I’m not concerned now, after more than ten years of a messy papacy, to “explain” Pope Francis. I am, however, interested in trying to understand his point of view.
I think one of the ways to make sense of his opinions is that he is from Argentina and from an Italian immigrant family to Argentina. He is therefore working from a context in which it is assumed that everyone is Catholic. These are Catholic countries in which, historically, the majority of the population are baptized and at least partially catechized.
Therefore Pope Francis does not see the need for evangelization as such. Instead, the church’s mission is primarily to win back and welcome the lost sheep–to be a Father to the prodigal sons. This underlying context is likely the nexus in which his particular opinions about soteriology have their origins. Who is saved? Why, everyone I know is baptized! This is a Catholic country. Surely everyone is saved. All we need to do is welcome them back. Are many of them sinners? Of course we’re all sinners, but they too are God’s children. We just need to welcome them. Get them to return to the sacraments. Bless them. Embrace them. Make them feel loved. THIS is evangelization.
The problem is, many Catholics have a much more exclusive view of the church. Many Catholics see the church as the ark of salvation and most people are not actually on board. They are welcome, to be sure, but welcome to enter the narrow gate, to repent and believe the gospel–to give up everything to be baptized and come into the church. For these people Pope Francis’ broad church approach seems to be blessing sin, turning a blind eye to sin and excusing (and therefore condoning) sinful behavior.
If I am right about this, then Francis’ provincialism exacerbates the problem. He is a global leader who hasn’t travelled much and seems unable to perceive many of the wider issues and concerns in the church. That he has surrounded himself with fellow Argentinians like Cardinal Fernandez–(and seems suspicious and dismissive of others in the global church) does not help.
No doubt the other factor in Francis’ view of salvation is universalism or at least semi-universalism. His statements about “wishing hell is empty” or opinions that sound like annihilationism (that the unredeemed cease to exist after death rather than going to hell) point to a theological opinion that all will eventually be saved.
While these opinions may be disturbing for the faithful, one of the good things about the present pope is that, from the beginning, he has stepped away from a monarchical, dogmatic papacy–stressing that he is NOT a dogmatic type of pope. More pastoral. As a result we can listen carefully to his opinions, compare them to the magisterium and the sacred Scriptures and judge them accordingly–as we should the theological opinions of all teachers.