Bernhard of ClairvauxPhil Lawler, the redoubtable conservative Catholic commentator, has come to the conclusion that Pope Francis is a simple pastor. On his CatholicCulture.org site, Lawler writes:

When I began reading about our new Pope, before working on my own book about his life and the prospects for his pontificate, I quickly recognized that this was a man who deals in concrete facts rather than abstractions, who prefers to deal with people rather than ideas. He has not written books.

And:

So now, after two Pontiffs with extraordinary scholarly credentials, we have a Pope who has no pretensions to intellectual status. After two Pontiffs who were active participants in the Second Vatican Council, anxious to help us understand the Council’s teachings, we have a Pontiff who was ordained to the priesthood after the Council, and has spent his entire ministry putting those teachings into practice. After two great theorists we have a practical tactician.

Yes, yes, Lawler (a Harvard man, like me of the Class of ’72) has great appreciation for Francis’ humbler gifts. Jesus, too, “spoke to ordinary people in their ordinary language.” And, of course, “The Holy Spirit chooses the man for the hour.” But it is hard to avoid a sense that, to Lawler’s way of thinking, the new pope is, well, not quite comme il faut intellectually.

I’m not so sure. What’s true is that Francis is very wary of those who pride themselves on their intellectual grasp of religious doctrine. In a talk six years ago, he had this to say about the Prophet Jonah, who fled God’s command to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh:

Jonah had everything clear. He had clear ideas about God, very clear ideas about good and evil. On what God does and on what He wants, on who was faithful to the Covenant and who instead was outside the Covenant. He had the recipe for being a good prophet…

What he was fleeing was not so much Nineveh as the boundless love of God for those people. It was that that didn’t come into his plans. God had come once… “and I’ll see to the rest”: that’s what Jonah told himself. He wanted to do things his way, he wanted to steer it all. His stubbornness shut him in his own structures of evaluation, in his pre-ordained methods, in his righteous opinions.

At his morning Mass the other day, Francis analyzed Judas in similar terms, as having “an isolated conscience” separated from “the community of others”:

Let us think of that moment with the Magdalene, when she washed the feet of Jesus with nard, which was so expensive. It is a religious moment, a moment of gratitude, a moment of love. And he [Judas] stands apart and criticizes her bitterly: “But … this could be used for the poor!” This is the first reference that I personally found in the Gospel of poverty as an ideology. The ideologue does not know what love is, because they do not know how to gift themselves.”

In his critique of intellectual pride, Francis stands in the tradition of some of the Church’s greatest thinkers. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, liked to criticize book-learning, particularly as practiced by the new philosophers of the Parisian schools, but he himself wrote some of the most sophisticated spiritual theology in the Western tradition; indeed, that shrewd product of the schools, John of Salisbury, called his exposition of the Song of Songs “subtilissima et utilissima.” 

The new pope may not appear on the world stage in the garb of the academic theologians. But what he has to say may prove to be more subtle, to say nothing of more useful, than what is in their books.

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

15 Comments

    • The masses are still, sadly, in great need of royalty and so dangerously ready to bow before anyone who inherits such a position. That is how the church came to call the “cathedra” in St. Peter’s Basilica “The Throne of St. Peter.” And the miters of bishops are really pointy crowns–inherited from and non-Christian Emperor Constantine after he called the Council on Nicaea in 325.

      Has anyone noticed the ridiculously tall miter that Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, wears, at least two feet tall? Burke glories in all the regalia of hierarchy. He has even brought back the ridiculous galero that was discarded after Vatican II. And he loves his twenty-foot train. The more regalia, the better for Raymond Burke. What do the first five letter of “regalia” spell?

  1. Great stuff, Mark. Ideologues may confuse Francia for not being an intellectual but they will surely be confusing his humility and humanism with lack of rigor. I think a key category for understanding him is to read Boff’s book St. Francis. Much there of relevance to understanding Pope Francis. Peace.

  2. The world has been nearly destroyed by German intellectuals. Not just Marx and Kant and NIetzsche, but Hilbert and von Harnack as well.

    We don’t need any more of them. Francis seems to be in direct contact with modern reality, which is what we need if we’re going to OPPOSE modern reality effectively.

    • It is foreign for Jesuits to think of the use of the intellect as destructive. Their spirituality is wedded intimately with the work of their intellect. It is a lack of understanding intellectual processes, whether the German philosophers mentioned, Jesuits, or any others, to consider intellect destructive. To disagree intellectually is not at all destructive, only actions harmful to others can be destructive. To disagree, even about theism, is not at all destructive. It is the natural outcome of human thought in various minds. It is only the harmful application of another’s thought that can be evil, and the Catholic Church is as guilty of that as any other organization. Study its history.

      • You don’t contribute to the conversation with your negativity, gilhcan. Either join the discussion, or please shut up. Your are wasting line space on my monitor.

  3. I’ve just read Mr. Lawler’s full column, to which Mr. Silk helpfully linked, and it appears to me that Mr. Lawler is full of praise for Pope Francis. Mr. Lawler, it seems to me, is saying that Pope Francis was not a public intellectual, nor did he hold prestigious university positions in philosophy or theology as did his two predecessors; Cardinal Bergoglio did not write a work analogous to “The Acting Person” or “Introduction to Christianity.” Instead, Pope Francis brings different gifts to the table, and those gifts are particularly effective at the present moment.

  4. Phil Lawler must not know Jesuits very well. Being Intellectual and spiritual is not at all foreign to them, it is the very basis of their quest. Does Lawler consider the vast work of the Jesuits in education, even higher education, their three years of scholastic work between philosophy and theology? Does Lawler know the very deep and extensive spiritual aspects of the formation of Jesuits, the Exercises, their Tertian year after ordination? Does Lawler know the meditation practices of Jesuits? To try to define a Jesuit as more intellectual or more spiritual misses the whole point of their respect for both in their formation and throughout their lives. For Jesuits, there is no division. They are intellectually spiritual and spiritually intellectual.

  5. I would agree that Benedict was very cerebral. His theological thought changed greatly during the years between Vatican II and his evolution at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul. That is how the two came to lead “the reform of the reform” of Vatican II. I do not agree that John Paul was a great intellectual. As pope, he depended on Ratzinger and others to formalize his published thought, perhaps even shape it, but John Paul never lost his interest in theatrics. That was his forte, not books or the life of the mind.

  6. Comparisons are odious. Labels are constrictors. But they are hard to avoid, as I shall demonstrate by making some bald statements. The popes post Vat 2, up to & including Benedict XVI, all suffered from the strictures of Thomism/Augustinianism – brilliant Metaphysics but weak Practical Psychology. “Tolle! Lege!” (Take up and read) may have worked for St Augustine in 387 AD when he read Roman xiii, 12-14, but it doesn’t work in the 20/21st centuries. Marshall McLuhan read the signs of the times better than any late 20th century pope – “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” and more famously, “The medium is the message.” The closest philosophy (as distinct from theology) I can think of that makes some sense of the modern world is Christian Existentialism as expounded by Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), which had the dubious exaltation of being condemned by Pius XII in Humani Generis. This gave rise to the Crisis Theology of Karl Barth. As an educated Jesuit in the tradition of St Ignatius of Loyola in the land of Argentina Pope Francis would be only too well aware from practical experience of the crises that beset men, women and children as they go about their daily grind of eking out a living along side conspicuous consumption by the very rich, which includes many super-rich Catholics. No wonder he asks questions. He is like Socrates – a gadfly biting on the plump rump of the church and the social structures within which it operates. I am sure there are enemies circling ready to accuse him of some trumped up charge. They may not accuse him of “corrupting the youth” but if he keeps on drawing attention to the world’s poor and the extravagance of the church’s and the world’s rich, he may find himself being ridiculed like Francis of Assissi was.

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