SOUTH BEND, Indiana – John Cavadini, one of the most influential American theologians of his generation, believes that there’s a strong connection between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, when it comes to the stress both put on the Catholic Church needing to remember the basic elements of the faith and its purpose in the world: Evangelization.

“We have to remember that we’re not proclaiming propositions and formulas, we’re proclaiming the Word made flesh to the glory of the [God the Father] in the Holy Spirit,” Cavadini told Crux.

The director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame also said that the left vs. right divide in the United States is leading to both sides trying to “own” or “claim” Pope Francis and that in doing so, “some of his spirit, some of the soul-searching he’s asking all of us to do, is just missed.”

Crux spoke with Cavadini in early November, on the sidelines of a conference marking the 50th anniversary of Introduction to Christianity, a book written by a young German theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI.

Crux: How would you describe the situation of Catholic theology today, and how is Pope Francis influencing the conversation?

Cavadini: I would venture what I’d regard as marks of that influence if there is in fact an influence. I think in Evangelii Gaudium, he told us to concentrate on what is meaningful, beautiful and attractive in the Gospel. He’s saying, if we go back to basics, or if we forget about what is attractive and not concentrate on them, we won’t be persuasive.

He made a distinction between evangelization and proselytism. He spoke of evangelization as a process of attraction and an invitation. I myself am very attracted to that idea. I think young people today tend to regard the Church as less than the sum of its arguments. They see the many arguments and they think the Church is only that.

I’m so struck in this conference on the 50th anniversary of Benedict’s book Introduction to Christianity, how the same it is. Francis says it’s Christ, it’s the mystery of the person of Christ, his incarnation, death and resurrection. And this conference has reminded me how central this was for Benedict, and we shouldn’t be surprised because Pope Francis quotes God is Love, Benedict’s first encyclical, when he says that Christianity is not a lofty idea or a moral system but an encounter.

When Pope Francis says what’s more attractive, and locates it fundamentally in the mystery of the person of Christ and the proclamation of his death and resurrection, I think I have to ask myself if I’ve been an agent of that proclamation or have I been an agent to make it seem that it’s less than the sum of all the disputes in the Church?

I feel if the Church and if theology and the teachers of theology would take up that call, we’d see what I would say is the influence of Pope Francis, which is very much in continuity with what I’m hearing from Benedict today.

This can sound controversial or be misunderstood, but Francis in a way seems to be ‘Benedict for Dummies,’ in the sense that he’s able to put into words the faith in a way that everyone, even those without a theological or ecclesiological background, can understand. As you say, we have to go back to the basics, and the Church is more than a war between any specific theology but about an encounter with Christ. Ratzinger wrote about it in Introduction to Christianity, and Francis in Evangelii Gaudium

I think that’s true in a sense, because he does translate it into a homiletic, or popular outreach that is not something accessible to theologians. Because as he says in Evangelii Gaudium, you don’t need a doctorate in theology to proclaim the Gospel and to be an evangelizer.

But on the other hand, I also think that theologians, having been reminded about these basics, don’t do their job unless they’re willing to engage in a way they’re supposed to, in a learned way. But I think that what Pope Francis is urging us to remember is something the Catechism says: The faith doesn’t terminate in the propositions about the faith, it terminates in the realities to which the propositions themselves refer to.

We have to remember that we’re not proclaiming propositions and formulas, we’re proclaiming the Word made flesh to the glory of the Holy Father in the Holy Spirit.

We’ve forgotten that for a while, haven’t we?

I don’t think we’ve forgotten it, but sometimes we’re so zealous to communicate precisely that we might sometimes miss the forest for the trees. I’ve been trying to emphasize the trees even if I’ve been trying to emphasize the wonderful even wondrous capacity of the faith to embrace the intellect and be a home for reason such that reason becomes an evangelizing tool, rather than having the faith reduced to reason in some narrow, rationalistic way.

I’d also say, back to your original question, another mark of Pope Francis’s influence would be the way in which he really has placed an emphasis on the poor, but in a very broad way. I’m thinking of Laudato Si’, in which he talks about economic systems that produce human trash as a by-product, leaving them aside, by the side of the road, and that also applies to our common home and how we seem to be willing to trash it. And he’s calling attention to that. And in a way, that encyclical is intensely theological.

It’s another domain of influence, where Pope Francis recovers the concern for the poor in the widest sense, but then the theological analysis that allows it to be spoken on a number of levels. I think Laudato Si’ in many ways became its own prisoner of its policy recommendations. That essentially is not what the Church has to offer, but the depth of theological wisdom that can be brought to bear on a problem that has very deep theological implications.

Pope Francis is known for following the Theology of the People, an Argentinian rendition of Liberation Theology that wasn’t influenced by Marxism. Do you see any influence of that train of thought in the U.S. theological discussion?

In Evangelii Gaudium, where I think some of these ideas are reflected, he says that we’re all called to be missionary disciples. That means two things: those of us who want to be evangelizers can’t sit around waiting for people to show up in our offices. We have to be willing to go out to the peripheries, and it’s an adventure. There’s that call to go out to the peripheries, and what do we do there? We speak, but we also listen. You’re proclaiming to somebody, and you have to listen to whom you’re proclaiming. It’s a two way thing.

But I think there’s also the sense that we are all missionary disciples, and you don’t have to have a doctorate in theology to be an evangelizer, as evangelizing is essentially bearing witness to the faith that is in you. The pope says too that Catholics always look like they’re coming back from a funeral, or that Christians are on a perpetual Lent with no Easter, but it’s a call to be joyful even in desperate circumstances.

There’s a lot of richness in the Church, and it’s true, you don’t need a doctorate in theology to be missionary disciples, but we all have a role to play in this process. And in the light of questions that come from higher culture and filter down to everyone, like the new atheism, that treats human beings as if we were mere impersonal collections of impersonal forces. Faced with these tactics of de-personalization, the theologian’s job is to help people see through these illusions and you need the intellectual apparatus to do that. And if theologians are doing their job, then people who aren’t theologians can in some way feel the confidence that what I’m saying has some sort of intellectual backing. Even if I don’t own that backing myself. That’s the beauty of the Church, one body with many gifts.

And I think that theologians need to be aware that they’re members of that body and their work is building up that whole body. That would make the Church all the more effective as missionary disciples. And I think we theologians sometimes have a hard time using the language of evangelization. We feel uneasy using it because sometimes at universities we embody the illusion that universities are not supposed to stand for something, be neutral spaces of dialogue. But that’s a total illusion.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper said it: Theology is intrinsically ordered towards proclamation, it’s a true ministry of the word. If the teaching you’re doing is not directed at proclaiming the word, then it’s not theology, it’s something else. And this is one of the points in which Kasper and Benedict converged.

2020 will mark the 20th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II regarding Catholic colleges and universities. Do you think there’s been any change in the way bishops and theologians interact because of it? Is it still a relevant document?

I think there has been a change. In our own country the bishops have been reaching out. For the past 10 years, every other year, there’s been a conference from the Committee on Doctrine for younger theologians on topics that are of mutual interest. And it’s an opportunity for all to find what we all have a stake in. We have a stake in passing on the faith in an intellectual modality.

For instance, there’s a common stake in debunking the myth that there’s a conflict between science and religion. Another common interest is catechists, how can we support them and what can we learn from them?

The places where academy and Church naturally intersect are becoming less abstract. We have more concrete common projects, where we have a stake in working together as stakeholders. We can work together and move forward.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Land O’Lakes Statement, produced here in Notre Dame and which offered a vision for Catholic institutions to be universities “in the full modern sense of the word.” Where are we in terms of the identity of Catholic universities?

I think Land O’Lakes is something we had to go through to try to inflame a certain kind of independence of thinking and research. At the same time, I think we’re so bound to the Church by the ties that connect us, that the people who did the statement couldn’t think of a situation in which those ties had vanished. Even if it was a declaration of independence, it was within a framework of ties and dependencies we did not renounce from.

To think that it would apply today as it did 50 years ago, without rethinking this relationship, would be a mistake. We need to acknowledge that the loss of the relationship has not only been a plus for theology, it’s also been a minus.

Can you give me an example?

An example would be something Pope Francis has been pulling our attention to. The way theology can abstract itself with so privileged, likeminded conversation partners that it forgets the only reason it exists is its connection with the Church.

We’re so interested in speaking only in this intellectual context, that we sometimes disregard the Church’s main purpose: evangelizing.

The right/left divide in this country, in the Church is mind-blowing. Do you think it affects the way the pope is interpreted and heard in the U.S.?

It’s almost striking to think that one of the negatives of something like Land O’Lakes is that Pope Francis can think of theologians as something that can be locked on an island so the Church can go on.

But in some ways the left and the right in this country have such an interest in fighting each other, that they are unwilling to listen with the ears of the heart. Some of the things he says are not that welcome to the right, and some are not welcome to the left. In the effort to own him or claim him, some of his spirit, some of the soul searching he’s asking all of us to do, is just missed.