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A caution re reading Bergoglio as a proto-Francis

May 6, 2013

Searching the pre-papal writings of Pope Francis for clues to his pontificate is understandable. For the past 35 years we’ve lived under two popes who wrote voluminously throughout their adult lives; their academic and episcopal essays often contained themes later developed by them as popes. But research habits formed to deal with John Paul II olim Wojtyła and Benedict XVI olim Ratzinger might not be as useful when it comes to reading Francis olim Bergoglio.

For starters, Francis wrote far less than either JP2 or B16 and the less evidence one has of something the more tentatively one interprets it. Moreover, what writings we do have from Bergoglio seem less aimed at academic audiences or others seeking theoretical precision than at practitioners of pastoral arts. One should not read Bergoglio’s prose with more technical precision than he usually wrote with. As for those parsing Bergoglio’s comments to reporters as a bishop or priest, (or, for that matter, occasionally as a seminarian!) as if these utterances were pre-pontifical exercises in papal infallibility, well, such analysis need not be taken seriously.

But besides the more obvious difficulties in using Bergoglio’s popular writings to predict the policies of Francis, I would add one more: some popes seem pretty good at not feeling bound by their pre-papal views when the burdens, and the graces, of the papacy come to rest upon them.

Want an example? Consider this episode related in G. Joyce, Christian Marriage (1933) 60-65.

One of the thorniest questions vexing the 12th century Church dealt with what constituted marriage: did a marriage come into effect when the parties exchanged lawful consent (as the School of Paris held) or did it not really occur until the parties consummated their union (as the Bologna thinkers argued). Canonical heavy hitters lined up on both sides of the dispute and prestigious canonical tribunals gave conflicting rulings on cases.

The great canonist Rolandus Bandinelli lent his prestige to the Bologna interpretation. Coupled with Gratian and Hugh of St. Victor, Bandinelli was a powerful proponent of the consummation=marriage school. True, Bandinelli seemed to shift more toward the consent=marriage school later in his career as canonist, but even upon being elected Alexander III in 1159, he still vacillated between the two theories, and not for some time did he finally side with the Parisian interpretation that consent makes marriage (while consummation adds a technical type of indissolubility). Thus, even though it disagreed with a position Bandinelli had earlier strongly defended, Alexander firmly gave the Church an insight into marriage from which she has never retreated.

Moral of the story: Something about being pope forces men to approach issues not as intellectual exercises, both sides of which can be argued, but as articulations of the doctrines and disciplines of the universal Church. Rather more weighty.

I am, therefore, much more interested in what Francis says and does as pope than I am interested in what Bergoglio said and did as a bishop or priest or (good grief) as a seminarian.

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