Pope Francis in Conciliar Context

After his election to the papacy, Pope Francis described himself as “a faithful son of the Church.” But as we know only too well, reactions to Pope Francis in Catholic print and online publications during the last few years have run the gamut from positive to negative to “confused.” It may be a fool’s errand, but it may help our understanding of a pope not easily understood to see precisely how he is trying, for good or ill, to implement goals of the Second Vatican Council.

Let’s start by reviewing some of the Council’s major objectives:

1. Aggiornamento: The “updating” of the Church sought by Pope John XXIII, quickly turned to serious ecumenism, with the hope of bringing about Christian unity by reaching out to Protestants and Orthodox. In the minds of the most optimistic Council Fathers, a possibility existed of finally bringing about the vision of Jesus at the Last Supper – “that they may all be one.” Very soon after the Council began, the Secretariat for Promoting the Unity of Christians was given the power by Pope John XXIII of checking and, if necessary, redirecting the work of the various other commissions.

2. In theological circles, there were still strong vestiges of Conciliarism, which was considered to have been rejected by the strong affirmation of papal prerogatives, including papal infallibility, at Vatican I. Vatican II offered a chance once and for all to clear up the issue of papal jurisdiction. This clarification was expected to bolster the ecumenical aims of the “progressives” at the Council, by overcoming Protestant and Orthodox fears of subordination to the pope.

3. The 1917 Code of Canon Law, which was operative in the 1960s, clearly distinguished the “primary” end of marriage – namely, procreation, from the “secondary end” – i.e., mutual help and “allaying of concupiscence.” The stereotype of Catholics as emphasizing “breeding” had to be overcome, in the opinion of some Council Fathers and their theological advisors, by reformulating the theology of the sacrament of matrimony.

4. Catholics in the 1960s prayed for the “perfidious Jews” in the Good Friday liturgy, and were familiar with the traditional portrayal of the Church as the “New Israel” superseding the Old Testament covenants. But they were also intensely conscious of possible anti-Semitic ramifications in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the formation of the new state of Israel. Rethinking of the relationship of Catholicism to Judaism was indispensable.


It’s also useful to look at how the Council set about Implementing the Objectives:

1. Ecumenism: Protestant and Orthodox “observers” were welcomed to the Council, and were consulted frequently for ecumenical input. In the document, Lumen gentium, the Catholic Church was presented as central to the plan of salvation, but actual membership was not necessary for salvation in cases of “invincible ignorance.” Mass was to be offered in the vernacular, and envisioned as comparable to the “Lord’s Supper” in many Protestant denominations.. Arrangements were made for “interfaith dialogues” with Christian denominations and Orthodox partriarchs.

2. Papal primacy: Progressives at the Council were committed to overcoming the “damage” incurred at Vatican I by the proclamation of papal infallibility. Trying to democratize the Church, they emphasized “collegiality,” a primacy of the Apostolic College, with the pope as primus inter pares, “first among equals.” But in spite of some successes, the Progrssives suffered defeat. Pope Paul VI (on what the progressives called “Black Thursday”) added numerous changes to documents, clarifying the primacy of the pontiff in regard to the episcopal college, and adding that, while a pope might wish to consult the Apostolic College, his authority did not depend on that consultation. Likewise, when the progressives successfully defeated the efforts of many Council fathers to proclaim Mary as “Co-redemptrix” – which they considered to be an obstacle to reunion with Protestants – Pope Paul VI overruled the Commission considering the issue, and insisted that the Council bestow on MARY the title, “Mother of Church.”

3. Marriage and procreation: With regard to marriage, the Council completely dropped the “primary” and “secondary” terminology, exhorted married couples to “glorify the Creator” by procreating, but somewhat ambiguously mentioned that “Sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.”

4. Jews and the plan of salvation: In Nostra aetate, the elucidation of the importance of God’s covenant with the Jews led to the eradication of charges of Jewish “deicide” in the liturgy and Church documents.

Pope Francis’ Personal Implementations:

1. Toward reunion of Christians: During his pontificate, Francis has had numerous cordial meetings with Protestants and plans to travel to Lund, Sweden, in October for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. He has developed “a warm relationship” with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and issued an amicable joint Declaration with Russian Patriarch Krill in Cuba. In a word, he is “pulling out all the stops” in the Vatican II ecumenical enterprise.

2. On collegiality and the papacy: Francis’ participation in the sessions of the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage, along with the inclusion of the much-discussed footnote 351 in §305 of his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia, indicate that he is trying to include minority positions that he may or may not agree with, from the Apostolic College.

3. On sacramental marriage: Francis is meticulously following the lead of Vatican II of downplaying the distinction between “primary” and “secondary” ends of marriage. In an interview regarding the Zika virus, he pointed to contraception as a “lesser evil” than abortion, since it is an offense against the sixth commandment rather than the fifth.

4. On anti-Semitism: Unfortunately, as I mentioned in a previous column, the Council’s positive statements about Judaism also led to a belief of some Fathers from the Middle East, that Nostra aetate might be perceived as “pro-Zionist,” and should be balanced with similarly positive evaluations of Islam. This purely political maneuver has not been conducive to the ecumenical intents of the Council, but has been perpetuated by the pope in spite of conflicts with reality.

Many have written about the Argentine roots of Pope Francis and there’s much to understand there as well. But it’s also quite clear that he’s following a Conciliar program that many thought had been settled – rather differently – for decades.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.