Pope Francis: Sociological Analysis or Evangelical Discernment – Address at Percy French Summer School

One Pope, Many Profiles

It is always easy to say Yes to an invitation like this when it is some distance off but, like many people I suspect, I find it hard to focus the mind until the time draws near. So it happened that, a few weeks ago, I sat down and began to think about how I would approach this invitation to explore the sources of our moral values, with a particular focus on Pope Francis.

Among the random thoughts that crossed my mind was the memory of a different Francis, namely Francis Farrelly, the hero, or perhaps I should say the four heroes of the poem by Percy French. Paradoxically, when I went looking for it on Google, I found it on the site of the Summer School. You probably know the story but, just in case, let me unpack it briefly for you.

In a small hotel in London I was sitting down to dine.
When the waiter brought the register and asked me if I’d sign.
And as I signed I saw a name that set my heart astir —
A certain “Francis Farrelly” had signed the register
I knew a lot of Farrellys and out of all the crew
I kept on “sort of wonderin’ ” which Farrelly were you.
And when I’d finished dinner I sat back in my chair,
Going round my native land to find, what Farelly you were.

Conveniently Percy French identifies each of the four Farrellys with one of the four provinces of Ireland, which allows him the opportunity to offer a caricature of the natives of North, South, East and West. It seems that he prefers the Francis Farrelly from the West and I will limit myself that particular caricature.

Or were you the Francis Farrelly I met so long ago,
In the bog below Belmullet, in the County of Mayo?
That long-legged, freckled Francis with the deep-set, wistful eyes,
That seemed to take their colour from those ever-changing skies,
That put his flute together as I sketched the distant scene,
And played me “Planxy Kelly and the “Wakes of Inniskeen.”
That told me in the Autumn he’d be Bailin’ to the West
To try and make his fortune and send money to the rest.
And would I draw a picture of the place where he was born,
And he’d hang it up, and look at it, and not feel so forlorn.
And when I had it finished, you got up from where you sat,
And you said, “Well, you’re the Divil, and I can’t say more than that.”
Oh’ if you’re that Francis Farrelly, your fortune may be small,
But I’m thinking — thinking —Francis, that I love you best of all;
And I never can forget you — though it’s years and years ago –
In the bog below Belmullet, in the County of Mayo.


The man in the hotel restaurant was remembering four different people and asking himself “which Francis Farrelly are you?” It strikes me that, when we examine the ministry of Pope Francis over the past couple of years, this is precisely the question for many people. “Which Francis are You?” There do sometimes seem to be two or three quite different profiles of Pope Francis. One is the smiling, spontaneous Pastor who is just as comfortable fielding questions as he is jumping up to catch a baseball in St. Peter’s Square. Another is the tough, no nonsense, leader who is seriously intent on reforming the Church and seems more than ready to take on anyone who stands in the way. A third is the preacher and teacher who, in many respects, does not differ radically from his predecessors.

From the Ends of the Earth

For some, who see Francis in all of these dimensions, he is something of an enigma. Others, of course, only see the Francis who fits in with their own preconceived notions (expectations). There is no doubt about the fact that Pope Francis has a very real warmth about him. I met him very briefly last year at what we call the “Baby Bishops Course”. We had been warned that, as there were about 150 of us, he would be unable to engage in lengthy conversation with each of us. “Keep it brief” was the message. I was probably face to face with him for no more than 30 seconds. I spoke briefly and he didn’t say anything. But when I looked back over the photographs afterwards, what surprised me was the difference in his facial expression in each photograph. He does body language very well. There is, I suppose, a risk that Francis would be perceived as “style without substance”, while other Popes might be remembered as “substance without style”. I don’t think either of those perceptions measures up to the reality. Karol Wojtyla, Josef Ratzinger and Jorge Bergoglio, while they share one faith and one mission, are three individual human beings, each with his own personal history, his own style and his own take on what it means to be Pope.

I was in South Africa on sabbatical when Pope Benedict announced his resignation and, all through the “sede vacante” period, I found myself thinking how far away Rome seemed. Pope John Paul II, on the day of his election, described himself as “A Man from a Far Country”. Pope Francis echoed this description when he referred to himself as a Pope from the Ends of the Earth. But this is not just a geographical or even a cultural characterisation. It identifies Francis with the disciples who, on the Day of the Ascension were told by Jesus that they would be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth”. Francis is a Pope whose roots are in a faith community which is the fruit of that “witness to the ends of the earth”. Already in his writing and in his preaching, he has spoken of his vision of the Church governed by “a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world, rather than for her self-preservation”. The kind of mission Pope Francis speaks of is not necessarily overseas; in fact it is not really about “place” but how Christians can be witnesses of faith rather than consumers of religion.

That Leadership Stuff

A couple of months after Pope Francis was elected, I had an interesting conversation with a parishioner. She was concerned that I was moving too fast and that some of the changes I wanted to make in the parish might upset people. I suggested that, having discussed the changes in some detail and presented them to the people, I now had the responsibility, as the person responsible for the parish, to implement them. It was about leadership. I thought her response was interesting. She said: “But have you not been listening to Pope Francis. All that leadership stuff is finished.” It is certainly true that Francis likes to challenge people to work through things for themselves. That may be a rather unique and less direct style of leadership but, make no mistake about it, Francis is leading.

Just last week I went for a walk in Lough Key Forest Park. I overheard what might be described as an animated discussion between a mother and father and their two children. The children had been “fishing” with nets along the lake shore and they had caught a few tiny fish, which they put into a jar and brought back to the picnic table. They were making the case for bringing the fish home with them. The parents could simply have said “No. Go and put them back in the lake”. But they didn’t do that. Instead they explained to the children about natural habitat and how these fish were much better off in the lake. “What are you going to do with them? If you bring them home, they will die. Now is that really what you want?” The children were invited to admire the fish for a few moments, to reflect on the consequences of their actions, to have compassion, and then to put the fish back where they belonged.

This is not unlike the approach that Pope Francis takes in his recent encyclical letter on the care of the environment. Most of us don’t think of a Papal Encyclical as “bed-time reading.” I was chaplain in UCD when Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “On Social Concern” was published. I found myself saying to students, you really should read it, it’s very good. In much the same way “Laudato Si” is a really good read and it is really challenging. In the course of over a hundred pages of text, Pope Francis explores the essential connection between the ownership of natural resources, the regulation of banks, animal experimentation, unemployment, genetic modification, consumerism, respect for life, poverty, prayer and politics.

The title of the encyclical, “Laudato Si” (Praised be You) Is taken from the opening words of St Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures” and, in the course of over 100 pages, Pope Francis returns on a number of occasions to the idea that created nature tends to open up in us a spirit of wonder and awe in God’s presence (LS11, LS85) bringing with it the invitation to praise God, not only in prayer but also in the way in which we live in “our common home”.

Conversion from Relativism to Communalism

Alongside this, however, there is a very clear call for conversion. His analysis of the ecological crisis is expressed in language with which Pope Benedict would have been very familiar. “Relativism” he says, is at the root of the ecological crisis, as it is at the root of every moral disorder. Another word for this “relativism” which may be more familiar to us is “individualism”. “When human beings place themselves at the centre” the Pope says, “they give priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative”.(LS 122) “The culture of relativism” he says “is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts.”(LS 123).

In a comment which might almost seem to have been written for  Ireland, but which in reality has a much more global significance, Pope Francis argues that “there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life. Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, forgoing a firm commitment  to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery.”(#189)

The Seamless Garment

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago once defined Christian morality as being like the “seamless garment of Christ”. By this he meant, that one cannot just have part of it. You either have it or you don’t. In a similar vein, Pope Francis quotes his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who said “the world cannot be analysed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’ and includes the environment, sexuality, the family, social relations and so forth.”(#6). Francis rejects any attempt to isolate the environmental question from its human context, pointing out that, alongside a “green rhetoric” there is often a total lack of realism about how political and economic decisions, through their impact on the environment, so often have grave effects on those who depend most immediately on nature for their livelihood.(Cf LS 48-50)

This time last year, Pope Francis was asked by a group of journalists about his attitude towards gay people. Most people will have heard that the Pope’s reply was: “who am I to judge?” What Pope Francis actually said was a little more nuanced than that: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Either way, the Pope’s response was frequently used in recent months to suggest that Francis, because of his compassionate stance would be liberal in his views on same-sex marriage. But that would be to suggest that there is a conflict between compassion and truth. The reality, in fact, is that Christians are called both to exercise compassion and to act in accordance with the truth.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that people of homosexual orientation “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided”. It is not for us to judge people, but that doesn’t mean that we should not make objective moral judgements. The same Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical, calls for coherence in our respect for nature.  He argues that it makes no sense to speak of respect for physical nature if we do not include in this the physical nature of our own humanity. Our bodies are the means of contact with the natural environment. “Acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift”, he argues, “is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father. ……. Valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognise myself in an encounter with someone who is different”.(LS 155)

In much the same vein, he points out that “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable or creates difficulties?”(LS 120)


The Sources of our Morality

When Kevin Finnerty first invited me to speak at the Summer School, he said something about “how we source our moral values”. Pope Francis came later, but in many respects the two questions seem to be very closely related. From the moment of his first appearance on the Loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, the ministry of Pope Francis has been a call to conversion, both in attitude and in action.

It is easy enough, in many respect to carry out a sociological or ecological analysis and to identify, at a superficial level, what is wrong with the world. Here, I want to introduce a note of caution. When I say superficial, I don’t mean unimportant or irrelevant, but simply that we need to go deeper, beneath the surface, to understand the causes of the problems we face and to find the solutions. For Pope Francis violence, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, the degradation of the environment and the absence of clean water; the breakdown of family and the loss of a sense of community are only symptoms of a deeper malaise. “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.” (LS 202)

Back in the 1980s, when I worked as chaplain in UCD, I took part in some of the debates hosted by LawSoc and the L&H. One night, after a debate on the causes of political change, I went for a drink with a few of the other participants, two of whom were politicians who would later be government ministers. One of them, said to me, “you know father, Christianity and Political Liberalism will never see eye to eye. We both identify the problems; we are both interested in finding solutions, but while we focus primarily on the ends to be achieved, you people also worry about the appropriateness of the means.” And it is true; we concern ourselves with the means because they are part of what makes any course of action moral or immoral.

Pope Francis argues that we would not be “well served by a pure sociological analysis which would aim to embrace all of reality by employing an allegedly neutral and clinical method. What I would like to propose”, he says “is something much more in the line of an evangelical discernment. It is the approach of a missionary disciple, an approach “nourished by the light and strength of the Holy Spirit”….. We need to distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan. This involves not only recognizing and discerning spirits, but also – and this is decisive – choosing movements of the spirit of good and rejecting those of the spirit of evil. (EG 50/51)

The unavoidable question, of course, is the question first asked by the teacher of the law: “Master, which is the greatest of the commandments?” Jesus replied “you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and you shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Like a good lawyer, the man immediately asked “Who is my neighbour?” If you wanted to be cynical you might say he was looking for some way to limit his exposure:


So how do we know what is good?

It is not altogether surprising that people find the various profiles of Pope Francis challenging. Philosophers since the time of Plato have struggled to come to terms with the unity and integrity of the human person. Plato believed that the soul was immortal, but this belief went hand in hand with the idea that the human body was not really part of the person. Aristotle believed so strongly in the unity of the person, that he was unable to concede any possibility of immortality. It is only with Thomas Aquinas in the middle ages that some kind of equilibrium seems to be found.

The anthropological pendulum begins to swing again in modern philosophy. With the discovery of new continents and the development of the natural sciences, there developed a new confidence in the power of human reason. Philosophers such as Descartes and Hume became preoccupied with consciousness, but found it less possible to deal with what we might call “the real world”. Immanuel Kant poses the question “what can we know?” and his answer, rather disturbingly is “not much”. We can only know with any degree of certainty, what can be demonstrated mathematically or logically, but we cannot know anything about the world around us. One logical consequence of this for Kant was that we cannot have any knowledge about God, about human freedom, about morality or about beauty. They called it the enlightenment, but it has always seemed rather depressing to me.

Faith and Reason

Up to the time of the Enlightenment it was always accepted that Faith was compatible with Reason. Faith certainly went where reason could not go, but it was not in conflict with reason. The Enlightenment brought with it a shift of emphasis. God was no longer thought of as the source of meaning and the centre of the universe. People began to think of themselves as the ones who gave meaning to their own existence. Faith was regarded as something totally divorced from reason. It was no longer regarded as possible to speak “reasonably” about the “ultimate end” or “purpose” of human existence.

Pope John Paul II wrote extensively about the need to repair this rupture between faith and reason. In his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio he writes:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth….so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” (FR Introduction)

Following in that tradition Pope Francis argues that “science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both”.(LS 62) He devotes an entire chapter of his encyclical on the environment to exploring the wisdom that faith brings to our understanding of the moral responsibility that we share for our “common home”.


Objective and Subjective Morality

“Nature” and “purpose” are constantly presented to us when we read the information leaflets that come with medications and power-tools, to mention just two of the more obvious examples. We read about the various pharmaceutical elements that make up the tablets that we take, how they work, what they are intended to achieve, and what their possible side effect may be. We are warned specifically that we should only use these medications as prescribed and that we should never use drugs prescribed for someone else. The whole system collapses if we deny the relevance of nature and purpose.

Yet this is precisely what we seem to have done with our own humanity. As Alasdair MacIntyre points out, much of contemporary philosophy has denied the existence of a defined human nature and refuses to engage with the idea of an ultimate end towards which our humanity is directed. Yet we still use the language of morality.

“Since the whole point of ethics – both as a theoretical and a practical discipline – is to enable man to pass from his present state to his true end, the elimination of any notion of essential human nature, and with it the abandonment of any notion of telos (the ultimate end) leaves behind a moral scheme whose two remaining elements have a relationship which seems totally unclear.”[1]

We see the knock-on effects of this in much of the moral argument that goes on at the present time, especially in relation to healthcare ethics and sexual ethics. Mary Warnock argues that what an embryo is, has nothing to do with how we ought to treat it. The status of a human embryo, in her view, is determined by how we feel about it or what it represents for us. It has nothing to do with fact.

Much of the argument in favour of same-sex marriage in the recent referendum and, indeed some of what we are beginning to hear about assisted suicide, is based almost exclusively on feeling. The feelings are not the problem and, indeed, I think it is fair to say that, where the Church falls short is in its failure to take on board the power of emotion. The real problem, however, is with the denial of human nature in its integral totality and the rejection of any purpose other than our own.

Of particular interest to us today is the philosophy of Max Scheler, who believed that Kant was mistaken. He identified four categories of what he called material values. These include all sorts of things which can be sensed or experienced. The higher orders of values included the beautiful and the ugly, the legal and the illegal, and religious values such as beatitude, despair, holiness and unholiness. For Scheler, moral goodness is the experience of a person which follows on the decision to realise some material value. The higher, and the more spiritual the value realised, the greater the moral good. For our purposes, and to “cut to the chase”, I think the significant thing is that, for Scheler, personal goodness (or morality) is a feeling or an experience, rather than any actual change in the person.

Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, was an accomplished philosopher and author, long before he became Pope. He took a particular interest in the writings of Scheler and he greatly appreciated Scheler’s focus on the emotional energy of the human person. Like most of us, he understood that emotional responses can often be the essential energy behind personal actions and commitments. He argued, however, that goodness is objective; it is inherent in the very nature of things.  For him, moral goodness is rooted in decision and action rather than simply in feelings. We act morally when we decide to realise an objective good. One of the best expressions of this point of view is his statement that

Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all”.(Solicitudo Rei Socialis 38).

Pope Francis points out that those who reject the Church’s insistence on objective moral norms as absolutist are often quite absolutist themselves, especially when it comes to proclaiming the rights of individuals.(EG 64) By contrast he argues:

In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted?” (LS 123)

What people find attractive, I think, is the fact that, behind the, often very challenging teaching of Francis, there is a very real humanity. As a Jesuit, Francis would have been trained in what we call spiritual accompaniment. Speaking of this he says:

One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).” (EG 172)

He affirms the real distinction between good and evil, but he also acknowledges the struggles that people face in their daily lives.



When Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope, I went looking to see what he had written. All I could find was a book called “On Heaven and Earth”. It is not really a book at all, but a series of conversations between the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires and a Jewish Rabbi named Abraham Skorka, who was his friend. Looking back now, I think these conversations tell us something very important about Pope Francis. He knows what he believes, but he also wants to understand what other people believe. He seems to recognise that his own faith can be enriched rather than diminished through dialogue.

I think it was this same humble confidence that inspired Pope Francis to invite the whole Catholic world to reflect on the challenges facing the family and to send him the results of their reflections. This was not a sociological analysis it was an invitation to evangelical discernment. It was not about changing the objective truth, or indeed because Francis had no ideas of his own. I think he was simply acknowledging that, even if the Pope is guided by the Holy Spirit in matters of faith and morals, he does not have a monopoly on wisdom and truth. In this, he was not only modelling a new style of leadership, but he was asking the lay faithful to exercise the responsibilities of their Baptism.

As far as Pope Francis is concerned, it is the “love of God” that makes sense of the Church’s moral teaching.(EV 35) Without it, all we are left with is “the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines”. It is clear that, for Francis, morality is not just about the avoidance of sin. Morality at its best is a relationship. Through a personal encounter with the love of God, we are motivated to become what Pope Francis calls “missionary disciples”.(EV 120) For many of us the word “missionary” tends to be associated with somewhere foreign, while the word disciple suggests a bygone age. But Francis is talking about here and now. He is talking about our being filled with a desire to share with others in a very practical way the love that we ourselves have experienced.

+Kevin Doran

Bishop of Elphin

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. 54