Pope Francis, Ecumenical Engagement and Integral Humanism

Adrian Pabst, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Kent, UK, Visiting Professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po) and at IBS Moscow

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for wpfdc.org

On 19 March Pope Francis was inaugurated as the 266th pontiff or successor of St. Peter during a solemn Mass attended by Metropolitan Hilarion and by Bartholomew I, the spiritual head of Eastern Orthodoxy and the first Orthodox Patriarch to attend a papal inauguration since the Great Schism of 1054.

In many ways Francis’ papacy seems to be bound up with a renewed ecumenical vigour that has the potential to promote Christian unity more broadly and deeply across the world. That, in turn, will provide a crucial impetus for an integral humanism and a politics of the common good which alone can resist the post-humanist relativism and the forces of oligarchy that are already upon us.

What’s in a name? Francis in some of his own words

The first clue is in the name Francis. The first ever Jesuit pope chose as his name, not Ignatius – the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Order of the Jesuits) – but Francis instead. For some time now, St. Francis of Assisi has been a symbol of the Christian concern for the poor and a commitment to peace among people of all faiths and none. Indeed, in his homily at the inaugural Mass he invoked St. Francis as an exemplary protector, which is not just applicable to Christians but the whole of humanity:

The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness [1].

Pope Francis then called on “all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life” to be protectors of creation. The pope himself must be inspired by the lowly, “the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgement on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Matthew 25: 31-46”.

It was of course the late Pope John Paul II who in 1986 established the World Day of Prayer for Peace in the Italian city of Assisi, an event profoundly inspired by St. Francis. Until now this initiative represents a more critical engagement among world religions. It enables diverse faith traditions to build relationships and pursue goods in common (overcoming poverty or striving for peace through forgiveness and reconciliation) while at the same time recognising their profound, constitutive differences. As such, it marks a break with decades of liberal inter-faith dialogue, which presupposes that truth claims by different religions are equally valid and that all faiths are ultimately variations of the same principles and beliefs.

Indeed, much of the post-1945 era was characterised by largely meaningless rhetoric about how faiths are essentially identical and how Jews, Christians and Muslims all pray to the same divinity. But since Islam does not consider Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and since Christianity does not view Mohammed on the same par as the prophets of the Old Testament, it is no good pretending that each is simply a variant of the other.

Only a proper appreciation of difference can foster the sort of mutual understanding that is key to genuine peace. In turn, this requires a stronger sense of the commonalities within each faith tradition, i.e. the shared beliefs and practices that bind all Christians together beyond confessional boundaries. Coupled with his deep appreciation of Eastern Orthodoxy, Pope Francis’ argument that the Catholic Church needs Anglicans as Anglicans (with their unique and distinct patrimony) underscores his commitment to ecumenism and Christian unity.

Second, the choice of the name Francis also matters for the wider evangelisation of the world in line with the European fusion of biblical revelation with ancient philosophy. Indeed, Francis of Assisi was the founder of the Franciscans, one of the rival orders to the Jesuits in the conversion to Christianity of Latin America whence the new pope originates. Yet at the same time, the name Francis is also reminiscent of St. Francis Xavier, one of the co-founders of the Jesuits – together with Ignatius of Loyola and five other companions who all made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Francis Xavier was a student of Ignatius’ who helped shape the Christian tradition of Ignatian spirituality and whose extensive mission into Asia in the 16th century converted more people to the Christian faith than anyone before him – notably in present-day India, Indonesia, Japan and China.

Peace and poverty will undoubtedly be central concerns of Francis’ papal reign, but so will be Ignatian spirituality and the Church’s missionary activity connected with the New Evangelisation. Here it is worth quoting from a document entitled Aparecida, which was issued by the Latin American bishops’ conference in 2007 and which the then Cardinal Bergoglio had a decisive hand in writing:

The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission […]. It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats […]. What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalising the newness of the Gospel […] out of a personal and communal encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries. A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions […], to bland or nervous moralising, which does not convert the life of the baptised, would not withstand the trials of time […]. We must all start again from Christ, recognising [with Pope Benedict XVI] that ‘being Christian is […] the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’.

Third, the fact that Pope Francis is the first pontiff from the Americas brings into sharp focus a pressing issue in ecumenism, which is a microcosm of the ecumenical challenge for the Roman Catholic Church and the other episcopally-based churches worldwide – global Pentecostal and Charismatic movements that are faster growing than any other world religion (including Islam) and that are the only rival to Catholicism in the evangelisation of the contemporary world. Connected with his commitment to the New Evangelisation is his support for lay charismatic movements such as Communione e Liberazione that eschew moralising in favour of personal conversion, experience and education.

Fourth, Pope Francis’ Italian origins and his theological studies in Germany highlight the centrality of his European roots, which symbolises the importance of Europe for Christianity worldwide. Based on his personal and family experience, the pontiff can build bridges and give a new meaning to global Christendom for which the European fusion of Greco-Roman philosophy with biblical revelation is just as crucial as the inculturation of faith across the southern hemisphere with its fast-growing Christian populations.

As such, the idea that his election marks a decisive and irreversible shift away from Europe is entirely misguided. Drawing in part on the work of R?mi Brague, Cardinal Angelo Scola has rightly remarked that a non-secular understanding of history views Europe not as foundational but rather as the continuous unfolding of the Hellenistic fusion of Jerusalem with Athens and Rome [2]. The presence of Jewish communities and Muslim-ruled lands on the Iberian peninsula and across the planes of Eurasia ensures that ‘Christian Europe’ was never a clerically dominated monolith but rather a realm of political argument within and across different faith traditions. Just as Christianity was never purely European, so too Europe is not an exclusively ‘Christian club’.

Linked to this argument about clericalism in Europe is a fifth point in relation to the person of Francis – his critique of clericalisation that diminishes both the clergy and the laity. Indeed, he seems to have embraced the point that the role of the laity remains in some important sense Christianity’s Achilles Heel. In an interview in 2011 he said in response to a question about the laity that

There are lay people who seriously live out their faith […] But [in other cases] there is a problem: I’ve said it before, and that’s the temptation of clericalisation. We priests tend to clericalise lay people. We don’t realise we’re doing it, but it’s as if we contaminate lay people with what we are. And some lay people – not all, but many – beg us on their knees to be clericalised by us, because it is easier to be an altar boy than the protagonist of lay vocation. We must not fall into that trap; it’s a sinful complicity. We should not clericalise, and we should not ask to be clericalised. The lay person is a lay person and should live like a lay person, with the strength that comes from baptism, which enables him to be the yeast of the love of God in society, creating and sowing hope, not from a pulpit but from his or her daily life. And carrying their daily Cross, as we all do, but the Cross of a lay person, not a priest. The Cross of a priest you should leave the priest to carry; God gave him a big enough shoulder for that [3].

A greater role of the laity, coupled with the principle of collegiality and the telos of sobornost, are the key challenges for Christianity in the twenty-first century and beyond.

A pope of paradoxes?

What about the significance of Pope Francis’ election for the Christian Churches and the world? Here it is instructive to consider the context of his election, in the fifth ballot of a conclave that had been expected to last longer because of rival factions within the Catholic hierarchy and the apparent absence of strong candidate capable of attracting significant backing from the outset. Thus, the choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is merely a surprise for those who believed the media hype about front-runners. His election reflects strong support and unity among cardinals in the face of deep divisions within the Church and adversity from the rest of the world. Pope Francis may well come to be seen as a unifier who transcends the false dualities of change vs. continuity, North vs. South and reformers vs. traditionalists.

Since the announcement of his election, much has been made of the break that Francis’ papacy marks with the reign of his two immediate predecessors – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – whose alleged sense of self-importance contrasts with his authentic humility. But leaving aside questions about form and style (important though they may be), the substance and content of Pope Francis’ theological thinking seems to be in profound continuity with that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In particular, he embraces the idea of ressourcement and appreciates some of the deepest theological currents that lay behind Council Vatican II, opposing both the revival of neo-scholastic Catholic conservatism and Protestant secular liberalism by insisting on the interplay of religious faith and philosophical reason. It was St. Francis who recalled the Church of his time to the core message and virtues of the Gospel and the living apostolic tradition.

His two immediate predecessors were eminent theologians and left a very significant intellectual legacy. Pope Francis’ unique talents and vocation may well be to bring the immense theological and spiritual resources of the Catholic tradition to bear on the pastoral work and the way the Church serves the people. Indeed, he seems intent on returning the Church to its primacy vocation of serving the people and supporting the most vulnerable in society. This is reflected in Cardinal Bergoglio’s own life: he is known for his humility and his simplicity, living in a basic apartment rather than the Archbishop’s palace, travelling by public transport rather than chauffeured car, and cooking for himself rather than employing domestic servants.

In Argentina, he rejected not only the secular Marxism of Liberation Theology but also the equally secular liberalism of certain lay people and clergy, including a number of Jesuits. One reason why he seemed to have garnered such strong support so quickly in this conclave is that his commitment to traditional doctrine is of a piece with his defence of the Church’s socio-economic and political role – as the only truly cosmospolis beyond the secular settlement of centralised nation-states and globalised free markets.

His position is socially conservative and economically egalitarian but rather like Benedict, this paradox transcends the secular categories of left vs. right. For it is grounded in a theological anthropology of the human person created in the image and likeness of God – with a distinct emphasis on the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of life. As such, personhood, marriage, the family and social justice are part of a divine economy of love and fraternity – of which he spoke in his first words as Pope on St. Peter’s Square in the evening of Wednesday 13th March.

Thus Pope Francis does not fit into the favoured framework of ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’. Rather, his position is at once traditional and progressive. He defends traditional teachings on sexual ethics and beginning- and end-of-life issues, opposing same-sex marriage and adoption, as well as and abortion and euthanasia – all of which he sees as immediate threats to the professed values of humanism that secular liberals claim to defend but in reality fail to uphold.

At the same time as holding traditional positions on questions of doctrine and ethics, he is a strong advocate of economic justice and compassion for the poor – of which there are many in his native Argentina since the 2001 debt default and the 2007 global crisis.

Once again this is part of nouvelle th?ologie ressourcement – a renewal of the preferential option of the poor that goes back to the Jewish prophets, the Church Fathers and Doctors as well as Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII and cognate traditions in Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. By stressing personhood and association (rather than bare individuals or monolithic collectivity), it does not fit at all into the left-right divide of modern politics.

As an outsider who has nevertheless held various functions in the Curia, he could also be pivotal in reforming Catholic global governance. His experience in Argentina – opposing the oppressive military dictatorship and denouncing the recent ravages of globalisation – will no doubt serve him well. He will need immense courage and determination to tackle the incompetence and corruption that has turned much of the Roman curia into an impediment to ecumenical engagement and Christian unity rather than an instrument of it. Beyond real reform in terms of curial culture and curial personnel, the task is nothing less than to reverse centuries of Roman centralism and the lack of collegiality that has further alienated Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism.

In short, Pope Francis seems deeply committed to ecumenical engagement that can focus on the shared principles and practices which bind Christians together. He rejects the secular liberalism that betrays humanist values in favour of an integral humanism and a politics of virtue open to people of all faiths and none – each and every man and woman of good will who is not blinded by the false idols of our time.


[1] Pope Francis, ‘Homily of the Holy Father Pope Francis’, Mass for the beginning of the Petrine Ministry of Pope Framcis, 19 March 2013, online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130319_omelia-inizio-pontificato_en.html
[2] Cardinal Angelo Scola, ‘The Christian contribution the European Integration Process’, lecture delivered in Cracow, 10 September 2010, available online at http://english.angeloscola.it/2010/10/07/the-christian-contribution-to-the-european-integration-process/; See R?mi Brague, L’Europe, la voie romaine, revised ed. (Paris: Gallimard, 1999); Sylvain Gouguenheim, Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe chr?tienne (Paris: Editions Seuil, 2008).
[3] Quoted by Austin Ivereigh, ‘The pope that the Church needs’, ABC Religion & Ethics, 15 March 2012, available online at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/03/15/3716832.htm