Katarina M. Schuth
The emerging ecclesiology of Pope Francis

Almost everyone has an opinion about Pope Francis. For some time I have been inquiring of my students, co-workers and others in widely varying circumstances what they think of him and why he has so captured the imagination of believers and nonbelievers alike.

The responses are telling: Francis emphasizes God’s mercy and does not scold or reprimand; he does not just talk, but acts like Jesus especially by showing his love for the poor; his life is simple—no trappings of the office, no special privileges; he excludes no one and shows no favoritism; he uses the vocabulary of ordinary people and communicates as if he is one of us; he consults widely so as to understand the plight of people in all kinds of situations; he is credible, consistently speaking and acting out of his beliefs; he exudes warmth and happiness as he engages with so many people; he does not convey the sense of someone who prefers isolation.

Francis made these impressions in the first moments of his pontificate. He radiated the stance of a humble man who would bring a fresh approach to his role. This partial list of observations conveys more than his tone and manner; in simple words the reflections capture the essence of this pope’s ecclesiology and reveal his emerging vision of the church. In precise and clear words, he has candidly addressed fundamental questions: Who can be saved? Who has a place in the church? What is the mission of the church? What should the church do? What is the best way to govern? How should responsibilities be distributed?

Along with his words, Pope Francis’ very way of being conveys his understanding of the nature of the church and how it should function. While in some ways he has signaled a new era, he also has communicated his commitment to the enduring message of the Gospel and his fidelity to the tradition. In his writings and homilies, interviews and impromptu comments, he has managed to hold these varied strains together in a message that has captivated the world. He has been able to frame his beliefs about what the church should be like in the future.

A Place in the Church

In his most comprehensive document so far, the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis addresses diverse topics of vital concern to the church. Beginning with some basic elements of ecclesiology, he assures people that all can be saved and all have a place in the church: “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason” (No. 47). He continues: “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” Many who have felt alienated and excluded appreciate the opening doors.

In his acceptance of those who have been deemed somehow unworthy in the judgment of others, Pope Francis demonstrates his openhearted approach. In May, for example, he proclaimed in a homily:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God, and the blood of Christ has redeemed us all!

While his inclusion of atheists puzzled, if not irritated, some people, his remarks warmed the hearts of multitudes of Catholics and those of other faiths or no faith at all.

Even as he offers a welcome to all, Pope Francis raises challenging issues related to the very topics that have disaffected some, like the meaning of family, homosexuality and the role of women in the church. Though never straying from the tradition, he has a way of framing discussion of these topics to demonstrate his benevolent and respectful attitude. He treads carefully and thoughtfully in raising concerns, never assuming that he knows all the answers but signaling the need for greater understanding of the sensus fidelium. He told members of the International Theological Commission on Dec. 6 that the church has a “duty to pay attention to what the Spirit tells the church through authentic manifestations of the ‘sense of the faithful.’” But even as he voiced this attitude, he made clear that this sense “must not be confused with the sociological reality of majority opinion.”

The pope is using new methods to gain deeper insights into the problems of groups and individuals who feel they have been on the periphery of the church’s concern. For example, in anticipation of next October’s meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the pastoral challenges of the family, the Vatican sent to all of the bishops’ conferences a survey designed to discover what Catholics think about a wide range of family-related topics. Aware of the complexity of these issues in modern culture, the pope recognizes that new approaches to pastoral care need attention as they relate to single-parent families, divorce, contraception, same-sex unions and the frequent practice of premarital cohabitation, among other issues.

The Mission of the Church

Since the early days of his pontificate, the message of Pope Francis about the role of the church in the world was evident. Quotations that reflect his stance abound, especially his concern for the poor in whom he sees the face of Christ. On numerous occasions his aspirations were expressed in terms of care for all, in whatever form their need is made known to us. In May, he visited the Dona di Maria soup kitchen and women’s shelter, a facility located inside the Vatican. He told the women who live there: “You are a gift to this house and to the church. You tell us that loving God and your neighbor isn’t something abstract, but profoundly concrete. That means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served and to serve him concretely.” What Francis has done, and what he believes the church should do, is attain greater dignity for those who have no voice.

In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis asserts that the church has the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel in ways that pertain to the whole people of God; the homily is one of the primary vehicles for this instruction. As is true of so much of the pope’s ecclesiology, he focuses on those who will hear the Word preached, not on the one preaching—ad extra rather than ad intra. He insists that the preacher “needs to keep his ear to the people and to discover what it is that the faithful need to hear. A preacher has to contemplate the word, but he also has to contemplate his people.... He needs to be able to link the message of a biblical text to a human situation, to an experience which cries out for the light of God’s word” (No. 154). The pope stresses the use of the language, signs, symbols and questions of the people.

In Chapter 4 of the same apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis underscores the plight of the poor in the section titled “The inclusion of the poor in society.” From a compelling scriptural and doctrinal foundation, he moves to a pragmatic discussion of the reality of imbalances created by present economic structures. While some have criticized his economic analysis as inadequate, his role is not to serve as an economist, but to call attention to the consequences of human behaviors that have created escalating and insurmountable inequity between rich and poor. Foreseeing a potential critique, Pope Francis explains, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology” (No. 208). Underscoring his attitude of humility, he confirms that he is interested only in helping those who are negatively affected by the present situation, so they can live a more humane and fruitful life.

Governance in the Church

Early in his papacy, Pope Francis communicated his intent to review and change the governance structures of the church, now widely regarded as dysfunctional and inflated. Toward that end the pope appointed eight cardinals whose official task is to advise him on governance of the universal church and help him revise “Pastor Bonus,” the apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia drawn up by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Considerable change is likely to emerge from a review of the present forms of governance, including more decentralized church authority, altered relationships with bishops’ conferences, more prudent management of church finances and even the shape of the papacy. As part of the reform, Francis already has appointed to key positions archbishops and cardinals who have strong experience in pastoral leadership.

Responsibilities for the life and ministry of the church will be shared in new ways, too, involving all the faithful more completely in efforts of evangelization, a major theme of “The Joy of the Gospel.” Pope Francis has addressed the role of women in particular. Although he rules out the possibility of women’s ordination, he calls for a greater part for women in decision-making in the church. He recognizes that “many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” (No. 103).

In dealing with entrenched rules and procedures, Pope Francis acknowledges that the process of change will involve dealing with conflict. Some will ignore it, and others will embrace it in a way that causes confusion and dissatisfaction. But, he states, “there is also a third way, and it is the best way to deal with conflict. It is the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process” (No. 227). Reminiscent of the method proposed by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, this pope is willing to embrace a course that confronts problems that inhibit the full flourishing of the church.

His Way of Proceeding

Considering the multitude of positive responses to Pope Francis, it is clear that his distinctive way of proceeding has unquestionably captured the imagination of Catholics and others all over the world. First among his most beloved characteristics is his bond of friendship with Christ. “When you are with him, you get to know Christ personally,” observed Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Above all, Pope Francis radiates God’s love and helps people recognize how much they are loved by God. The outpouring of his affection is universal. He is slow to judge and quick to forgive; he consults widely and tries to understand groups and individuals in their daily struggles. Not often mentioned, but also discernible, is his utter brilliance. His command of the tradition is especially evident in “The Joy of the Gospel,” in which he quotes numerous sources, ranging from the church fathers to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and from Pope John XXIII to Pope Benedict XVI. The depth of his awareness of the worldwide nature of the church is reflected in references from all continents and peoples.

Something new is emerging in the ecclesiology of Pope Francis, but at the same time his fidelity to tradition remains firm. The now-famous interview conducted by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., for publication in Jesuit journals worldwide (Am., 9/30/13) reveals the foundation of the pope’s outlook on his life and his office. His approach to issues that come before him is genuine; his responses are authentic, not calculated to please or punish but rather to reflect the Gospel. His acknowledgement of his need for redemption endears him to all. When Father Spadaro asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Francis said: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” He is like us, and yet Pope Francis stands apart as a singularly blessed and powerful witness of Jesus Christ. His own joy in the Gospel offers to all a future filled with hope.

Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., holds the Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.

Comments

Bill Mazzella | 3/11/2014 - 12:36pm

Being a pope does not make you good. Benedict XVI said this many times. So to say all popes are good is wishful thinking and goes contrary to the history of the church. Just by excluding the trappings of the office of pope, Francis has made a statement. Most popes have let the pomp of the office overtaking as they succumbed to the fantasy of empire. Francis brings the humble Jesus to the office. Which is the command of Christ.

ROBERT OCONNELL | 3/8/2014 - 4:51pm

We should expect a wide variety of answers when questioning people about His Holiness. If nothing else, that so many even give consideration to any Pope is reassuring. Perhaps many hunger for Good News and know where to look, no matter what else is going on in their lives. Sr. Katarina's concluding observation works for me: "He is like us, and yet Pope Francis stands apart as a singularly blessed and powerful witness of Jesus Christ."

The first response to her queries reported by Sr. Katrina gave me pause, however. It asserts that "Francis emphasizes God’s mercy and does not scold or reprimand." Happily, Pope Francis truly does emphasize mercy and minimize adverse criticism of others. Just as happily though, Pope Francis acts if he must -- as he did with regard to Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, the "bishop of bling" from the diocese of Limburg, Germany.

None of us alive has lived under a "bad" Pope. Each of these good souls in his own way has been a true and faithful servant, lived a life of humility and piety, leading our Church far more effectively and Christlike than almost any of the rest of us could or would have -- and mores than too many of us live our own lives. Sr. Katrina inspires gratitude to the Holy Spirit and our Popes and more hope for our future.

Paul Ferris | 3/8/2014 - 1:29pm

This article could more appropriately be titled, The Emergency Ecclesiology of Pope Francis. The Pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI chose to ignore or minimize certainly realities in the Catholic Church for decades. A list just of the top off my head would include: #1. Flight from the priesthood and sisterhood both of those who had already chosen these vocations and the drop off of new recruits. 2. World wide rejection of Humanae Vitae leading to the crisis of authority in other areas of the church doctrines: i.e3. homosexuality, 4. women's ordination, and the worst crisis, 5. pedophilia in the priesthood, and subsequent episcopal cover-up. 6. A recent controversial issue is the investigation of the LCWR. 7. the tension between theologians and the magisterium. As I said these are only the obvious ones off the top of my head. Francis inherited these issues and like his namesake Francis of Asissi, the church is tottering like the leaning tower of Pisa and it his unenviable job to rebuild the church.

Phil DiBello | 3/7/2014 - 2:03pm

Since the mission of the Church is to ensure that all on earth get to heaven - evangelization - we need to engage in conversations with all. In Mercy. In Trust. In Love.

I am energized to see which direction the Holy Spirit is leading our (still) new pontiff. I am eager to see which threads he pulls on and which he leaves alone at the synod. I’m not old enough to know the environment immediately before the Second Vatican Council, but I wonder whether the approach of Pope Francis bears any resemblance to that of Blessed Pope John XXIII.

LEONARD VILLA | 3/7/2014 - 10:45am

I don't know if Sr. Katarina chose the title to this essay or the editors but when was the Church not "open to all??" Of course this depends how you define openness. Some think that openness means you ignore Church teaching or worse contradict it or it means embracing some ideology of the moment that the politically correct consider"open." Openness and inclusiveness can be politically correct buzz words. There might be distinct exercise of ecclesiology with Pope Francis. Some say it will be synodality but that did not start with him. That was already in place and the claim is this appeals to the orthodox. However the challenge of synodality is that the primacy of the Pope is not denied or watered down to irrelevance. Remember Paul VI signed the documents of Vatican II: Paul, Bishop of the Catholic Church. Touting the role of women in the Church is a message constantly being trumpeted by various churchmen (it's safe to do so) and especially by the secular society. Secular society's version of that is that men and women are identical. This is not revolutionary on the part of the Pope. He however has been silent as almost all churchmen on the crisis of men in the Church. Men are disappearing in the church both in their presence and their participation. This is a great crisis of men, husbands, and the approach to teaching boys in society. This does not square with the world's agenda and it seems that some of the touting of women that you hear from church-circles sounds like "me-tooism" to get the world's approval. I fear the world is much too with the Church. This is part of the crisis. With respect to the so-called enthusiasm about Francis the issue is the why of the enthusiasm?? If you look at the latest Pew Research on the Pope Francis-effect with respect to actual Catholic practice and belief the effect is non-existent. Here I think is the real reason for a lot of the enthusiasm which Time magazine and other media outlets not known for their positive few of Catholicism: the popularity seems to be rooted in what is perceived as a papal blessing for moral laxity and doctrinal indifference. Furthermore, the pope appears to be encouraging false expectations that the Church will soon be changing her moral teachings. I am not saying he will change these teachings (he can't) but this is the perception. The world is always on message with its agenda. Are we always on message with the truth of the Catholic faith, her doctrine and morality? The world and the Church will always live in perpetual enmity. We forget that at our peril.