinkers are from the 20th century. Does he draw on any philosophers and theologians of the Church from previous eras?

They are authors of the 20th century, but their main roots are, as we have said, in the great ecclesiology of Adam Möhler (1796-1838). Moreover, we must not forget that the foundations of Bergoglio’s “realism” are deeply rooted in St. Ignatius and, before him, St. Thomas.

In the preface to a book on Rafael Tello, Bergoglio writes that: “In an era when the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas was set aside, when a person who based his teaching on the Summa was looked upon as an antediluvian beast, he [Rafael Tello] constantly kept the Summa Theologiae as a reference of his thought. He understood more than anyone else the depth and originality of St. Thomas Aquinas.”

The doctrine of the unity of the transcendental being, which Bergoglio borrowed through von Balthasar, fully corresponds to Thomist ontology.


Backgrounds to Scholars Who Have Influenced Pope Francis:

French Jesuit Gaston Fessard (1897-1978) was a prominent member of the French Resistance during World War II. Some believe he tried to give a Christian reading to the thinking of the 19th-century German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who saw history not in a Christian way, but as an intelligible process moving toward the realization of human freedom. Fessard is also considered by some to have been central to the revival of Hegelian thought on history in France.

(In comments to the Register April 23, Borghesi stressed that Father Fessard was “not a ‘Hegelian’ Christian but a Catholic thinker who developed a non-Hegelian dialectical model, one that was far from Hegel.” He added that Augusto Del Noce, “the great Italian thinker and a critic of both progressivism and Hegel, judged Fessard's historical-dialectical method ‘brilliant.’” Borghesi went on to stress that it is “totally false” to consider Bergoglio “Hegelian.” If that were the case, he added, “then Romano Guardini, Ratzinger's master, is also "Hegelian" which would be “a serious misinterpretation.”)

Argentinean philosopher Amelia Podetti (1928-1979) was also a scholar of Hegel, opposed Marxism and gave life to placing social thought in the cultural traditions of a nation. Borghesi believes Podetti influenced the Pope’s emphasis on the “periphery” and taught him that the world changes when looked at from the outside and from the edges rather than from its centers and cities, places where it is not possible to understand the drama of history.

Methol Ferré (1929-2009), a Uruguayan historian and theologian with leftist political leanings.

Erich Przywara (1889-1972), a Jesuit philosopher and theologian best known for synthesizing the tension between divine immanence and divine transcendence, what he called a “unity-in-tension.”

Father Romano Guardini (1885-1968), a favorite of Benedict XVI best known for his study of current problems and challenges from the perspective of Catholic Tradition.

Father Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), the Swiss theologian who also sought an intellectual, faithful response to modernity that posed a challenge to traditional Catholic thought. He is controversial for his assertion that there is no certainty that anyone is in hell or ever will be in hell. 


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.