Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Winds of theological change at the Vatican


Pope Francis greets the pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St Peter's square at the Vatican on 4 December 2013Since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis, there has been an ongoing debate about the aspects of continuity and discontinuity between them. Both men have been respectful and even deferential in their relationships with one another. Still no one can deny the impact Francis has had both internally in the Church and internationally where it seems the media cannot get enough of him.

The question remains whether this is a difference in style or in substance. Is he saying the same things but in a more communicative style, or is he actually saying different things?

Francis himself has downplayed the prospects of major doctrinal changes. However there have always been competing theological approaches within Catholicism. Some are more world-denying and pessimistic, viewing the world as a place of temptation and corruption. Others are world-affirming, humanistic, viewing the world as the arena of salvation requiring engagement and transformation. Broadly speaking, with a risk of oversimplification, one could speak of these two camps as Augustinian and Thomistic respectively.

Pope John Paul II had a foot in both camps. Philosophically he claimed a Thomistic lineage and his great social encyclicals, together with his missiological epistle, Redemptoris Missio, bear witness to a church open to engagement with and transformation of the world. However, particularly as he got older, a more combative stance against the world emerged, a battening down of the hatches within the Church.

Benedict on the other hand was more thoroughly Augustinian in approach, pessimistic about the possibilities of transforming the world, hence more focused on spiritual and liturgical issues. Benedict was also closely aligned with the Communio school which included vocal critics of liberation theology, notably Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Francis on the other hand has an approach which seeks to engage the world and through that engagement to transform it to more closely resemble God's kingdom. In his pre-conclave speech he warned of the danger of the Church becoming 'self-referential' and 'sick', and of a 'theological narcissism'. He referred to the Gospel image of Jesus knocking on the door wanting to enter our lives: 'But think of the times when Jesus knocks from within to let himself out. The self-referential Church seeks Jesus Christ within and does not let him out.'

There have been two indications of this shift in recent time.

The first has been the rehabilitation of liberation theology. Emerging out of the political and social turmoil in Latin America in the '60s and '70s, liberation theology directly addressed issues of social and economic transformation, taking its stand on the preferential option for the poor.

In 1983 under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and with the approval of John Paul II, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal instruction spelling out the various 'errors' of liberation theology: too worldly, too Marxist, too sloppy in its categories, a tendency 'to misunderstand or to eliminate [certain aspects], namely: God and true man; the sovereignty of grace; and the true nature of the means of salvation, especially of the Church and the sacraments'.

Now the new head of the CDF, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, has declared an end to hostilities towards liberation theology. At the launch of his recent book, Poor for the Poor: The Mission of the Church, which includes a preface by Francis, Müller's old friend Gustavo Gutierrez, the grandfather of liberation theology, gave a brief address. Previously Müller had offered unreserved support for liberation theology.

It is ironic that Müller was appointed by Benedict prior to his resignation. Clearly Müller does not agree with the earlier assessment of liberation theology by then Cardinal Ratzinger, and is closer to Francis on this issue.

The other shift relates to the bringing in from the cold of Cardinal Walter Kasper. Kasper has famously been described as a theologian of the 'extreme centre', always seeking to find the middle ground. As Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Kasper had signed a proposal with a number of other German bishops which would have allowed divorced and remarried Catholics to return to sacramental practice. This proposal received a reprimand from the then head of the CDF, Ratzinger.

Kasper also had a very public, if friendly, disagreement with Ratzinger over the ecclesiology of the local church. At that time Kasper noted that the root of their difference lay in their foundations — Ratzinger adopted an idealist Platonic approach (in line with his Augustinian background) while Kasper adopted a realist Aristotelian approach (more oriented to Thomism).

As president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Kasper was sidelined by the CDF under Ratzinger on a number of occasions, notably with the issuing of the document Dominus Iesus. This document noted that other churches, apart from the Orthodox ones, were not properly churches, merely ecclesial communities, which of course upset most of the Church's ecumenical dialogue partners. Kasper was publically very critical of Dominus Iesus.

Now Kasper has been praised by Francis for his latest book on divine mercy and was chosen by him to address the gathering of bishops for the synod on the family. In his address to the synod participants he returned to the type of solution to the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics that he had previously supported.

Perhaps not tectonic shifts, but shifts nonetheless. They complement the much greater focus on the Church's mission that we can find in Francis' approach. As he has noted in his pre-conclave speech:

The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only in the geographical sense but also to go to the existential peripheries: those of the mysteries of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and of religious indifference, of thought, of all misery. 

Neil Ormerod headshotNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, a member of ACU's Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry and a Fellow of the Australian Catholic Theological Association. His latest book is Re-visioning the Church: An experiment in Systematic-Historical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, 2014).

Pope Francis image by giulio napolitano/Shutterstock

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, theology



submit a comment

Existing comments

#If Prof Ormerod envisages a churchquake 'shift' in Doctrine and Morals, he needs a good dose of historical Weltanschauung, #[ Jettison armchair theology wishful thinking.Been tried before! http://valueofsaintliness.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/the-history-of-the-church-catholic.jpg #[The issue is deeper than Thomist and Augustinian two-stepping, versus rock solid fidelity to RCC magisterium, versus some regurgitated 'also ran' doctrinal gimmickry]. #VIVA Pope Francis' hermeneutic of continuity, despite media caricatures,. The latter swallowed by wishful thinkers by the gallon..

Father John George | 12 March 2014  

If Pope Francis really wants to engage the world, and I’m sure he does, he must also engage the people of the Church. He has shown some commitment to respecting the ‘sensus fidelium’ in the recent Vatican survey in preparation for the Synod on the Family. It is notable however that many bishops throughout the world failed to follow Francis’ intent that they consult with the people of the Church, few consulted extensively and many, including the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, have refused to tell their people the results of the survey. This is consistent with the overall failure of bishops to conduct diocesan synods in accordance with the intent of Vatican II and the exhortations of every pope since Vatican II. Good leaders know the importance of engagement and the sensus fidelium demands engagement, but it may be that the biggest challenge for Francis is a cultural change amongst the hierarchy.

Peter Johnstone | 13 March 2014  

Thank God Pope Francis has backed liberation theology as it delivers a message to the poor that is one of hope. Interestingly it was Ratzi who closed liberation theorlogy down and he didnt work with the peasants

John | 13 March 2014  

#MrJohn Pope Francis and Prefect Muller are dealing with a much purified liberation theology thanks to Emeritus Pope's and jp2 relentless war on now well bankrupt passé marxist inroads.
#Such were lib theol blind spot massive optic discs.
# Marxist optics imploded with Berlin Wall expose.
#Highest ranking Soviet defector Ian Mihael Pacepa. In his book "Disinformation" Ch 8 underlines the Kremlin invention of liberation theology-they infiltrated the Celam conference and WCC, aided by Russian Orthodox stooges with lib theol termites-
#the soviets manipulated lib theol just as as they infiltrated and established PLO and FARC and sundry lib organisations .

Father John George | 13 March 2014  

Khrushchev religion of lib theol: "Khrushchev called the new KGB-invented religion Liberation Theology. His penchant for “liberation” was inherited by the KGB, which later created the Palestine Liberation Organization, the National Liberation Army of Columbia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army of Bolivia. Romania was a Latin country, and Khrushchev wanted our “Latin view” about his new religious “liberation” war. He also wanted us to send a few priests who were cooptees or deepcover officers to Latin America, to see how “we” could make his new Liberation Theology palatable to that part of the world. Khrushchev got our best effort."[Pacepa] http://archive.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=35388

Father John George | 13 March 2014  

Father John George in my religious studies in the 80s I came across Lib Theol. and thought it provided a lot more hope to the poor than the Church was then providing and that is on what I base my opinion. I dont think the movement at that stage was run by Moscow but I'm sure you will correct me if I am wrong.

John | 13 March 2014  

"This document noted that other churches, apart from the Orthodox ones, were not properly churches, merely ecclesial communities, which of course upset most of the Church's ecumenical dialogue partners. Kasper was publically very critical of Dominus Iesus." A bit of a distortion. Actually, Kasper (for all his serious theological errors, IMO) defended Dominus Iesus on this very point! "A thorough reading of the text makes clear that the document does not say that the Protestant churches are not churches, but that they are not churches in the proper sense, i.e. they are not churches in the sense in which the Catholic Church understands itself as church. For anyone even partly informed, this is purely self-evident. The Protestant churches do not want to be a church at all in the sense of the Catholic Church; they speak strongly of having another understanding of church and ministry in the church which, on the other hand, Catholics frankly do not consider to be the original one. Has not the recent Protestant document in Germany about ministry and ordination, done something similar, claiming that the Catholic understandings of the Church and the ministry of the Church are not the original one?" etc.

HH | 13 March 2014  

I support Professor Ormerod's commitment to a fair assessment of this theology of social and spiritual transformation. To avoid trenchant reaction about doctrinal gimmickry, it is best to use the term transformative theology which is in accordance with the spirit of the gospels. This New Theology can infuse theology, sacramental practices, ecumenism and social action. It will ensure that the mass is the cornerstone of the institutional church as demanded by Father John George.

ryan83320 | 26 March 2014  

He 's been pushing for the cause of sainthood for Oscar Romero too, bringing him out of the cold. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and a little plagerism goes a long way too.

Lynne Newington | 29 March 2014  

Pope Francis is truly revolutionizing the way forward for the church. The goal for Catholics to express their views arguments and possible solutions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAASu3SwV4g

Myra | 10 April 2014  

Similar Articles

Church abuse crisis and the law

  • Carmel Ross
  • 13 March 2014

Reports from the Royal Commission this week have focused on the efforts of John Ellis to have his experience of sexual abuse as a teenage boy, perpetrated by a Catholic priest, acknowledged and adequately addressed by the Church. The finding by the High Court that Australian law as it stands does not allow an individual to sue the Catholic Church is an untenable situation if our nation believes justice for individuals is important.


Radical Pope's gender flaws

  • Megan Graham
  • 12 March 2014

The broad support Francis receives from progressives, despite his unwillingness to even consider female ordination, demonstrates how marginalised women's issues really are in our society. He may have changed the game in terms of the Church's engagement with the poor, but this does not diminish the significance of his oppressive and outdated views on gender roles.