What is Pope Francis’ vision of theology? Marking the 10th anniversary of his election, in this article James Hanvey SJ explores what the Pope understands theology to be at the service of the Church. The article will appear in Italian in Civiltà Cattolica.

“I think that the study of theology is of the greatest importance.  It is an indispensable service of the Church…”[1]

The past ten years of the papacy of Pope Francis have been a time of extraordinary activity and challenge for the Church.  Whether with internal renewal and innovation such as synodality, or with the urgency of apostolic outreach to other faiths, conflicts and the ever-widening consequences of the ecological crisis, the Pope has been concerned with the Church’s mission.  His easy pastoral and colloquial style have led many—supporters and critics alike —to think of him as a ‘pastor’ and not a philosopher like St John Paul II or a theologian like Benedict XVI.  Although it is certainly true that his style is unique, it would be a mistake to underrate and undervalue the intellectual depth and theological insights which inform both his teaching and actions.  Pope Francis is the first non-European pope and, in many ways, we are all still adjusting to the perspectives and experiences that this brings.

An under-recognised aspect of his papacy is his vision of theology and its need for renewal if it is to effectively serve the mission of the Church in the contemporary world.  How well is the Church served by the current state of theology and the variety of different theological schools and methodologies that operate within it? Plurality is not the problem here.  Has there ever been a time when there was no theological pluralism in the Church?  Pluralism or diversity in the Church is not a handicap for Christian theology but an enrichment.  Though it may call for careful discernment, it is evidence of a living faith which grows and develops in contact with cultures.  As we are learning from the synodal process, mission is a mutual relationship: all parts of the Church are missionary to one another.  The problem is more about where formal theology actually takes place today and in whose service it operates. Two of these are the cultures of the university and the seminary.  There is no doubt that many faculties of theology, whether they are in universities or seminaries, do impressive work, but for the sake of highlighting the dilemma at the heart of formal theology and at the risk of some caricature, we can see the risk of two quite different but problematic dynamics operating in both locations.

In the university, theology risks being locked in its own academic discourses and disputes, increasingly forced to defend its place in the secular academy and demonstrate its intellectual relevance.  In doing so, it can become alienated from its own sources and the realities of the life of the Church.  Like Narcissus, it becomes enamoured with its own rhetorical and conceptual cleverness, forever in search of relevance and recognition, afraid to challenge the prejudices and fashions of the time for fear of losing its place in the grand parade of academia in which all universities must market themselves and regenerate the myth of their social power and pre-eminence.  In the seminary, which is no less conditioned by ideology and cultural camps, theology can fall into defensive ecclesial silos.  It becomes prey to a sterile introversion where its searching is turned into the undisputed certainties of a dull catechesis.  This type of ‘bunkered theology’ may produce a sense of security, especially when it creates a Church contra-mundum mentality.  It cannot, however, meet the complexities of a digitalised, globalised, post-truth world or the soteriological promises of the markets and science.  A fortress remnant offers the illusion of survival and undefiled fidelity, but it is a poor strategy for a living faith.  Socially, it risks becoming a social curiosity or museum in which its defenders of faith become its curators.  Theologically, in the belief that it is a keeper of God’s revelation, assuming the authority of an alternative and safer magisterium, it has instead rendered God its captive.  It can turn the astonishing gracious freedom of God’s mercy into the property of the self-elect.

In both cases, theology ultimately fails the Church and its members who search their faith for meaning and develop spiritual lives and practices which express the ‘reasons for hope’.  Whether in the theatre of the university or the classrooms of the seminaries, there is a need for a theology that is not only scientia but sapientia as Augustine recognised, and can do adequate justice to the sensus fidelium.  A theology that lives in prayer, that knows itself always to be standing before the inexhaustible mystery of the Triune God, blinded by the light of the crucified and resurrected Christ, and overwhelmed by unbounded graciousness of the Holy Spirit.  Such a theology recognises the reality of a Church scarred by abuse, cover-up and corruption, yet a Church still able to astonish the world with its compassion and commitment to the marginalised and the powerless, still able to endure in service when governments have forgotten, and the media has moved on.  This is a Church on a synodal journey which lives in the transcendence of its own experience of forgiveness and mercy, compassion and repentance.  Out of its poverty, in communion with every generation, past, present and future, it draws from the life-giving well of its sacraments.  Every day it undertakes its metanoia of heart and mind and spirit; it renews its look on the world with Christ’s love and sees it again through his eyes.[2]  Amid all deserts of the broken and discredited institutions that litter the public square, in the ruins of war and its unhealed memories, precarious democracies and authoritarian regimes, this is the Church for which the world continues to yearn and hope it exists.

1: Identifying the Mission of Theology

In the Apostolic Constitution, Veritatis Gaudium, and in his address to the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy, Pope Francis sets out a programme far wider than the renewal of theological studies.[3]  In both documents, he describes the mission of theology itself.  The documents reorient theology to the evangelical mission of the Church mapped in Evangelii Gaudium. While drawing from the dynamic sources of the tradition, theology is called to avoid becoming a narrow solipsistic enterprise in order to be a theology that lives from the generative vitality of revelation at the service of the missionary Church.[4]

At the core of the Pope’s vision is the reality of Jesus Christ, the source of truth, humanity’s redemption and hope.  Theological truth is always more than the rational search for coherent knowledge of God and God’s revelation in Christ.  Tradition is always more than propositions which define and preserve the grammar and content of the Church’s faith.  It is a living and developing community of generational inter-subjectivities; a Catholic communio which is grounded in local cultures but also transcends them in the life of the ecclesia.  Above all, truth is a personal and inter-personal encounter with the living reality of Jesus, nourished by the life of the Holy Spirit and manifest in the life of God’s people, recognised in the continuities and discontinuities of salvation history.  

Insofar as theology is a participation in the evangelising mission of the Church, it is also an encounter with humanity and human cultures.  Indeed, this encounter is always a creative one, for the Gospel is formative of what is truly human.  Evangelisation, then, is not only witness to Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation, but it seeks to preserve what is good, noble, and precious in human cultures whilst also bringing the newness of Christ.  To do this well, the Church must be conscious of the cultural history and form in which the Gospel is transmitted.  In this way, the reality of Christ ‘should also permeate thought patterns, standards of judgement, norms of behaviour.  In a word, it is necessary that the whole of human culture be steeped in the Gospel.’[5] The culture that flows from an encounter with the Gospel calls for a re-grounding in an integral humanism and a re-imagining of a new ecological covenant.[6]  This requires a constantly self-critical consciousness from the Church itself to ensure that the radical and generative power of the Gospel is not weakened or itself colonised.  Theology must not provide a justification for the cultural, economic and political imperialisms of the nations.  Far from being a source of liberation and immanent critique, it can easily be a servant of subjection.[7]

In setting out this challenging vocation of theology, Pope Francis identifies certain central elements:

Theology must integrate the spiritual; it must overcome the divorce between theology and pastoral care: ‘This meeting of doctrine and pastoral concern is not an option; it is constitutive of a theology that intends to be ecclesial.’[8]  This is a radically incarnational theology, taking seriously people’s sufferings and trials.  It is a check for theology that (a) it does not become another academic department but remains at the service of the Church; and (b) that it recognises that the people’s lives are already a theological source that cannot be ignored.  Theology, then, must conform to the mystery of the incarnate and resurrected Christ traced in the lives of the faithful, holy people of God.  Here we have the necessary context for understanding the sensus fidelium, which is critical for a mature synodality, the theology of which continues to develop.[9]

In this context, Veritatis Gaudium speaks of theological formation and theology itself as ‘a sort of providential cultural laboratory in which the Church carries out the performative interpretation of the reality brought about by the Christ event and nourished by the gifts of wisdom and knowledge…’[10]  Here, theology moves from a rational activity to one that must be attested in the ecclesial life of faith.  Theology, then, comes to understand itself as grounded in pneumatology, the life of the Spirit.

A theology which is concerned with the questions and exigencies of life will also need to be a ‘discerning theology’, one that distinguishes the message of life from its forms of transmission and the ways in which it has become encoded with cultural elements: ‘Avoiding the exercise in discernment leads in one way or another to the betrayal of the content of the message.’[11]  To undertake this work, theology needs to cultivate an intellectual humility.  Not only is this disposition appropriate for any subject that seeks to understand a God who is ‘semper maior’, but it is fitting given the vastness of the human experience that theology contemplates.  In addition, like all disciplines, it can only come to true knowledge and understanding when it knows its own limitations and is open to the resources that other disciplines provide.  Theology is, of necessity, an inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary activity but, in the vision of Veritatis Gaudium, it must draw upon other non-theological disciplines if it is to embrace its own mission.  In fact, the contemplation of God’s providential and salvific action in the world requires this openness.[12] 

Such theology will itself be open to the plurality of expressions and forms in which the Gospel has come to be enculturated.  As noted earlier, there is a legitimate plurality which belongs to the generative power of revelation.  In this respect, theology can reflect upon the tensions and conflicts in such a way as to facilitate a deeper ‘diversified and life-giving unity.’  This work of reconciliation is not a reduction to a common denominator, nor is it the hegemony of one cultural form over another.  Rather, it is one that can grasp the salvific and evangelising work of the Spirit in multiple expressions and forms in order to bring to the surface the reality of the one Christ which they possess.[13]  This is not a synthetic reduction but a reconciling sublation which leads to a greater understanding of the truth, the paradigm of Pentecost.  Theology must also be conscious of its own cultural presuppositions and model for the Church its own deeper Catholicity.  Here, the service of reconciliation is not only for the Church but for the world as a whole.[14]

2: Characteristics of a Renewed Theology

The Address to the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy builds on VG and identifies four characteristics of a renewed theology at the service of the Church and the world:

I: A Theology of Welcome and Dialogue

It is clear that so much of the papacy of Francis has been about opening up spaces of dialogue with the world and with other religions.  Indeed, part of the whole process of synodality has been opening such spaces within the Church as well.  Dialogue is not only the necessary pre-requisite for understanding, but also integral to reconciliation.  It is notable that not only has Pope Francis carried on the facilitation of dialogue between religions and between nations, especially where there is tensions and conflict, but he has expanded and encouraged dialogue within the Church.  It is thus no surprise that he should desire a theology of welcome and dialogue that is not engaged in apologetics or proselytising.  It is rooted in God’s love for the world, manifest in Jesus Christ, which illuminates an anthropology that recognises that every human heart seeks this love.  Therefore, theology is first a word of understanding love addressed as welcome.  It also gives expression to the deeper theo-philosophical basis of Francis’ own praxis.  This is grounded in a relational and inter-relational ontology, the ‘communio’ which is built into the very nature of creation and humanity.  We can see this come to the fore most explicitly in Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti.

Proceeding from its own method, the theology of dialogue and welcome is required to move into a praxis, a lived hermeneutic.  As a method of study, it grants attention to the great religious texts of Christianity and other world religions.  As a hermeneutic, it pays attention to a specific time and place and its questions, problems, and divisions. Here, theology becomes a process of discernment.  It is concerned with unfolding the mystery of Jesus and tracing it in the narrative of every human life that also runs through the whole of creation (Col 1:15-22): a movement of descent and ascent, in which the redemptive figure of the Cross is seen but present now in the Risen and Crucified Christ.  This ‘dialogical’ movement is a process of ‘spiritual ethnography’.  It allows theology to work from within the human reality and respond to it.  Performed in this manner, theology rejects ‘the Babel syndrome’, i.e. not only the failure to understand the other, but the failure to listen to the other.

II: A Theology of Welcoming is a Theology of Listening

The lived hermeneutic presupposes and involves a conscious listening.  This is an attempt not just to ‘hear’ what is said, but to understand it in its context: both its history and experience.  For this reason, such listening must be deeply connected with cultures, peoples and their narratives.  It means attending to all generations, especially the young.  Listening allows them to make their own contribution to the community (cf. Christus Vivit §65). 

A theology of listening and dialogue is Christologically determined.  In scripture, Christ is seen engaged in listening and in dialogue with the whole range of his culture.  He is profoundly in touch with the tradition from which he draws his own self-understanding and that of his people.  The encounter of Christ, and the offer of salvation, which is his, always has a dialogic structure.  It is never a monologue: ‘In a monologue, we all lose.  All of us.’ [15]

GC36_Pope Frances visits Aula with all the delegates, and posing with Pope Francis are Superior General Arturo Sosa, and Orlando Torres.

III: An Interdisciplinary Theology: The Moral and Spiritual Requirements of Theology

A ‘welcoming theology’ requires the capacity to interpret and discern and therefore it requires theologians who can work together in an interdisciplinary way.  Here, the scope of ‘theologians’ includes priests, religious and lay men and women.  In their ecclesial rootedness, they are open to ‘the inexhaustible novelties of the Spirit’.  They know how to escape ‘the self-referential, competitive and blinding logics that often exist in our own academic institutions and concealed, many times, among our theological schools.’[16]

This theology of welcome, dialogue, listening and discernment requires moral, spiritual and human gifts as well as intellectual ones.  It asks for men and women of compassion who are open to the suffering and the needs of others.  Without compassion and communion with the realities of peoples’ lives and the cry of life our biosphere, theology risks becoming merely an intellectual exercise.  Unless it is nourished by prayer, theology not only loses its soul, it also loses its intelligence and capacity to interpret reality in a Christian way.  It fails to see the glory and beauty of God, present and working salvifically in all things.  It risks ‘being swallowed up in a condition of privilege; it prudently places itself outside the world and shares nothing of the risk with the majority of humanity.’[17]  Interdisciplinary work also necessitates the freedom and the commitment to continually revisit and reconsider tradition, to keep asking questions, fortradition is the river of a living faith.

IV: A Networked Theology

‘Networked’ is understood as the necessary inter-disciplinary work in which theology must be engaged.  However, also intended is the building of relationships and the shared expertise and visions of ecclesiastical universities which, in their own way, witness to a ‘just and fraternal society’.  The Pope sees all these levels of networking as evangelical work, i.e. ‘in communion with the Spirit of Jesus who is the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of love at work in creation… interdisciplinarity and networking are intended to encourage the discernment of the presence of the Spirit of the Risen one in reality.’[18]

Recovering the Vocation of the Theologian in the Service of a Missionary Church:

‘In solidarity with all the shipwrecked of history’

In 1990, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith set out the ‘ecclesial vocation of the theologian’.[19]  We can see that Francis’ vision of the vocation of theology and of the theologian is a development of this.  It is not now read in terms of a defensiveness, but in terms of a missionary or evangelical Church which is profoundly engaged with the world, especially the poor, abandoned and suffering.  Now the work of theology is rearticulated: it is not just speculative but also performative and transformative, working with all other academic and social agencies for the lasting human and ecological good.  If the service of theology is conceived in this way, what is required of the theologian? Here, Francis offers a picture which is challenging to a ‘professional’ theology conducted mainly in the university, which competes for resources and academic status.  It is also challenging for an instrumental approach to theology as a part of formation for ecclesial ministry, where it can too easily become another credit to be earned or becomes reduced to a higher form of catechetics with an apologetic intent.

In his address to the International Theological Congress (Argentina, 2015), Pope Francis described three traits that marked the identity of the theologian:

I: A theologian is first a son (sic) of his people.  

This is a source and resource for the theology that the theologian is asked to develop.  This is the soil in which theology is rooted and from which it draws its self-understanding.

Jongari, Uganda, a IDP chapel, which was reopened on this day. Fr. Charles Olweny, a recently ordained priest, leads the service.

II: The theologian is a believer.  

This is a challenge to those who seek to practise theology in a ‘faith-neutral’ way, as if it were simply another academic discipline.  Without sacrificing the intellectual demands and awareness of other relevant disciplines that a contemporary engaged and grounded theology demands, the theologian is one who seeks to know God and recognises that, without God, he or she cannot live.  This God is revealed in Christ, ‘in word, in silence, in wound, and healing, death and resurrection’.  The theologian is one whose life is marked by this imprint ‘which has left open his thirst, his anxiety, his curiosity, his existence.  He (or she) is not a theologian unless they can say ‘I cannot live without Christ’.[20]

III: The theologian is a prophet.  

Theology begins in listening to God and the Holy Spirit moving in the lives of God’s faithful people and in the world.  If the theologian is called to be a prophet, he or she is first called to be a disciple.

The crisis in contemporary society is also a crisis of faith.  Society believes it can prescind from faith in God and believe only in itself.  This creates a fracture in personal and social identities.  In this situation of alienation, spiritual as well as social, the theologian has a prophetic mission: to heal the levels of division.  Faith makes available the richness of the past and the call of the future.  In this sense, the theologian is also the herald of salvation history, which witnesses to the salvific action of God in history (tradition) and the promise of the future given in Christ.  The prophetic vision is always marked by an epistemological ek-centricity because it has a theo-centric vision.  The prophetic work of theology is to bring this perspective to all things.  Therefore, it not only begins in the realities of the world but also in prayer: ‘it is a reciprocity between the Pascal Mystery and the many lives not yet realised who wonder: where is God?’[21]  It is lived in the gaze of the One who makes all things new.[22]

James Hanvey SJ

Rome, March 2023

[1] International Theological Congress Argentina (2015), 2. p.4: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/pont-messages/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150903_videomessaggio-teologia-buenos-aires.html

[2] Gaudium et Spes §1-3.

[3] Within the Academy, there have been a number of calls for the renewal of theology from within different ‘schools’ and confessions, e.g. Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989; Edward Farley, The Fragility of Knowledge: Theological Education in the Church and the University, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.  For a more polemical assessment of the contemporary situation in the US, cf. Massimo Faggioli and Michael Hoillerich, “The Future of Academic Theology: An Exchange”, Commonweal 145, no. 9 (2018): 7; and James Matthew Ashley, Renewing Theology: Ignatian Spirituality and Karl Rahner, Ignacio Ellacuría, and Pope Francis, Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2022.

[4] Such an evangelical theology is not engaged with apologetics, nor with its own enclosed manuals.  Cf. Address to the Pontifical Faculty of Southern Italy, June 2019.

[5] VG §2, citing International Theological Congress, Argentina 2015.

[6] VG §4

[7] Cf. Elizabeth Ann Foster, African Catholic: Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019; Alexandra Tomaselli and Alexandra Xanthaki, “The Struggle of Indigenous Peoples to Maintain Their Spirituality in Latin America: Freedom of and from Religion(s), and Other Threats.” Religions 12, no. 10 (2021): 869.

[8] International Theological Congress, Argentina 2015

[9] For treatments of this central reality, cf. International Theological Commission, Sensus Fidei
In The Life Of The Church, Vatican: Catholic Truth Society, 2014; and Ormond Rush, The Eyes of Faith, Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011.

[10] VG §3.

[11] Cf. VG §4, which identifies the three dimensions necessary for the Church’s evangelical mission: discernment, purification, reform. Cf. International Theological Congress, Argentina 2015.

[12] VG § 4 b and c.

[13] VG § 4.d.

[14] VG § 4.d.

[15] Address on the theme of “Theology after Veritatis Gaudium in the Context of the Mediterranean” (June 2019), p.5: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2019/june/documents/papa-francesco_20190621_teologia-napoli.html

[16] Ibid, p.5. Cf. Benedict XVI, on the importance of theologians having the ‘eyes of their hearts’ open to the mystery and not simply being caught up in scholarly discussions. The theologian who is also attentive to the mystery is also one who will detect the wisdom in the little or lowly ones. https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20091201_cti.html

[17] Ibid, p.5.

[18] Cf. Networked Theology, Address to the Pontifical Faculty of Southern Italy, June 2019.

[19] Donum Veritatis, May 1990.

[20] International Theological Congress (2015) p.4.


[21] International Theological Congress (2015), p.4.

[22] International Theological Congress (2015) p.5.

About the Author

James Hanvey SJ

Secretary for the Service of the Faith for the Society of Jesus

His particular research and teaching interests are in the areas of Trinitarian Theology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology and Catholic Social Thought as well as Ignatian Spirituality.

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