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Winds of theological change at the Vatican

  • 13 March 2014

Since 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