Arts and Culture

Is Pope Francis a Personalist?

Reading Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Fratelli tutti” and his new book “Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future,” a question occurred to me that has probably been in the back of my mind for some time. The question is how much of the Holy Father’s vision has been influenced by the philosophy of personalism, and how much am I reading the philosophy of personalism into his writings?

In other words, how much of my commentary on Pope Francis’ vision is objective and how much is subjective, me reading meanings into Pope Francis’ writings that are more Lauder than Pope Francis? I teach an elective philosophy course at St. John’s University, and the course has greatly influenced how I view the mystery of God and the mystery of the human person. Is my enthusiasm for the philosophy of personalism moving me to interpret Pope Francis’ as greatly influenced by the philosophy of personalism?

A few comments on the history of philosophy may provide clarity on why I have this problem. My view of the philosophy of personalism is that personalism is a twentieth and twenty-first-century philosophy. There were no personalists before the twentieth century. Plato may have been the greatest philosopher of all time, but he was not a personalist. Aristotle was a genius, but he was not a personalist. Probably no thinker has more influenced my philosophical vision than St. Thomas Aquinas, but I don’t think he was a personalist.

What, then, is the philosophy of personalism? It is the philosophy centered on the human person’s freedom and dignity, stressing the importance of love and commitment and the presence of God’s love in every person’s life. Unfortunately, some people have misunderstood personalism and think that it so emphasizes freedom that it allows people to do whatever they wish without paying any attention to an objective moral order.

The personalist philosophers whom I have read and whose philosophy I teach in my course are theists. God is at the center of their philosophy. I have heard that there are atheistic personalists, but I don’t know of any. It is often not easy to characterize a philosopher or a philosophy with one word, but I think what I have written about personalism is basically accurate.

Emmanuel Mounier, one of the personalists whose philosophy I teach and whom I like very much, in commenting on the philosopher often referred to as the Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descartes, made a statement that I think summarizes personalism as well as it can be summarized. Descartes, who started with what he thought was an indisputable truth and tried to construct his philosophy in the light of that view, wrote, “I think; therefore, I am.” Often the statement appears in Latin: Cogito, ergo sum. Mounier wrote the following:

“Love is the surest certainty that man knows; the one irrefutable, existential cogito: I love, therefore I am; therefore being is, and life has value (is worth the pain of living). Love does not reassure me simply as a state of being in which I find myself, but it gives me to someone else. Sartre has spoken of the eye of another as something that transfixes one, that curdles the blood, and of the presence of someone else as a trespass upon one, deprivation and bondage. What we speak of here is no less disturbing; it shakes me out of my self-assurance, my habits, my egocentric torpor: communication, even when hostile, is the thing that most surely reveals me to myself.” (“Personalism,” p. 23)

I think that the experience of being loved and the experience of loving are the two experiences at the heart of the philosophy of personalism. I also think that they are two experiences that Pope Francis emphasizes in just about everything he writes. In “Let us Dream: the Path to a Better Future,” the pope writes the following:

“If you were to ask me what is one of the ways Christianity has gone astray, I would not hesitate: it is to forget that we belong to a people as Father Zossima says in “The Brothers Karamazov,” ‘salvation will come from the people.’ To set yourself above the People of God is to ignore that the Lord has already come close to His people, anointing them, raising them up.

“Setting oneself above the people leads to moralism, legalism, clericalism, Pharisaism, and other elitist ideologies, which know nothing of knowing yourself to be part of God’s people. The Church’s role is played out in the service of the Lord and the peoples of the earth where she is sent, not by imposing and dominating but as Christ does in the washing of feet.

“The current crisis calls us to recover our sense of belonging; only thus will our peoples again be subjects of their own history.

“This is the time to restore the ethics of fraternity and solidarity, regenerating the bonds of trust and belonging. For what saves us is not an idea but an encounter. Only the face of another is capable of awakening the best of ourselves. In serving the people, we save ourselves.”


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.

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