They have been his guiding criteria ever since he was young. And now they inspire his way of governing the Church. Here they are for the first time, analyzed by a philosopher and frontier missionary
by Sandro Magister
ROME, May 19, 2016 – What is the guiding criterion of Pope Francis, of his fluid but definitional magisterium, intentionally open to the most contrasting interpretations?
It is he himself who recalls what it is, at the beginning of “Amoris Laetitia":
“Since ‘time is greater than space,’ I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.”
Further on in the same exhortation Francis translates this criterion:
“It is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces.”
“Time is greater than space” is effectively the first of the four guiding criteria that Francis lists and illustrates in the agenda-setting document of his pontificate, the exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium.” The other three are: unity prevails over conflict, realities are more important than ideas, the whole is greater than the part.
It is a whole lifetime that Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been inspired by these four criteria, and mainly by the first. The Argentine Jesuit Diego Fares, in commenting on “Amoris Laetitia” in the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” extensively cites notes from a conversation with the provincial of the Society of Jesus in Argentina at the time, dated 1978, all “on the domain of room for action and on the sense of time.”
Not only that. The entire block of “Evangelii Gaudium” that illustrates the four criteria is the transcription of a chapter of the uncompleted doctoral thesis written by Bergoglio in the few months he spent in Frankfurt, Germany in 1986. The thesis was about the Italian-German theologian Romano Guardini, who in fact is cited in the exhortation.
This background of “Evangelii Gaudium” was revealed by Pope Francis himself, in a book released in Argentina in 2014 about his “difficult” years as a Jesuit:
“Even though I was not able to complete my thesis, the studies I did at the time helped me a great deal with what came afterward, including the apostolic exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ seeing that the whole part on social criteria in it is taken from my thesis on Guardini.”
It is therefore indispensable to analyze these criteria, if one wishes to understand the thought of Pope Francis.
And this is what is done in the following text by Fr. Giovanni Scalese, 61, Barnabite, since 2014 head of the mission “sui iuris” in Afghanistan, the only outpost of the Catholic Church in that country, where he also carries out diplomatic roles such as attaché at the embassy of Italy.
In addition to being a missionary in India and in the Philippines and an assistant general of the order of the Barnabites, Fr. Scalese has been a professor of philosophy and rector at the Collegio alla Querce in Florence.
And from this college he has taken the name “Querculanus” with which he signs the reflections that he posts to the blog on which can be read in its entirety the text that is slightly abbreviated here:
> I postulati di papa Francesco
Scalese observes among other things that by virtue of these historicist, Hegelian-tinged postulates, Pope Francis continuously argues against the abstractness of “doctrine,” contrasting it with a “reality” to which one must adapt.
As if forgetting that reality, if it is not illuminated, guided, ordered by a doctrine, “risks turning into chaos.”
The four postulates of Pope Francis
They can be considered the postulates of Pope Francis’s thought, since in addition to being recurrent in his teaching he also presents them as general criteria of interpretation and evaluation.
- time is greater than space;
- unity prevails over conflict
- realities are more important than ideas
- the whole is greater than the part.
In “Evangelii Gaudium” 221, Francis calls them “principles.” Personally I maintain instead that they can be considered “postulates,” a term that in the Zingarelli dictionary of the Italian language designates a “proposition devoid of evidence and not demonstrated but all the same admitted as true in that it is necessary for founding a procedure or demonstration.”
Also in “Evangelii Gaudium” 221, the pope writes that the four principles “derive from the pillars of the Church’s social doctrine.”
But in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, those that are indicated as “permanent principles” and “the very heart of Catholic social teaching” are instead the “dignity of the human person,” the “common good,” “subsidiarity,” “solidarity,” to which are connected the universal destination of goods and participation, in addition to the “fundamental values of social life” like truth, freedom, justice, love.
So then, it is hard to grasp the derivation of the four postulates of “Evangelii Gaudium” from the aforementioned “permanent principles” of the social doctrine of the Church. Or at the least such a derivation is not very evident; it would have to be brought to light and not taken for granted.
The fact is that these have always been the first principles of the thought of Pope Francis. The Argentine Jesuit Juan Carlos Scannone informs us that “when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was provincial, in 1974, he was already using them. I was part of the provincial congregation with him, and I have heard him recall them to illuminate various situations that were being dealt with in that assembly.”
It should be taken into account that in 1974 Bergoglio was 38 years old, had been a Jesuit for sixteen years (1958), had received his philosophy degree eleven years before (1963), had been a priest for five years (1969), had been a provincial for one (1973-1979) and had not yet been in Germany (1986) to complete his studies. It would therefore seem that those four postulates were the result of the personal reflections of the then-young Bergoglio.
In the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” Francis proposes them again “out of the conviction that their application can be a genuine path to peace within each nation and in the entire world” (no. 221).
First postulate: “Time is greater than space”
Among the four postulates, this would seem to be the dearest to Pope Francis. We find it enunciated for the first time in the encyclical “Lumen Fidei” (no. 57). We find it again, together with the other three principles, in “Evangelii Gaudium" (nos. 222-225). It is subsequently included in the encyclical “Laudato si’” (no. 178). It is finally cited, twice, in the apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia" (nos. 3 and 261).
It is however less immediately comprehensible in its formulation. It becomes clear only when it is explained. “Evangelii Gaudium” illustrates it as follows:
“This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time. One of the faults which we occasionally observe in sociopolitical activity is that spaces and power are preferred to time and processes. Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.” (no. 223)
More concise is the exposition in “Amoris Laetitia”: “it is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces” (no. 261). But in this last apostolic exhortation there is a surprising application of the principle in question:
“Since time is greater than space, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” (no. 3)
We must sincerely recognize that the derivation of such a conclusion from the principle under examination is not so immediate and evident as the text would seem to suppose. It would seem that the essence of the first postulate lies in the fact that one must not presume to homogenize everything and everyone, but to allow everyone to make his own way toward a “horizon” (nos. 222 and 225) that remains rather undefined.
In the interview given to Fr. Antonio Spadaro in "La Civiltà Cattolica" on September 19, 2013, Francis presents the principle in a more theological perspective:
“God manifests himself in historical revelation, in time. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in time, in the processes. We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. 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. And it requires patience, waiting.” (p. 468).
In the journal “PATH” of the Pontifical Theological Academy (no. 2/2014, pp. 403-412) Fr. Giulio Maspero identifies the sources of the principle in Saint Ignatius and in John XXIII, cited by Francis in the interview with Fr. Spadaro, and in Blessed Pietro Favre, cited in “Evangelii Gaudium” 171; while he excludes as a source Romano Guardini, who is however cited in EG 224. To the principle is attributed “a profound Trinitarian root,” while its hermeneutic key, of a mainly theological nature, is found in the affirmation of the presence and manifestation of God in history. Frankly, it is a bit difficult to follow the reasoning of Fr. Maspero in this impassioned commentary of his on the principle of the superiority of time with respect to space.
Personally, rather than the theological roots - which remain entirely to be demonstrated - I cannot help but perceive at the foundation of the first postulate some threads of idealistic philosophy, like historicism, the primacy of becoming over being, the origin of being from action (“esse sequitur operari”), etc. But this is a discussion that should be explored by experts in a scholarly setting.
Second postulate: “Unity prevails over conflict”
This principle too was enunciated for the first time in the encyclical “Lumen Fidei” (no. 55). Its more expansive treatment is found in “Evangelii Gaudium" (nos. 226-230). We find it, finally, in the encyclical “Laudato Si’" (no. 198). EG begins from an observation:
“Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed. It has to be faced. But if we remain trapped in conflict, we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart. In the midst of conflict, we lose our sense of the profound unity of reality.” (no. 226)
And he describes three attitudes:
“When conflict arises, some people simply look at it and go their way as if nothing happened; they wash their hands of it and get on with their lives. Others embrace it in such a way that they become its prisoners; they lose their bearings, project onto institutions their own confusion and dissatisfaction and thus make unity impossible. But 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)
The third attitude is based on the principle: “unity prevails over conflict,” which is in fact called “indispensable to the building of friendship in society” (no. 228). This principle inspires the concept of “reconciled diversity” (no. 230), recurrent in the teaching of Pope Francis, above all in the field of ecumenism.
The big problem with this postulate is that it presupposes a dialectical vision of reality very similar to that of Hegel:
“Solidarity, in its deepest and most challenging sense, thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity. This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.: (no. 228)
This “resolution on a higher plane” recalls very much the Hegelian “Aufhebung.” It also does not seem to be a coincidence that at no. 230 there is mention of a “synthesis,” which evidently presupposes a “thesis” and an “antithesis,” the poles in conflict with each other. In this case too the discussion should be explored.
Third postulate: “Realities are more important than ideas”
This is presented in “Evangelii Gaudium” (nos. 231-233) and subsequently included in “Laudato Si’” (no. 201):
“There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric. So a third principle comes into play: realities are greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom.” (EG 231)
It could seem that such a postulate is the one more easily understood and accepted, the one closer to traditional philosophy. His exploration of it in “Evangelii Gaudium” is rather attractive, and at first sight absolutely embraceable:
“Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis. Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason. Formal nominalism has to give way to harmonious objectivity. Otherwise, the truth is manipulated, cosmetics take the place of real care for our bodies” [Plato, “Gorgias,” 465] (no. 232).
In the previously cited journal of the Pontifical Theological Academy, Fr.
Giovanni Cavalcoli lets himself go in an enthusiastic commentary on this principle, assimilating it, without further clarifications, to the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic epistemological realism.
In my view, however, he does not take two important aspects into account:
- the context in which the principle is presented, which is a sociological context with repercussions of a pastoral character. “Evangelii Gaudium” is not an essay on the philosophy of knowledge: in spite of dealing with a philosophical principle, the third postulate is used in function of the development of social coexistence and of the construction of a people (no. 221);
- and the language used, which is not a technical language. When he speaks there of “ineffective of idealisms and nominalisms,” he is not referring to the historical currents of idealism and nominalism, so much so that he uses the plural. Above all, the terms “idea” and “reality” are understood in a meaning different from that in which traditional epistemology might understand it. The “reality” that is spoken of in “Evangelii Gaudium” is not a purely phenomenal reality. The “idea” is not the simple mental representation of the object, but, as the text indicates, it is a synonym for “conceptual elaborations” (no. 232) and therefore of “ideology.” On the other hand, the use of existential expressions like, for example, the verb “being involved” should have made it understood immediately that this not a matter of traditional scholastic language.
Such observations have important consequences. The postulate “realities are more important than ideas” has nothing to do with the “adaequatio intellectus ad rem.” It signifies instead that we must accept reality as it is, without presuming to change it on the basis of absolute principles, for example moral principles, which are only “abstract” ideas, which most of the time risk turning into ideologies. This postulate is at the basis of Francis’s continual arguments against doctrine. Significant, in this regard, is what Pope Bergoglio affirms in the interview with “La Civiltà Cattolica”:
“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies” (pp. 469-470).
Fourth postulate: “The whole is greater than the part”
We find this principle presented extensively in “Evangelii Gaudium” (nos. 234-237) and later summarized in “Laudato Si’" (no. 141):
“The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts. There is no need, then, to be overly obsessed with limited and particular questions. We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all. But this has to be done without evasion or uprooting. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighbourhood, but with a larger perspective. Nor do people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need to lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth. The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren.” (EG 235)
Appreciation must be shown here for this attempt to hold together the two poles that are in tension with each other - the whole and the part - and that in EG are identified with “globalization” and “localization” (no. 234). The acknowledgment of the part, which must not disappear in the whole, is represented by the geometrical figure, dear to Pope Francis, of the polyhedron, in contrast with the sphere (no. 236).
The problem is that the principle, as it is formulated, does not express such a balance between the whole and the parts. It speaks openly of the superiority of the whole with respect to the parts. And this in contrast with the social doctrine of the Church, which indeed states that the person is an intrinsically social being, but at the same time reaffirms his primacy and the impossibility of reducing him to the social organism (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 125 and 149; Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1878-1885). There is the risk that, by repeating the fourth postulate without further clarification, it could be understood in a Marxist sense and thus justify the obliteration of the individual in society.
It should be kept in mind that also from a hermeneutical point of view the relationship between the whole and the parts is not described in terms of superiority but of circularity, what is called the “hermeneutical circle”: the whole must be interpreted in the light of the parts; the parts in the light of the whole.
That in the reality in which we find ourselves living there exist polarities is a fact that is hard to deny. What matters is the attitude that we take in the face of the tensions that we experience in everyday life. From the consideration of the four postulates as a whole, it would seem that we must conclude that the most appropriate attitude is indeed that of bringing together the opposing poles, but with the presumption that one of the two is superior to the other: time is greater than space; unity prevails over conflict; realities are more important than ideas; the whole is greater than the part.
Personally I have always maintained that tensions should instead be “managed”; that it is utopian to think that they can be, as long as we are on this earth, definitively overcome; that, above all, it is mistaken to take the side of one pole against the other, almost as if the good were all on one side and the evil all on the other (a Manichaean view of reality always rejected by the Church). The Christian is not the man of “aut aut,” but of “et et.” In this world there is - there must be! - room for everything: for time and for space, for unity and for diversity, for reality and for ideas, for the whole and for the parts. Nothing must be excluded, at the expense of knocking reality out of balance, which can lead to devastating conflicts.
Another observation that could be made at the end of this reflection is that the presentation of these four postulates demonstrates that, in human action, it is inevitable to allow oneself to be led by some principles that are abstract by their nature. It is therefore useless to polemicize about the abstractness of “doctrine,” opposing to it a “reality” to which one should simply adapt. Reality, if it is not illuminated, guided, ordered by some principles, risks turning into chaos.
The problem is: which principles? It is genuinely not clear why the four postulates that we have considered should be able to legitimately orient the development of social coexistence and the construction of a people, while the same legitimacy may not be extended to other principles, which are continually confronted with their abstractness and their at least potentially ideological character.
That Christian doctrine runs the risk of becoming ideology cannot be denied. But the same risk is run by any other principle, including the four postulates of “Evangelii Gaudium”; with the difference that these are the result of human reflection, while Catholic doctrine is founded on divine revelation.
May that not happen today which happened to Marx, who, while he taxed with ideology the thinkers who had preceded him, did not realize that he was elaborating one of the most ruinous ideologies of history.
On the “difficult” years during which Bergoglio, in Argentina, developed the reflection on his four criteria of inspiration:
> Padre Jorge e i suoi confratelli. Perché vollero liberarsi di lui
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.