Rorate Caeli

The New Doctor of the Church, or, Does Pope Francis Know What He Is Doing? — Guest Article by Tomasz Dekert

Dr. Tomasz Dekert, a professor of religion in Poland, returns to Rorate with a new contribution for which we are grateful; it was first published in Polish at the review 
Christianitas. Translation provided by author. See also his essay “At variance with Conciliar reform, or the anachronisms of Archbishop Arthur Roche,” published here on November 16, 2021.

On January 21, 2022, Pope Francis issued a decree by which he proclaimed St. Irenaeus of Lyons a Doctor of the Church. According to the text of the decree, Irenaeus is to be given the title of “Doctor of Unity,” because “he was a spiritual and theological bridge between Eastern and Western Christians” and his name “expresses the peace [Gr. eirene] which comes from the Lord and leads to reconciliation, reintegrating unity.”

Since I am a person for whom encountering the thought of the Bishop of Lyon was one of the most important intellectual adventures in my life so far,[1] it is of course a great joy for me to have him numbered among the great teachers of the Faith. For Irenaeus is a Doctor of the Church, and the current confirmation of this fact is something due to him; one could even say it is long overdue. It also gives hope that, if one can put it this way, the Church can be re-taught by him, not leaving him almost exclusively to the interest of patrologists and religious scholars, as is the case today.

At the same time, precisely because I know something about Irenaeus’s way of thinking, the proclamation of him as a Doctor of the Church precisely by Francis, and the fact that the latter gave him the title “Doctor of Unity,” is quite surprising in my eyes. It is relatively easy to show that if many words and actions of the present Pope and the thought of the author of Adversus haereses were put side by side, they would turn out to be—to put it mildly—incompatible. And if we treat Irenaeus’s thought and approach as a criterion (of orthodoxy, sound faith, correct thinking, etc.) with which we might confront Francis, then I am afraid that he would come out of this meeting badly battered.

The matter would probably be suitable for an in-depth reflection and a lengthy essay, but here I will mention only two things: the attitude towards heretics and to traditional liturgical diversity, and, in their context, the understanding of unity.

Francis’ attitude towards heresies and heretics is, as with many other matters, vague and confusing. On the one hand, he is very inclined to criticize the different views and attitudes among Catholics that he characterizes (or perhaps better, labels), reaching for terms associated with historical heresies. Here we have his famous distinction between “Gnostic” and “Pelagian” tendencies (never mind how much these assignments actually make sense). On the other hand, with regard to communities actually in schism and professing truly heretical versions of the Christian faith, Francis uses an approach the best summary of which is in his own words during his return trip from Azerbaijan:

On the things that unite us and separate us, I say: don’t make us discuss things of doctrine, leave this to the theologians. They know better than we do. They discuss, and if they are good, they are good, they have good will, the theologians on one side and the other, (but) what must the people do [or: what can we do, the people][2]? Pray for each other, this is important: prayer. And second: do things together. Are there poor? We work together with the poor. There is this and that problem: we can do it together, we do together. Are there migrants? We do things together ... we do good things for others, together. This we can do and this is the path of ecumenism. Not only the way of doctrine, this is the last, it comes in last. But we begin to walk together.[3]

Such or similar formulations, in which Francis proposes the thesis of an already existing unity of action, referring existing contradictions in the faith of the various Christian confessions to a future solution or to the abstract sphere of “unity in diversity,” are relatively numerous.

In this particular statement, two things caught my attention. The first is all-encompassing pragmatism. It can be read as follows: “Let doctrinal discussions take place among a narrow group of specialists. These are difficult and confusing matters that remain incomprehensible to ordinary people, and their resolution is still far away, so let’s start doing something together beforehand that does not touch these controversies and does not create a conflict. If theologians come to an agreement, it’s good, and if not, that’s okay, this matter can wait (one could add: ad calendas Graecas).”

It can also be said in, so to speak, a Marxist key: “Well, we have a problem with contradictory forms of consciousness that do not allow us to function together. Let’s leave them to theologians (read: let’s move them to the world of eggheaded academics, where they will happily get stuck in disputes in saecula saeculorum, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin), and let’s go to the level of praxis ourselves. When we achieve cooperation here, the forms of consciousness will eventually catch up with us and we will achieve unity also on this level (‘this is the last, it comes in last’).” Regardless of which of these readings is adequate, doctrinal issues are devoid of real meaning here; they are an appendage (or, if one prefers, a superstructure) of real life.

The second of the above-mentioned unusual dimensions or features of the above statement of Francis, which probably has not attracted special attention before, is the auto-removal of the pope from the position of someone who has competence, prerogatives, and responsibility in doctrinal matters. “What can we do, the people?,” Francis asks. Assuming that this is not merely a rhetorical exercise (and, of course, that he actually said it—see note 2), the Pope states here that all these doctrinal differences and disputes about the Filioque, the nature of the Mass, the status of Scripture, and a whole host of other matters—including the papacy itself and its role!—are not his business. Orthodoxy, its absence or denial, are not things he would be willing to deal with, let alone settle in some way. In relations with brothers separated by schism or heresy, there is no longer a Pope, a “Guardian of Tradition”; there is only “the people.” (Well, there are still some theologians, but let us try not to forget them as much as possible.)

I do not think that Francis’s “kenosis” is a simple manifestation of humility (if it were, then the characterization of one of the figures in Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods would be suitable for its description: “Vorbis could humble himself in prayer in a way that made the posturings of power-mad emperors look subservient”). Rather, it is an emphasis on the invalidity of doctrinal problems that the Pope is obliged to deal with by his office. By renouncing this duty and leaving the doctrine of the faith to theologians, Francis shows how little importance it has in his eyes.

The disregard for the purity of the professed faith in favor of a pragmatism in the style of “let’s begin to walk together” as well as the renunciation of the burden of responsibility for this purity, which rests on every bishop and on the pope in a special way, lies precisely at the antipodes of St. Irenaeus’s approach.

The situation that (probably) prompted the latter to write On the Detection and Overthrow of the Falsely So-Called Gnosis (this is the proper title of his main work; Adversus haereses is the title of the Latin translation, the only version of the whole preserved to our times) was a serious organizational and doctrinal confusion associated with the fact that in the Gallic communities, weakened after the persecutions of the 70s of the second century, heretical views began to spread, which a segment of the Christians could not distinguish from orthodoxy:

Lest, therefore, through my neglect, some should be carried off, even as sheep are by wolves, while they perceive not the true character of these men,—because they outwardly are covered with sheep’s clothing (against whom the Lord has enjoined us to be on our guard), and because their language resembles ours, while their sentiments are very different,—I have deemed it my duty (after reading some of the Commentaries, as they call them, of the disciples of Valentinus, and after making myself acquainted with their tenets through personal intercourse with some of them) to unfold to thee, my friend, these portentous and profound mysteries, which do not fall within the range of every intellect, because all have not sufficiently urged their brains.
          I do this, in order that thou, obtaining an acquaintance with these things, mayest in turn explain them to all those with whom thou art connected, and exhort them to avoid such an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ. I intend, then, to the best of my ability, with brevity and clearness to set forth the opinions of those who are now promulgating heresy.[4] 

Irenaeus considered the teaching of heretics to be lethal (in the soteriological sense).[5] Hence, it can be suspected that a situation in which any bishop abdicates his task of defending his flock against heretical teaching would be, for Irenaeus, a completely incomprehensible, even unforgivable negligence. Like the vast majority of the Fathers of the Church, Irenaeus treats the issue of the distortion of the truth of faith and its profession very seriously and uncompromisingly. I suspect that many people who view the first centuries of Christianity through the prism of romantic notions of tolerant and egalitarian communities do not realize how fiercely the struggle was often waged at that time.

How the Bishop of Lyon could evaluate the idea of common prayer and action with heretics can be guessed from the stories about the behavior of St. John “the disciple of the Lord” and his disciple, St. Polycarp (whose disciple, or at least listener, was Irenaeus himself), which we find in Adversus haereses III 3, 4:

There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion and said, “Dost thou know me?” “I do know thee, first-born of Satan.” Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, “A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself” (Tit. 3,10).[6]

We do not know exactly what Francis meant when he proclaimed St. Irenaeus a “Doctor of Unity” except that he sees in him a “bridge” between East and West. In fact, he was such a bridge, even physically, because he came from Asia Minor, and he acted and died (probably, we do not know anything certain about his death) in Roman Gaul. On the one hand, it is difficult to imagine that this was the only reason (not counting the double meaning of the name “Irenaeus”), although in the decree Francis only mentions these two things. On the other hand, it seems to be the case; or at least it is difficult to find any other substantive explanation.

Certainly, Irenaeus cannot be made the patron of a pragmatic approach to unity, in which unity is reached (made into a fait accompli) by transcending essential doctrinal differences and, more importantly, suspending or even rejecting the question of which faith is an orthodox and apostolic faith. This last approach of modern times has nothing to do with Irenaeus’s thought, but much to do with the “false irenicism” about which the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio states that “nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism” as it, because in such an irenicism “the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded” (n. 11).

The second aspect of the activity of the Bishop of Lyons, which comes into direct contradiction with the thinking and actions of Francis and his understanding of unity, no longer concerns heresiology, but the question of liturgical tradition. It was recently invoked by Bishop Athanasius Schneider in his appeal to the Pope asking him to dismiss Traditionis Custodes.[7]

We know this story thanks to Eusebius of Caesarea and his History of the Church (V 24,11–18). It concerned the controversy over the date of the celebration of Easter and other disciplinary and liturgical issues between Rome and the Christians of Asia Minor. The pope at the time, Victor, was willing to break off his unity with the Asian Church, which insisted on “ancient customs” strongly different from Roman customs. Irenaeus—himself of Asian origin—wrote a letter to Pope Victor, in which he persuaded him (successfully) against taking such a drastic step, recalling numerous situations of contacts between earlier popes and Eastern brothers, in which the former respected the difference in liturgical customs of the latter, which they necessarily wanted to preserve due to their traditional character.

In short, Irenaeus’s position was that liturgical diversity flowing from tradition is not an obstacle to unity, and that a pope who tried to force unity by suppressing traditional customs of some part of the Church in order to unify everyone into a form he recognizes as the only binding one do not actually serve unity. And it was precisely because he succeeded in persuading Victor to respect the ritual and disciplinary differences of the Christians of Asia Minor that Eusebius writes of him: “Thus Irenaeus (Eirenaios), who truly was well named, became a peacemaker (eirenopoios) in this matter, exhorting and negotiating in this way on behalf of the peace of the churches.”[8]

Even bearing in mind all the inexhaustible differences between the situation of the Christian liturgy of the second century and ours, it must be said that the attitude and thought of Irenaeus in comparison with the recent moves of Francis and his court in relation to their (our) own Roman liturgical tradition furnish abundant material for contrast.

From the above comparison emerges a somewhat paradoxical picture.

Here Francis—the Pope who is inclined to strive for “diversity” in the field of doctrine but in the field of his own liturgical tradition pursues a policy of establishing unity through ultimate absolute uniformity—proclaims as a Doctor of the Church a holy man whose views and activity in relation to both of these fundamental matters can be treated as the antithesis of his own.

Does he actually know what he is doing? Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Or perhaps it does not matter at all, and asking questions about logic, awareness, or non-contradiction in Francis’s moves is simply misguided. It is sometimes difficult to avoid the impression that this is the case, and that this state of mental disintegration is simply the emblem of this pontificate.

Sancte Irenaee, ora pro nobis. 


[1] Irenaeus’ thought was the subject of my master’s and doctoral dissertation. I have published two books and a number of articles (all in Polish) about it.

[2] There are some differences between the versions of this statement reported by different media. The Holy See’s press bulletin gives this passage as follows: “On the things that unite and divide us, I will say: let us not discuss matters of doctrine, let us leave that to the theologians, who know how to do it better than we do. … What can we do, the people? Pray for each other. … And secondly, do things together … do good things for each other. There are the poor, let us work together for the poor … and this is the path of ecumenism. Not just the path of doctrine.” The Pope speaks to journalists on his return flight to Rome ( Thus, it reflects the Pope’s rhetorical question and the end of his speech differently from the text in the CAN I am quoting here. In turn, the Polish version (that I originally used) published in the Polish L’Osservatore Romano (Franciszek, Nie ma innej drogi, Rozmowa z dziennikarzami podczas lotu z Baku do Rzymu, „L’Osservatore Romano” 10 [2016], 29), is mostly consistent with the CNA version, but the question “What can we do, the people?” it is in the same form as in the bulletin of the Holy See. In my interpretation, I follow the meaning contained in this version.

[3] Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Azerbaijan. Cf. parallel statement from the book Il Cardinale Bergoglio al Rinnovamento – Scritti e interventi, as cited by Alessandra Nucci, “Francis, Ecumenism and the Common Witness to Christ”: “I don’t believe in a definitive ecumenism, much less do I believe in the ecumenism that as its first step gets us to agree on a theological level. I think we must progress in unity, participating together in prayer and in the works of charity. And this I find in the Renewal. Now and then we get together with a few pastors and stop and pray together for about an hour. This has been made possible thanks to the Charismatic Renewal, both on the evangelical side and on the Catholic side.”

[4] Adversus haereses I praef., 2; por. III 15, 2. English translation in: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, eds. Alexander Roberst and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1885).

[5] See, e.g., Adversus haereses III 16, 8.

[6] A parallel text can be found in Irenaeus’ letter to Florin preserved in Eusebius of Caesarea, in which the former mentions that if their common master, Polycarp, had heard the Valentinian theories that Florinus professed, he would have plugged his ears and run as far away as possible. See. Eusebius of Caesarea, The Church History V 20, 7.


[8] Eusebius of Cesarea, The Church History V 24, 18. English translation in: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. 1: Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1890).