By José Antonio Ureta
In recent weeks, Pope Francis has repeated that critics of the new developments he is introducing into the Church are victims of “ideology.” In his view, this is because they refuse to embody Catholic doctrine into the vicissitudes of the daily lives of the baptized and their fellow countrymen.
In his controversial conversation with Portuguese Jesuits on the World Youth Day sidelines, the pope attacked the supposed backwardness (indietrismo) of the American hierarchy and laity: “The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.” Because in “a climate of closure. . . . [y]ou can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.” He added, “Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves. Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war.”
During the press conference on the September 4 return flight from Mongolia, Pope Francis returned to this doctrine vs. ideology dichotomy. Asked to address the irritation caused by his praise of the Russian autocrats Peter the Great and Catherine II, the pope stated:
There are imperialisms that want to impose their ideology. I’ll stop here: when culture is distilled and turned into ideology, it’s poison. Culture is used, but distilled into ideology. We must distinguish the culture of a people from the ideologies that then appear from some philosopher, some politician of that people. And I say this for everyone, also for the Church.
Within the Church there are often ideologies, which separate the Church from the life that comes from the root and goes upwards. They separate the Church from the influence of the Holy Spirit.
An ideology is incapable of incarnation; it is only an idea. But when ideology gathers strength and becomes politics, it usually becomes a dictatorship, right? It becomes an incapacity to dialogue, to move forward with cultures. And imperialisms do this. Imperialism always consolidates starting from an ideology.
In the Church too we must distinguish doctrine from ideology: true doctrine is never ideological, never. It is rooted in God’s holy faithful people. Instead, ideology is detached from reality, detached from the people . . .
Asked later how to avoid polarization in the next Synod, Pope Francis replied, “There is no place for ideology in the Synod. . . . The Synod is about dialogue: among the baptized, among members of the Church, on the life of the Church, on dialogue with the world, on the problems that affect humanity today.”
A Vida Nueva journalist then referred to the foreword for The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box (which I co-authored), wherein Cardinal Raymond Burke warned that calamities would emerge from the Synod. The Spanish reporter asked what the pope thought of this position and whether it could influence the Rome assembly. Having first sidestepped the question to tell the story of some Carmelites who feared the Synod, the pope addressed it generically: “If you go to the root of these ideas, you will find ideologies. Always, when one wants to detach from the path of communion in the Church, what always pulls it apart is ideology. And they accuse the Church of this or that, but they never make an accusation of what is true: [The Church is a sinner.] They never speak of sin . . . They defend a ‘doctrine,’ a doctrine like distilled water that has no taste and is not true Catholic doctrine, that is, in the Creed.”
What seems to emerge from this profuse and confusing language is that true culture and true Faith (in other words, true doctrine) are an emanation of the soul of the people (and, in the case of religious doctrines, of the sensus fidei of the faithful). Further, true culture and Faith remain valid as long as they are embodied in a people’s soul. Therefore, culture and doctrine are distorted when they become disconnected from people’s lives through intellectual distillation. That refining turns them into the spiritual baggage of a minority that lives cloistered in ivory towers and tries to impose its aseptic and rigid convictions on the people imperialistically. Their tenets are disconnected from the real lives of the faithful.
What should one think of this understanding of the origin and development of culture and Faith?
- First, it has been the philosophical-theological axis of Pope Francis’s entire pontificate.
- Second, it dovetails with his socio-political beliefs, which are heavily influenced by the populist overtones of the so-called “Theology of the People.”
- Third, it was expressly condemned by Pope Saint Pius X in his anti-modernist encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis.
- Fourth, it is wrong to subscribe to a supposed evolution of Catholic doctrine and morals based on a truncated version of Saint Vincent of Lerin’s Commonitorium.
I will expand on each of these points.
1) Pope Francis’s anti-intellectualism derives from an immanentistic and Teilhardian view of the universe and history, one that attributes the impulses of new dynamics in human action to an action that is deemed divine. In his first interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, later reproduced by Jesuit magazines worldwide, Pope Francis explained to Fr. Antonio Spadaro: “Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.” He further stressed:
God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. . . . God is in history, in the processes. . . .
God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics.
Because of this view, the pope pointed out in Amoris laetitia the need “to focus on concrete realities since ‘the call and the demands of the Spirit resound in the events of history.’” How so? Through the “constant tensions present in every social reality,” as he explains in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, because “tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity,” and “the principal author, the historic subject of this process, is the people as a whole and their culture.”
Based on these immanentistic and Hegelian premises, one can understand why Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii gaudium that one of the four principles guiding his actions is that “realities are greater than ideas.” This postulate can have a Thomistic interpretation of the traditional definition of truth: “adaequatio intellectus ad rem” [conformity of thinking to the thing that is thought]. This means that proper understanding and conceptual elaborations should be based on and serve reality. However, the postulate assumes a different connotation in the sociological-pastoral context in which it is inserted by Pope Francis. As Fr. Giovanni Scalese explained in 2016, “It means instead that we should accept reality as it is, without intending to change it based on absolute principles (e.g., moral principles), which are only abstract ‘ideas’ that most of the time risk being turned into ideology.” “This postulate,” Father Scalese pointed out, “is at the basis of Pope Francis’s continuing polemic against doctrine.” And he continued, “In human action, one is inevitably guided by some naturally abstract principles. It is pointless, therefore, to argue about the abstract character of ‘doctrine,’ opposing it with a ‘reality’ to which one should conform. If reality is not enlightened, guided, and ordered by some principles, it risks degenerating into chaos.”
As Prof. Giovanni Turco explains, however, for Pope Francis, truth is relative in the full sense of the word, not in the Thomistic one, “as a vital and pragmatic relationship deriving from a situation. Thus understood, truth has no content of its own. It cannot be ‘absolute,’ that is, ‘valid forever.’ For this reason, it ceases to be truth and becomes mere opinion!”
What is an ideology, though, if not an ensemble of mere opinions? Thus, Pope Francis’s condemnation of ideologies boomerangs back on him because of his relativistic understanding of situational “truth.”
2) In the Latin American socio-political setting, this immanentistic worldview and its corresponding relativistic view of truth merge in the Theology of the People, which is based not upon truths stemming from Revelation but on the concrete and historical values of the people. In an interview with French sociologist Dominique Wolton, Pope Francis explained this interaction:
In the 1980s, there was a tendency toward a Marxist analysis of reality, which was then renamed the “theology of the people.” I don’t like that name very much, but that’s the name I knew it by. Walking with the people of God and engaging in a theology of culture.
There is one thinker you should read: Rodolfo Kusch, a German who lived in northwest Argentina, a very good anthropological philosopher. He helped me understand one thing: the word “people” is not a logical word. It’s a mythical word. You can’t talk about a people logically, because it would just be a description. To understand a people, understand the values of that people, you must enter the spirit, the heart, the work, the history and the myth of its tradition. That point is really at the root of the so-called theology “of the people.” It means going with the people, seeing how they express themselves.
Commenting on this passage, Vatican analyst Sandro Magister revealed that “Kusch took his inspiration from Heidegger’s philosophy to distinguish between ‘being’ and ‘dwelling,’ describing with the first category the rationalistic and domineering vision of Western man and with the second the vision of the indigenous Latin American peoples, in peace with nature and animated by none other than a ‘myth.’”
3) The most serious problem with Pope Francis’s recent comments about doctrine and ideology is that they seem very similar to the modernist view of the evolutionary nature of dogmas, based on the false belief in the evolution of the human conscience.
As is well known, with some differences in nuance, modernists share the conviction that the Church, her doctrine, and worship are the fruits of human conscience. They identify Revelation with a religious experience called “vital immanence,” and propose a “religion of the heart” based on truths that correspond to new life conditions. Thus, for modernists, the Church and doctrine should adapt to the necessities of each epoch because life, including Christian life, is a continuous effort to adapt to new conditions. In their view, Faith is not “a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” since this would be an expression of cold Intellectualism. Instead, faith would be an interior sense, originating in a need for the divine latent in the human subconscious without prior awareness of the intellect. In addition, Revelation would no longer be the communication by God to a rational creature of some truths about Himself and the eternal laws of His will, through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature, truths indeed that are transmitted to us by Holy Scripture and Tradition, because all of this would be a form of Intellectualism.
For modernists, Revelation is a direct manifestation of God to the soul through its religious sense. Dogmas become mere formulas that furnish the believer with a means of explaining faith to himself. As life conditions and conscience change, these formulas, subject to the vicissitudes of people’s existence, are liable to change as well.
In his encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis, Pope Saint Pius X denounces modernist thinking “that religious formulas, if they are to be really religious and not merely intellectual speculations, ought to be living and to live the life of the religious sense.” Thus, for modernists, it is necessary “that the believer . . . not lay too much stress on the formula, as formula, but avail himself of it only for the purpose of uniting himself to the absolute truth which the formula at once reveals and conceals, that is to say, endeavors to express but without ever succeeding in doing so.”
The consequence of the above is that, for modernists, the Church must evolve “by the need of adapting itself to historical conditions and of harmonizing itself with existing forms of society.” This evolution advances through the conflict and compromise between two forces:
The conserving force exists in the Church and is found in tradition; tradition is represented by religious authority, and this both by right and in fact. By right, for it is in the very nature of authority to protect tradition: and in fact, since authority, raised as it is above the contingencies of life, feels hardly, or not at all, the spurs of progress. The progressive force, on the contrary, which responds to the inner needs, lies in the individual consciences and works in them—especially in such of them as are in more close and intimate contact with life.
From a modernist viewpoint, if the Church refused to follow this evolution of life and human consciousness, she would remain a rigid structure, preaching an outdated “ideology” as insipid as distilled water. Foreseeing this accusation, Saint Pius X denounced in his encyclical the dangers of the anti-intellectualist theories of Modernism:
Take away the intelligence, and man, already inclined to follow the senses, becomes their slave. . . . All these fantasies of the religious sense will never be able to destroy common sense, and common sense tells us that emotion and everything that leads the heart captive proves a hindrance instead of a help to the discovery of truth. We speak of truth in itself—for that other purely subjective truth, the fruit of the internal sense and action, if it serves its purpose for the play of words, is of no benefit to the man who wants above all things to know whether outside himself there is a God into whose hands he is one day to fall.
4) In the above-mentioned conversation with Portuguese Jesuits, Pope Francis opined that the American Church’s “reactionary” attitude is informed by backwardness. In explaining his disapproval, Pope Francis claimed
there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals as long as we follow the three criteria that Vincent of Lerins already indicated in the fifth century: doctrine evolves ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate. In other words, doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria. . . .
. . . Always on this path, starting from the root with sap that flows up and up, and that is why change is necessary.
Vincent of Lerins makes the comparison between human biological development and the transmission from one age to another of the depositum fidei, which grows and is consolidated with the passage of time. Here, our understanding of the human person changes with time and our consciousness also deepens. The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth in understanding. The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.
Three observations will be made about these passages.
First, one should note how Pope Francis establishes, in a modernist fashion, the growth of human consciousness, aided by science, as the grounding motivation for the progress of doctrine.
Second, when he affirms that such growth flows from the roots up, Pope Francis is not referring to the teachings of Our Lord and the Apostles, but rather to the “influence of the Holy Spirit” in “God’s holy faithful people” mentioned during during his airplane press conference returning from Mongolia.
Third, Pope Francis knowingly truncates the Commonitorium of Saint Vincent of Lerins, as was thoroughly demonstrated by Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino:
There is organic, architectonic growth over time—both in human beings and in Christian doctrine. But this progress, Vincent argues, must be of a certain type and shape, always protecting the earlier doctrinal achievements of the Christian faith. A change cannot create a different meaning. Rather, later formulations must be “according to the same doctrine, the same meaning, and the same judgment” as earlier ones. . .
. . . If I were to counsel the pope, I would encourage him to take account of St. Vincent’s entire Commonitorium, not simply the one selection he cites repeatedly.
Note that St. Vincent never speaks positively about reversals. A reversal, for Vincent, is not an advance in the Church’s understanding of truth; it is not an instance of a teaching “enlarged by time.” On the contrary, reversals are the hallmarks of heretics. . . .
I would also invite Pope Francis to invoke the salutary guardrails Vincent erects for the sake of ensuring proper development. While Pope Francis is taken with Vincent’s phrase dilatetur tempore (“enlarged by time”), the Lerinian also uses the suggestive phrase res amplificetur in se (“the thing grows within itself”). The Lerinian argues that there are two kinds of change: A legitimate change, a profectus, is an advance—homogeneous growth over time—such as a child becoming an adult. An improper change is a pernicious deformation, called a permutatio. This is a change in someone’s or something’s very essence, such as a rosebush becoming mere thorns and thistles. . . .
Another guardrail is the Vincentian claim that growth and change must be in eodem sensu eademque sententia, that is, according to the same meaning and the same judgment. For the monk of Lérins, any growth or development over time must preserve the substantive meaning of earlier teachings. For example, the Church can certainly grow in its understanding of the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, but it can never backtrack on the definition of Nicaea. The idem sensus or “same meaning” must always be maintained in any future development. Pope Francis rarely, if ever, cites this important Vincentian phrase—but any call for change must be shown to be not simply an alteration, or even a reversal of prior teaching, but in fact in eodem sensu with that which preceded it.
I would also counsel the pope to avoid citing St. Vincent to support reversals, as with his teaching that the death penalty is “per se contrary to the Gospel.” Vincent’s organic, linear understanding of development does not include reversals of prior positions.
This notwithstanding, the change Pope Francis introduced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding capital punishment was precisely the example he gave in his talk to Portuguese Jesuits to endorse his claim that “the view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.” In Lisbon, he went further than previous statements, claiming that “the death penalty is a sin. You cannot employ it, but it was not so before.”
* * *
To dismantle the false alternative presented by Pope Francis, namely, of having to choose between evolutionary doctrine and morals or a rigid ideology, it helps to recall the abysmal difference between the Church’s traditional pastoral mission and the Argentine pope’s new one. As Guido Vignelli explains, in its traditional sense,
pastoral theology is a practical science that studies how to adjust human life to the requirements of revealed Truth by fulfilling its dogmatic, moral, and liturgical principles. It does not address the goal but only the way to attain it by effectively announcing and transmitting the Gospel to humanity in a way that befits the opportunities of time and place.
Pastoral policy, therefore, depends on dogma, morality, and liturgy; it . . . cannot change dogmas, law, and worship. . . .
Thus, [the] new pastoral policy . . . is understood not as the art of converting men to God . . . but as a pedagogy of dialogue and encounter among equals between the Church and humanity in its concrete historical and social situation. . . .
At the end of this process, a reversal takes place: Instead of adapting life to truth, truth is adapted to life, and therefore pastoral policy is no longer a way but a goal, not a means but an end. . . .
In assuming that life holds precedence over truth, the way over the goal, and the means over the end, modern theology ends up enshrining the primacy of pastoral policy over doctrine. . . .
. . . Behavior becomes the absolute criterion and supreme law not only of life but also of Church doctrine and teaching, replacing her magisterial function with the pastoral one.
At the end of the process, “the only true orthodoxy is . . . orthopraxy,” as a future pope denounced in his time (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, trans. Salvator Attanasio and Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 185).
Founded as it is on a novel and erroneous pastoral theology, Pope Francis’s attack on American Catholics for their attachment to the traditional understanding of the Faith and its pastoral ministry was wholly undeserved.
Moreover, the philosophical and theological underpinings for this misguided indictment reveal an immanentistic, relativistic, and populist understanding of culture and Faith, akin to that of the “Theology of the People” together with a modernist view of the evolutionary development of dogmas and morals long condemned in Pascendi Dominici gregis.
 Antonio Spadaro, “The Water Has Been Agitated,” La Civiltà Cattolica, Aug. 28, 2023, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/the-water-has-been-agitated/.
 “Pope Francis Warns Against Ideologies in Church and World,” Vatican News, Sept. 4, 2023, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2023-09/pope-francis-mongolia-return-press-conference-synod-ideologies.html.
 “Pope Francis Warns.” What Pope Francis indeed said, as can be seen in the video, is shown in square brackets. Vatican News rendered it as “(it is made up of) sinners,” while mentioning that “this is a working translation.”
 Antonio Spadaro, S.J., “A Big Heart Open to God: An Interview With Pope Francis,” America, Sept. 30,
 Pope Francis, apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, no. 31.
 Pope Francis, apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, nos. 221, 228, and 239.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, nos. 231, 233.
 Giovanni Scalese, “I postulati di papa Francesco,” Antiquo robore, May 10, 2016, no. 6b, http://querculanus.blogspot.fr/2016/05/i-postulati-di-papa-francesco.html.
 Scalese, “I postulati,” no. 8.
 Giovanni Turco, “[Da leggere] alcune linee guida per la lettura filosfica del pontificato
di Bergoglio,” Radio Spada, June 25, 2017, https://www.radiospada.org/2017/06/da-leggere-alcune-linee-guida-per-la-lettura-filosofica-del-pontificato-di-bergoglio/.
 Pope Francis and Dominique Wolton, A Future of Faith: The Path of Change in Politics and Society, trans. Shaun Whiteside, e-book ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 26–27.
 Sandro Magister, “The Myth of the ‘Pueblo’: Francis Reveals Who Told It to Him,” trans. Matthew Sherry, L’Espresso–Settimo Cielo, Sept. 18, 2017,
 Cathechism of the Catholic Church, no. 150.
 St. Pius X, encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis (Sept. 8, 1907), no. 13, https://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius10/p10pasce.htm.
 St. Pius X, Pascendi, no. 19.
 St. Pius X, no. 26.
 St. Pius X, no. 27.
 St. Pius X, no. 39.
 Spadaro, “The Waters.”
 Thomas G. Guarino, “Pope Francis and St. Vincent of Lérins,” First Things, Aug. 16, 2022, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2022/08/pope-francis-and-st-vincent-of-lrins.
 Spadaro, “The Water.”
 Guido Vignelli, A Pastoral Revolution: Six Talismanic Words In the Ecclesial Debate on the Family, trans. José A. Schelini, e-book ed. (Spring Grove, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 2018), 19–21, accessed Sept. 10, 2023, https://www.tfp.org/a-pastoral-revolution-six-talismanic-words-in-the-ecclesial-debate-on-the-family/.