Interpreting Reality

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ

 Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ / Theology / Published Date:5 April 2021/Last Updated Date:12 August 2021

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This previously unpublished text is a set of notes intended for further study. It can be dated between the end of 1987 and the middle of 1988, when Fr. Bergoglio was working on his thesis on Romano Guardini and was examining the use of Marxist analysis in the interpretation of reality, which he saw as an example of how obsolete categories are eventually superseded by reality.[1]

Bergoglio opens with a quote from an article by Alberto Methol Ferré on how the Church saw the issue of relations with the working class, which had come to the fore of its concerns with the coming of the industrial age and the French Revolution. At the beginning of the 19th century, with Philippe Buchez,[2] a Catholic form of socialism appeared that was swiftly suffocated by a pincer movement of intra-ecclesiastical integrism and atheistic Marxism. Methol Ferré proposed a return to the ethical and Christian origins of socialism, moving beyond both dogmatically atheistic Marxism and, with the help of the Second Vatican Council, the Church’s negative critique of the contemporary world, a critique that had been unable to recognize progress.

Bergoglio concentrates on the failure of categories to interpret realitynoted by Methol Ferré, sketching out in these notes a hermeneutics of realityin which criteria and categories are not mere “patchesor temporary fixes. This concept, together with that of “the overflow” (“rebasamiento”), has become important following the Synod for the Amazon.[3]

La Civilta Cattolica

Bergoglio’s text is of particular interest both for his method and the content. Perhaps some will be surprised by the complex style of argumentation, which is certainly not typical of Pope Francis. In terms of method, it allows us to catch a glimpse of Bergoglio’s personal style of thought, which is inspired by various authors but also reveals his own original thinking. As far as the content is concerned, we can see in his reasoning the application of his well-known “four principles.”[4] The idea that the best method is the one most congruent (“consonant”) with reality is inspired by Guardini, while the deployment of antinomy as a means of poetically expressing a reality that surpasses our intuition and our concepts, and so calls for creative explanation, is very much part of Bergoglio’s own thinking. Methol Ferré’s theory is valid when it comes to interpreting the voice of the people and embracing modernity in a way that is both traditional and new.

Many things can be found in these notes, but what stands out is the vigor of a thinking that is original and mature, moving ahead with freedom of spirit and creativity, in search of criteria to interpret reality that allow us to think and discern without falling into either rigidity or relativism.

Diego Fares, SJ

“With the exhaustion of interpretative categories that are no longer of any use for understanding the events of today, a perplexity has arisen. What is happening now surpasses existing ideas. They are therefore ideas that blind us, that do not let us see. For me, as far as we are concerned, the ‘Marxist Christians’ had jumped on a horse they supposed to be a winner, but which turned out to be drugged. As Claver[5] has pointed out: For fear of being the last Christians, Marxist Christians are actually the last Marxists.”[6]

Regarding this statement, I pose the problem of the hermeneutics of reality.[7]

How do we establish criteria for interpreting reality?

How do we establish their universality as interpretive criteria?

Is the hermeneutic apparatus always stable? Or is it susceptible to change?

If it is stable, its universality is guaranteed, in principle; but it risks remaining closed to new discoveries. If it is susceptible to change, then we could not speak of a universality of the hermeneutic fact.

On the other hand, is the hermeneutic fact the object of metaphysics? Can we speak, then, of a metaphysics of hermeneutics?

If so, to what extent does hermeneutics participate in being, which is the object of metaphysics? Is there an entity of the hermeneutic fact? Or should it be considered as a mere relatio? In the latter case, how should we apply to it the metaphysics of relationships, if it is considered a relatio of the instrumental cause of knowledge concerning reality?

But if it is a matter of applying a metaphysical principle, from which “metaphysics” does it derive?

In this case, reality would be interpreted according to the ideology latent in this or that metaphysics. Therefore, it would seem that the interpretative principle cannot originate from outside reality, but only from within it. However, in this event we fall into relativism: each reality imposes interpretative principles that “open” it to knowledge. But would there not be in this case an identification of reality with knowledge in the best Parmenidean fashion?

If, on the other hand, following the development of the critique of knowledge – and therefore also of the various hermeneutics that have been formulated in history – we see that progress has been made and that, while there have been hermeneutic systems that were tied to a particular period or ideology, it is equally true that hermeneutic systems that considered themselves “true” have undergone – in the light of new thinking – substantial changes that have led to a greater understanding of reality.

  1. When we look at the problem of the interpretation of reality, a cognitive issue arises, which presupposes, at root, a distinction between reality and knowledge. I take this for granted in order to avoid the pitfalls of idealism, of mere phenomenology, and of identifying being with knowledge.

In other words, we are putting all that to one side, and are taking for granted:

(a) that there is a distinction between reality and knowledge;

(b) that people can comprehend reality, including what is changeable and what is apparent to the senses; that phenomenology is not exhausted in itself; that idealism is insufficient; and that all pan-entism (pan-ontoism) betrays the reality proper to the entity.

  1. Therefore, interpreting reality cannot consist in projecting an idea on it, nor in describing the phenomenological without transcending the phenomenon itself, nor in assuming the immanence of pan-entism (pan-ontoism), which always ends up – like every gnosis – in pantheism. So, neither idealism, nor phenomenalism, nor gnosis will suit.


  1. My hypothesis is that the interpretive principles of any reality must be inspired by the reality itself, just as it is: both the reality that is interpreted and the reality of the one who interprets. Here, in some ways, the ad modum recipientis applies, but in reverse: ad modum se develantis.[8]

Each reality contains, within itself, its own way of revealing itself, which arises from the very potentialities inherent in it. It reveals itself in consonance with what it is.

It is, no doubt, “being,” and it reveals itself as “being,” but it is “being as such,” “being here,” “being now,” “being for”… and therefore reveals itself as such: here, now, for[9]

  1. The conceptual or symbolic explication (explicitación) of this revelation must, therefore, be in consonance with the reality of being.

Therefore, if I speak of being as such, as the object of metaphysics, or of the ontological esse, it is with this that I must confront the critique of knowledge.

If I speak of this or that being, “in situation,” it is precisely the peculiarities of that ens (without obviously denying the above, the fact that it is esse and therefore the object of metaphysics) that must inspire – in some way – the interpretative criteria, the categories, the hermeneutics.

Its expression (whatever its forms) is like a “container” of “content,” which is reality.

Consonance between container and content is a principle of the hermeneutics of the particular.

  1. And it is a principle of the hermeneutics of the particular because it is also true of the universal: it is the esse itself that dictates the criteria of its possibility of being grasped.


  1. When a dynamic reality – a historical, political, or religious fact, and so on – is interpreted from a gnosis or an ideology or a phenomenology, we reach a “moment” in which historical reality by its own dynamism “overflows” (rebasa)[10] the interpretation of it.

It is found wanting.[11] It is shown to be reductive, the fruit of an ideology, or without foundation, as the fruit of a phenomenology, or mere static interpretation, like the fruit of a gnosis. (I distinguish “gnosis” from “ideology” because the former retains a hint of wisdom, which goes beyond the mere explanation of an idea.)[12]

This fact of reality superseding the interpretation of it has been seen throughout history, and is what is referred to in the text I took as the starting point for this reflection.

Reality imposes itself on hermeneutic insufficiency, and reveals itself with categories of crisis, revolution and so on.

Reality seeks redress because “it is not treated as it should be.”[13] There is a dynamism in reality that is capable of defending its “comprehensibility” once a certain limit of incomprehensibility has been reached. This happens when reality is neither treated nor apprehended according to its own criteria, but with criteria that are not consonant with it.

The concrete and its dimension of universality

  1. The situated being (in time, space, etc.) is a concrete being.

On the other hand, since it participates in being and in this or that mode of being, it also has a dimension of universality.

The cognitive attitude must, therefore, be able to grasp both dimensions: the particular and the universal.

It is not simply a matter of seeking with knowledge the universal that is in every situated being.

Nor does it involve stopping at the independence of each particular being, denying the capacity for abstraction of the cognitive process in grasping reality.

Nor can we speak of a knowledge in which the concrete universal is grasped in the sense that dialectics attributes to it, namely, that according to which the particular remains “reduced” to a mere moment in the process of negating the negation.

  1. The knower (cognoscente), in turn, is also determined by an entity and a nature. Therefore, every cognitive process and every hermeneutic implies a dialogue between the being who wants to apprehend reality and the reality that is apprehended, between the one who reveals the self and the one who grasps this unveiling.

The knower will make explicit his or her grasping of this unveiling by using a concept.

Conceptualization, meanwhile, turns out to be insufficient to explain the totality of reality, just as the projection of a concept on to reality was insufficient to apprehend it[14]: something was missing, and that was a certain openness on the part of those who were knowers to letting themselves be “touched,” “impressed” by reality itself, as it is.

In the explication of reality, the same thing happens. The concept alone is not enough, and we have to resort to other forms of expression, such as antinomy[15] (which is a system of concepts in tension), as found in parable, myth etc. For at the heart of every parable and myth there is an antinomy, a tension.

  1. A reality was known through means that presupposed concepts and intuitions. A reality is made explicit by means of a language that is neither merely conceptual nor merely intuitive. We could say that, in an etymological sense, it is poetic: it must be the creator of the explication, of a mode of explication that includes both the concept and the intuition that brought it closer to the apprehension of reality.

Antinomy, as a form of expression, is therefore the adequate way[16] to contain all the vitality of a reality, without truncating it.

  1. There remains to be seen what would be the sign[17] that this kind of knowledge and expression are not wide of the mark. There are four elements: in learning reality there are the concept and the intuition, and in explicating reality there are the two terms of an antinomy.

These four elements come into tension with each other. We cannot say that the sign of its effectiveness is the balance between reality and grasping it (the balance can be imposed from outside, from a prior conception, e.g. the balance in Kant’s theory of knowledge). We must look for a sign that, in itself, contains the tension of the four elements.

In my opinion, this sign is consonance.

  1. Consonance between reality itself and reality as it is known. When there is dissonance, there is no effectiveness, and this means that reality has not been grasped, or that what is grasped has not been made explicit. The consonance that the subject who knows experiences in the self is, in this case, a reflection of the consonance that exists between the reality in itself and the known reality. Let me explain: the one who knows has direct experience of the consonance that exists between what he learns and what he expresses. On the basis of this consonance he can know when there is consonance between the reality in itself and the learned reality.

St. Ignatius uses this experience to discern whether a spirit is good or bad: the consonance depicted in the falling of water on the sponge rather than on the stone.[18]

It is an ambivalent consonance as far as the identity of the spirits is concerned, because its positive or negative indication is to be taken from the habitual state of the subject (progressing from good to better, or falling from bad to worse), but, in any case, consonance is a sign, just as dissonance is a sign that one has failed to grasp or express reality as it is.

Consonance happens when the container is “informed” by the reality of the content. Containing and content are con-sonant, they sound together: rhythm and melody go in tension to unison.[19]

Unity in polar tension

  1. Doubt remains as to whether the grasping of reality in this way (the container consonant with the content, both in the apprehension of reality and in its further explication) would ultimately result in “relativism.”

There are three steps: reality (being) is manifested, is apprehended, is made explicit.[20]

If there is consonance in the three steps, this is a sign that there is unity.

Where there is unity, being and reality are best reflected.

Being and reality are not monolithic: their unity is given by a series of systems of polar oppositions that constitute it. Neither atomization, nor commingling with itself, but unity in the polar tension of the empirical and beyond empirical categories, and the transcendentals of which it is made. The unity of being is consonant: it is about the “balance” – the word is not exact – between form and fullness.

So then, the categories of knowledge most suitable for a being or a reality are those that allow the being or reality to manifest themselves as they are. This is the truth: to grasp and make explicit the manifestation of being.

Here there is neither relativism nor ideology… simply reality, being, that is, that which manifests itself and imposes its reality on the openness of the intellect of the knower.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 4 art. 8, 0421: 10.32009/22072446.0421.8

[1].      The original title of the typewritten document is “Los parches existenciales; los parches lógicos, y las categorias de interpretación de la realidad”.

[2].       Cf. P. J. B. Buchez, Essai d’un traité complet de philosophie: du point de vue du catholicisme et du progrès, Paris, E. Eveillard, 1838-1840; Id, Traité de politique et de science morale, Paris, Amyot, 1866.

[3].      Francis used these terms in his spontaneous intervention at the Amazonia Synod. He said he had observed how the synod fathers had failed to come up with all-embracing proposals. Their proposals – many of which were very clear and valid – had made him realize how everyone in the Synod was of a common mind regarding the need to care for the environment of the Amazon region; yet, at the same time, he saw how what united everyone was not free of contradictions, which meant that the proposals were mere temporary patches or fixes, like sticking plaster. “Let’s fix this small piece, let’s adjust this other one, let’s send missionaries, let’s think about expanding ministries…” Good proposals, but not all-encompassing, unlike unity or conflict. He felt that an attempt was being made to deal with disagreements by imposing solutions by means of laws and sanctions, and that in prayer he had realized that the Amazon problem would never be resolved by sticking-plaster remedies. “There are conflicts that are resolved, not by force, but by overflow. And I believe,” said the pope, “that this is one of the conflicts to be resolved by overflow.” The text we present here can help clarify what Francis sought to express in the Synod (cf. D. Fares, “The Heart of ‘Querida Amazonia’: ‘Overflowing en route“, in Civ. Catt. EN. May 2020

[4].      The four principles are: time is superior to space; reality is superior to the idea; unity is superior to conflict; the whole is superior to the parts.

[5].    “Claver” is a typo in the journal Nexo. The reference was to Maurice Clavel. Cf. M. Clavel, Quello che io credo, Rome, Città Nuova Editrice, 1975, 77.

[6].      A. Methol Ferré, “La Iglesia, el Minotauro y los Socialismos”, in Nexo, Dec. 14, 1987, 14.

[7].      The text begins with 12 questions and an affirmation. Bergoglio proceeds by posing very typical questions, to which he responds with ideas from classical philosophy (which today might seem a bit old-fashioned), using an affirmation as his starting point. He moves ahead on the basis of other claims, such as the one that, beyond the structures and validity of the answers, “progress has been made” in understanding reality. This positive assessment agrees with Methol’s claim that the Council’s thinking, as it has been received and applied in Latin America through the general conferences of Medellín and Puebla, implies an advance in the dialogue with the contemporary world. For Methol, the “contemporary world” begins with the French Revolution, which divided the Church between an “integrism” opposed to the Revolution and a “progressivism” favorable to it. Because the Church did not “assume” it from within, they could not move beyond this division Methol calls for the recovery of a pre-Marxist Christian socialism from a new perspective, that of the People of God, which the Council has brought to the fore. From there it is possible to embrace the positive elements of the contemporary era with new categories. Bergoglio’s text goes in search of such new categories, which are not ideological but consistent with reality.

[8].      The best method is the one that best suits the content. The expression ad modum se develantis is significant: with regard to persons and God, it is the key to a non-ideological hermeneutic.

[9].      The question of “being” and “being situated” is important. It is necessary to note the concrete “steps” Bergoglio takes to proceed with the discourse.

[10].    Here we encounter the category of “overflowing” (desborde  = rebasamiento).

[11].    Insufficiency is a concrete existential fact.

[12].    The distinction is between “gnosis,” which has a sapiential nuance, and “ideology” as a mere explication of an idea.

[13].    Reality “is not treated as it should be.” This is a criterion of “fairness” that Hans Urs von Balthasar would say concerns truth as hemeth and not merely as aletheia.

[14].    The inability to learn reality should be enough to put a distance from the explanation that is given. If I realize that I cannot grasp everything, why should I fiercely defend my explanation? One would say that ideological struggles conceal an attack on the (insufficient) conception of the other, instead of seeking the truth.

[15].    The conception of antinomy as a way of coping with the proven insufficiency of concept and intuition. It should be noted how Bergoglio has always “used” antinomy, which makes the explicit definition he offers of it here most valuable.

[16].    Antinomy as an adequate mode. This is the formulation of a Bergoglian proprium.

[17].     Bergoglio seeks criteria for verifying his proposal. The “sign” is consonance, of which four elements are enumerated: two that are given in the dynamics of the apprehension of reality, that is, concept and intuition; and two that are given in the explication of reality, that is, the two terms of the antinomy.

[18].    Spiritual criterion of discernment. To think is, in fact, to discern. Reality is “discerned”; we are not mere recorders or projectors. Each person’s situation or disposition acts as a sign, as consonance or dissonance. This does not mean that we “record” everything perfectly, but that we can continue to “know” and “explain” the right way when there is consonance, and instead stop when there is dissonance.

[19].    Here we have the concept of knowledge “on the way” and the Guardinian criterion of the rhythm and melody of the step with which we proceed in reality, in dialogue with it, with the appropriate rhythm and tone.

[20].    You do not make an “abstract demonstration,” you show reality.