Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Another thought on interpreting Pope Francis

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 10, 2014

Pope Francis continues to surprise us, speaking in ways that we don't expect from a Pontiff. For those who are trying to understand his way of thinking, here's one more thought to keep in mind:

Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were accomplished scholars, who taught for years at the university level. The former taught philosophy, the later theology. Pope Francis, on the other hand, never pursued a career in academic life, and when he did teach, he taught literature. Whereas philosophy and theology call for detailed, logical analysis and careful distinctions, literature and literary criticism call for imagination and the use of colorful imagery. This is not to suggest that one approach is better than the other; they're just different.

Next time you read a text of a homily by Pope Francis, notice his use of language. He makes unusual comparisons; he sketches characters; he creates little dialogues. Doesn't he sound like someone who would be more comfortable with novelists than with philosophers? In his brief pontificate, John Paul I showed something of the same tendency; remember his whimsical letters to historic and even fictional personalities? After 30+ years of philosophy professors, we've grown accustomed to thinking that a Pope necessarily talks in a certain way. Not so. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mleiberton3126 - Jan. 13, 2014 4:02 PM ET USA

    As a student holding a degree in literature (BA), I do not agree with the idea that literary criticism calls for imagination and the use of imagery. Au contraire, attention to detail, logical analysis. and careful distinctions are the main tools in that field. Interpreting a work through one's imagination which is divorced from the substance of a work, tends to nonsense, frivolity, and unreality.

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Jan. 10, 2014 11:44 PM ET USA

    I agree, we should lighten up. These open mike conversations and excerpts from homilies are not papal bulls or purging of the magisterium. They are food for thought issued by a thoughtful man who is trying to stir thought in others.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Jan. 10, 2014 6:29 PM ET USA

    I absolutely admired the courage and forthrightness of PJ2, I respected the gentleness and intellectuality of Benedict, and I love the simplicity and love of humanity that Francis shows. In many ways he takes me back to my youth the YCW - See Judge and Act in all human situations - we were taught to look at a human problem through the eyes of Christ and act accordingly. We were not saints but were trying to bring a Christ centred approach to our culture and society.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 10, 2014 12:01 PM ET USA

    I am not concerned any longer about Francis' supposed penchant for inaccuracy.To his credit, he has noticed something very important: All the philosophical and theological talk of recent decades has left us with empty and closing churches and schools in America and Europe; the Church is 'losing' on all fronts of the cultural wars. So, if what you're doing is good but still failing badly, you try a different approach; Francis can hardly make things worse.(And who doesn't like his panache?)

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 10, 2014 10:31 AM ET USA

    There is a point where the meaning of things matters notwithstanding personal styles etc. The Church has always safeguarded theological truths by employing exacting language and terminology in reverence and in solicitude. Extemporaneous remarks must involve careful expression; well-educated individuals and excellent communicators across the globe have expressed concern. At Nicaea, one iota made all the difference for a Church besieged by widespread heretical opinion. Pray for our pope.