Integrating Pope Francis


The Pontificate of Pope Francis has been full of surprises.1 From the beginning, the name choice itself signaled that something very new had arrived in Rome. No one had ever chosen the name Francis before—who would dare? Even the cardinals who elected him had done something very different: the first pope of the Americas, the first pope from the Society of Jesus, etc. Meanwhile, the Holy Father has been bold in speaking out on many seemingly diverse issues: evangelization, environment, family, immigration, war, spirituality, and, most recently, the death penalty.

However, a line in the recent text Gaudete et Exsultate suggests that the time has come to integrate the thought of Pope Francis; that is, we are challenged to find the synthetic threads that bring his ideas together in a coherent whole. In his most recent exhortation, he writes, “We often speak, for example, of the spirituality of the catechist, the spirituality of the diocesan priesthood, the spirituality of work. For the same reason, in Evangelii Gaudium I concluded by speaking of a spirituality of mission, in Laudato Si’ of an ecological spirituality, and in Amoris Laetitia of a spirituality of family life.”2 Thus, it is clear that fundamental unity underlies the composition of the four major works of the current pontificate.

What is the best way to integrate the Holy Father’s thought? I propose a word which may help us do so more than any other. The key to integrating the thought of Pope Francis is precisely in the word integration. This word and others such as integrate, integral, and integrity surface throughout much of his writing; moreover, integration and its synonyms cement the key arguments in his major works. In this essay, I will illustrate how this is so and how integrating Pope Francis in this manner can shed some light on answers to the difficult moral-theology questions that he has raised.

The Word Integration

Where, then, is the word integration in the major works of our Holy Father? To begin, consider the Pope’s vision of catechesis. He says that it demands the “integration of every dimension of the person;”3 moreover, in the new evangelization, groups need to keep contact with their particular Church—a kind of “integration.”4 In fact, gifts of the Holy Spirit are to be “integrated harmoniously” into the life of the Church;5 in general, becoming a people demands a “desire for integration.”6

Within the community, “houses and neighborhoods are more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate;”7 we should, instead, “integrate those who are different,”8 keeping in mind that families are a hub for “integrating persons into society.”9

In terms of married life, couples must strive for “fuller integration” of the mystery of Christ10 along with a “progressive integration of the gifts of God;”11 the divorced and remarried “need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities;”12 and “pastoral discernment” is notably divorced from a “cold bureaucratic morality,” instead “filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope and above all integrate.”13

To clarify the mission of the Church, Pope Francis writes that “the task of evangelization implies and demands the integral promotion of every human being,”14 which, for this pope, certainly means “the integral development of the poor.”15 Laudato Si’, then, goes much further. At the heart of the entire encyclical is a call for “integral ecology,” an overarching theme connected to “integral development,”16 “integral and sustainable development,”17 “integral improvement in the quality of human life,”18 “integral education,”19 or even “integral and timely disarmament,”20 a humanism21 “in the service of a more integral and integrating vision,”22 and a politics “capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach.”23 Moreover, this is tied to keeping the “integrity of the earth,”24 respecting the “integrity of creation,”25 the “integrity of ecosystems” alongside the “integrity of human life;”26 of course, we need an approach which can “integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment.”27 Finally, in terms of the universal call to holiness, we are challenged to see that “everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness.”28

The Meaning of Integration in Laudato Si’

Given all these references to the word itself, we must ask the question: What does integration mean for Pope Francis? Let us first consider his one encyclical (Laudato Si’). As previously stated, the central vision of the text is an “integral ecology.” This phrase is the title of chapter four, but the Holy Father uses it as early as the introduction, precisely when he first “turns” to St. Francis, the one whom he “took as [his] guide and inspiration when [he] was elected Bishop of Rome.” Pope Francis professes, “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.”29 Obviously, the concept of integral ecology is at the heart of the encyclical . . . and perhaps the current pontificate.

What, then, does the Pope mean by “integral ecology”? Above all, he wants us to see that “everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.”30 Moreover, “every creature has its own value and significance,” and God the Father “calls us together into a universal communion.”31 Following Aquinas’s ontology, Pope Francis explains that “we understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan.”32 Thus, “all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family.”33 Integral ecology cannot be inconsistent: one cannot combat the trafficking of endangered species while remaining indifferent to human trafficking.34 Furthermore, in order to develop a proper ecology we need to overcome the “fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information;” they must be “integrated into a broader vision of reality.”35

Thus, integral ecology means a synthesis of ideas to produce the most beneficial way for helping and fostering creation. It means understanding that all of creation is connected in an integration of different things for the greater glory of God. As a result, each of us is called to a proper care for created things with an integrity of commitment (not partially helping here or there). Integral ecology is an extension of Paul VI’s integral human development such that, not simply peoples but also non-rational living things and non-living things are to be given appropriate care and concern for achieving their proper end. For Pope Francis, integration of ideas to better serve an integrity of commitment to creation (understood as an integrated whole) is the path to sanctity.

Evangelii Gaudium and Gaudete et Exsultate

From this perspective, we can approach the importance of integration in evangelization (Evangelii Gaudium) and the call to in holiness (Gaudete et Exsultate). Over and over in the Pope’s first apostolic exhortation, he calls us to go beyond ourselves. “We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us out of ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization.”36 Again: “life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort.”37 Moreover, our missionary call is to “reach everyone without exception or exclusion.”38 This concern for inclusion rather than exclusion is deeply tied to Francis’s vision of integration: to integrate is to include; exclusion and isolation lead to disintegration. Consider his comment on neighborhoods: they are “more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate.”39 Isolation is the opposite of integration. The “Joy of the Gospel” comes from mission outwards to integrate all into the Kingdom of God; its sign of love is found in a commitment to integral human development or even integral ecology.

Moreover, as we saw in the integral ecology, synthesis is a synonym for integration. When we look at the Holy Father’s instruction on proclaiming the Gospel, we see a mind in tune with the synthetic needs of idea transfer. “Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart. The difference between enlightening people with a synthesis and doing so with detached ideas is like the difference between boredom and heartfelt fervor.”40 The goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to find an integration of ideas and themes, integrating them into the common experience of the people listening so that the Word can take root (be integrated) in the heart of the evangelized or catechized.

Thus, when we read the Bible, we need to find its unifying theme, and priests need to preach the most important principles in a hierarchy of truths. All of this suggests an understanding of truth itself as integrated, its diversity organized in a proper harmony in an overall unity.

This then leads us to the exhortation on holiness. As quoted before, the Holy Father exhorts us to allow all things to be “integrated into our life in this world, and become a path to holiness.”41 At the same time, let us examine more carefully what he is saying here. The Pope explains in this paragraph that “it is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service.” In other words, integrating all things on the path to holiness is about having an integrity within such that one path does not overly predominate to the detriment of a fully “whole” and human life. This is the core of Gaudete et Exsultate.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that the Pope writes poignantly in the exhortation about the dangers of neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism. In short, these two neo-heresies are problems overvaluing our will or intellect; we think we can achieve holiness without grace when we fall into neo-Pelagianism, and we boast of our special knowledge when we fall slave to neo-Gnosticism. Both of these sins are the effect of pride that divides us against ourselves and others while keeping us from having an integrated totality in the spiritual life. Perhaps most significantly, these two tendencies cut us off from love of neighbor, for they encourage us to think of ourselves as holier and wiser “than thou.”42 In both cases, we fail to integrate the other into Christ or Christ into ourselves.

The same principle is at stake in the Pope’s critique of ideological problems affecting our spirituality. We can become social-gospel Christians, so that we remove the life of grace,43 or we reject or relativize the social commitments to the detriment of charity.44 In both areas there is a failure to integrate all facets of the Christian life.

Finally, the exhortation concludes with a beautiful Ignatian testimony on discernment. After providing a number of tips on discernment, the Holy Father calls us to prayer—the “silence of prolonged prayer”—in which we can “perceive God’s language” and “allow the birth of a new synthesis.”45 The spiritual man has an integrity within: an integration of God’s will into his life where the truth of things fits in an integrally whole way, and his actions flow harmoniously in line with that truth.

Amoris Laetitia

Amoris Laetitia adds a few further dimensions to the concept of integration. Here integration refers to the way in which the virtuous man takes up the passions into love and the way the Church works with her weakest members. Above all, it seems to cement how the concept of integration is tightly linked to the Church’s understanding of the divine pedagogy, in which God’s gifts are gradually and progressively integrated into each human person.

Concerning virtue, the Pope (following the synodal documents) writes, “true love . . . integrates the sexual and affective dimensions.”46 This suggests that virtue is a type of integration: it is the right ordering of proper elements in the person: they are brought together and synthesized in an organic, unified whole. Hence, in general, “a person can certainly channel his passions in a beautiful and healthy way, increasingly pointing them towards altruism and an integrated self-fulfillment.”47 Note also how, with an “integral education,”48 young adults can be prepared for an “integral and generous gift of self.”49 An integrated person is a virtuous person and, above all, a loving person capable of entering into the law of the gift.

The Church understands cultivation of virtue as following certain laws of growth, often according to the “divine pedagogy.” Pope Francis follows Pope John Paul II in his explication of this process in the life of God’s children. First of all, married persons are able with time to allow the mystery of Christ and the Church to be integrated more richly into their lives.50 The Church waits patiently for couples to develop (though not necessarily perfect) their imaging of Christ and the Church. This is an application of John Paul II’s “law of gradualness” in which a person “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love.”51 It is also a background through which we can look at the principle of “integrating weakness” to which we now turn.

The interpretive problems surrounding chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia have much to do with the phrase “integrating weakness.” Francis is unambiguous as to the centrality of this term. In quoting the relatio from the synod, he writes that “the baptized and remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible . . . the logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care.”52 Moreover, the conclusion of the chapter is in his own words, wherein he has chosen a new phrase: the “logic of pastoral mercy.” He says that the reflection he has given “sets us in a context of a pastoral discernment filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope and above all, integrate.”53

I think that, at face value, it seems that the word “integration” here means giving those in “irregular situations” more of a role in the parish or even — as the debates have played out — being admitted (in certain circumstances) to Communion. I do not deny that the word seems to mean at least that. However, there are other ways of seeing this word that may help unpack what the Pope is trying to get at here.

First of all, as we have seen, integration also refers to the law of gradualness: Perfection is gradually integrated into the person. Hence, he says in chapter eight that “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear.”54 Thus, integrating weakness also suggests that we remain attentive to the various stages into which the ideal of Christian perfection is integrated into each person.

But there is more. We have also seen that integration refers to the reality that “everything is inter­connected.” Francis is a synthetic thinker first of all. For him, moral theology cannot simply be an application of a limited set of rules, as if every situation corresponded to some “ethical playbook.” The one applying morality in a given situation must consider the whole teaching of the Church. Hence, he cites in chapter eight a number of passages from the Catechism and even Aquinas that call us to consider that “the Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations.”55 Integrating the weak also means integrating the whole teaching of the Church in working with others on their road to sanctity.

This synthetic morality ties into Francis’s continuing use of the word discernment. A central goal of his moral teaching is to contrast a “pastoral discernment” to a “cold bureaucratic morality.”56 In order to unpack this last point, we have the gift of Gaudete et Exsultate (the follow-up exhortation). Here, Francis gives larger insights into discernment with one quote that we have looked at before. He writes that, in the prolonged prayer of discernment, “we allow a birth of a new synthesis that springs from a life inspired by the Spirit.”57 The highest goal of discernment is synthesis, a word that is synonymous with integration in the thought of Pope Francis. Even when every rule is known, one’s particular situation may present nuances that fall outside the general norms of Church teaching. Here one stands alone with God, whose will (perfect love) alone can determine what is the morally sound path of action.

Integrating the Difficult Questions

I believe that this connection of ideas helps explain a number of factors in the Amoris debate. First, it explains why Francis is reticent to say that he is making up new laws for the Church. He is not interested in new laws and is certainly not interested in casuistry.58 Rather, he is exploring where the current laws — and the whole teaching of the church — may yield gaps or new opportunities for pastoral actions (as an application of prudence). This point, it seems, was not lost on Bishop Arrieta (Opus Dei bishop and canonist, former dean of faculty of canon law at a pontifical university: hardly left-wing!). He explains that a “state of necessity, the existence of natural obligations, the difficulty of proving the truth of things” are situations that can overturn “objectively grave sin,” “obstinate persistence,” or a “situation of habitual grave sin.”59 For Bishop Arrieta, Amoris is a breakthrough piece precisely because it brings together dimensions of morality into a pastoral situation that had stalemated previously. There is a key quote from the bishop worth pondering. He says, “The novelty of Amoris Laetitia consists mainly in having considered as a whole the objective and subjective elements established by the traditional doctrine of the Catholic Church to evaluate the morals of human acts.”60 In other words, the pastoral vision is one which seeks to integrate better the various aspects of human acts.

Second, interpreting Pope Francis in this way explains why even the Argentinian bishops never actually state an actual situation in which the “not-continent and un-annulled” divorced and remarried could return to Communion. They leave it at the level of “more complex cases.”61 Again, Francis is not interested in dictating new laws for shepherds of the family; his wish is that pastors see all dimensions of Church teaching in handling complex cases, with the possibility that a more integral vision of the Church’s pastoral practice could open the door to reconciliation and Communion in some situations.

Third, this method explains why the follow-up piece on spirituality goes right after gnosticism and pelagianism. These are spiritual diseases which make discernment difficult. They lead to judgmentalism and rigorism in a way that hardens the heart toward “integrating the weak.” Someone caught in these vices may, at least spiritually, abuse laws “as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.”62 Conversion of the confessor is as essential as repentance of the penitent in forging an integrated Church celebrating the Sacraments.

I think that many other challenging aspects of Francis’s teaching make sense in light of the principle of integration. His strong stance against the death penalty, for example, is understandable in light of the call to integrate all members of society — especially in light of their destiny for the Kingdom of God.63 His “development of doctrine”64 in revising the Catechism should be read as a synthesis — an integration — of previous magisterial teaching.65 Meanwhile, he speaks of integrating migrants into society,66 and his condemnation of nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, and the arms race is in light of “integral disarmament.”67 And so on. This essay has focused primarily on the main written documents of Pope Francis. However, a survey of his many talks, interviews, and homilies will, I trust, reveal a strong reliance on the principle of integration in his thought.


In conclusion, the synthetic thread of the thought of Pope Francis is synthesis, and the integrating principle is integration. Moreover, a reliance on the word integration may in fact be a path that leads directly to the heart of our faith. The Catechism begins with a proclamation of God’s salvific plan. “He calls all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church.”68 And, as if reiterating this principle within the framework of catechesis, the text describes part of the Church’s mission as “integration into the ecclesial community.”69 Thus, at the heart of the entire mission of the Church in fulfilling God’s will is a plan of integration. We would be wise to put this word at the forefront of our search for God’s will in our lives.

  1. This essay was written over the summer as an exercise in synthetic theology with a goal of better understanding and interpreting the Mind of the Magisterium. Only afterwards did the latest horrors of ecclesial abuse, violence, and cover-up come to light. I ask the reader to keep in mind this timing and intention so that the essay is not read as insensitive to the current sufferings in the Church.
  2. Gaudete et Exsultate (GeE) 28.
  3. Evangelii Gaudium (EG) 166.
  4. EG 29.
  5. EG 130.
  6. EG 220.
  7. EG 75.
  8. EG 210.
  9. Amoris Laetitia (AL) 181.
  10. AL 76.
  11. AL 122.
  12. AL 299.
  13. AL 312.
  14. EG 82.
  15. EG 188.
  16. Laudato Si’ (LS) 13.
  17. LS 18.
  18. LS 147.
  19. LS 213.
  20. LS 175.
  21. Some have drawn connections between Pope Francis’s thought and Jacques Maritain’s work in “humanisme intégrale.” I think that these connections are worth exploring, but my guess is that they should be tempered with a look at how Maritain influenced Bl. Pope Paul VI, whose vision of “integral human development” among other things has probably been the bigger influence on Pope Francis.
  22. LS 141.
  23. LS 197.
  24. LS 8.
  25. LS 130.
  26. LS 224.
  27. LS 49.
  28. GeE 26.
  29. LS 10.
  30. LS 70.
  31. LS 76.
  32. LS 86.
  33. LS 89.
  34. LS 91.
  35. LS 138.
  36. EG 8.
  37. EG 10.
  38. EG 35.
  39. EG 75.
  40. GeE 143.
  41. GeE 26.
  42. GeE 35.
  43. GeE 100.
  44. GeE 101.
  45. GeE 85.
  46. AL 67.
  47. AL 148.
  48. AL 279.
  49. AL 283.
  50. AL 76, op. cit. FC 9.
  51. AL 295, op. cit. FC 34.
  52. AL 299, op. cit. Relatio finalis 84.
  53. AL 312.
  54. AL 308, op. cit. EG 44.
  55. AL 301.
  56. AL 312.
  57. AL 171.
  58. AL 304.
  60. Ibid.
  62. AL 305.
  63. Cf.
  65. To be sure, there are elements of the new text of CCC 2267 which suggest that something definitively new has appeared in the teaching on the death penalty. I think that Pope Francis may, in fact, have changed our understanding of the moral quality of the death penalty itself. Nevertheless, this should not be seen as outside of the synthetic approach to doctrine in light of obvious developments on this topic from several modern pontificates since the Council.
  68. CCC 1.
  69. CCC 6.
E. Tyler Graham About E. Tyler Graham

Dr. E. Tyler Graham has been teaching high school for 25 years and has a humanities B.A. from Stanford University, an M.A. in religion from Syracuse, an M.T.S. from Ave Maria University, and a Doctorate in Theological Studies from Pontifex University. He currently lives in Ave Maria, Florida, with his wife and children. There, both spouses teach at, and all 6 children attend or have graduated from Donahue Academy, a Catholic classical school.


  1. Avatar Stephen Hand says:

    I think the word and key concept that more accurately and demonstrably “integrates” Francis is “evolution,” or the phrase “evolution of dogmas”.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Tyler I appreciate very much your insights into the thread that integrates Pope Francis’ thought. His emphasis on the people of God ultimately ends with the integration of all in Christ, and as you indicate that integration is not to exclude but to include.

    The present scandal does not take away from your insights. The crisis reminds us that all humans are sinful. I often remember Pope Francis began his pontificate admitting he was a sinner in need of our prayer. The Church is not a perfect society, the members of the body of Christ are all sinners. The present crisis is not the worst in the history of the Church, but it is for sure a time to recall that the Church, people of God, the Body of Christ are going through the Pascal Mystery: suffering, death, and resurrection until Christ comes again.

  3. Avatar Walter Willigan says:

    I found this a very confusing article. I know what is means to love our neighbor as ourselves and that yes means yes and no means no but writing synthetic … is synthesis and integrating … is integration – what does this really me? What are we actually to do?

  4. Avatar Dave Jamieson says:

    Faithful Catholics should reject Pope Francis not “integrate” him. Why “integrate” the thoughts and opinions of a man who repeatedly undermines or obfuscates immutable Church teachings? His outright betrayal of the faithful in China is the last straw. He has proven to be unfit for the Chair of Peter and his successor will have his hands full cleaning up the mess Francis has purposefully caused (his words, not mine).

  5. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Reading and rereading this essay seems to indicate a tendency to understand Frances’ thoughts as ‘putting the cart before the horse’. I.E. ‘forgiving and forgetting’ rather than ‘a firm purpose of amendment and Penance’. Remember his ‘Year of Mercy’ with which he kicked of his pontificate.
    In dealing with our children that have chosen a wrong path, they often persist in justifying their actions based on their own self reasoning and wear us down to the point that we allow them to persist in their error rather than slowly (and some times painfully) bring them to an understanding and acceptance of the error of their ways.
    ‘Integration’ is an interesting word to use in today’s environment. It brings with it a ‘positive’ vibe when the opposite could be, in fact, true. All ‘Integration is not in fact ‘good’. Some is bad/evil. A philosophy that holds that ‘..his emphasis on the people of God ultimately ends in the integration of all in Christ and that integration is not too exclude but include.’ seems false. In the final analysis not all will be ‘integrated with Christ unlessthey accept His stated teachings, expressed by Him or His Church and conform their ways accordingly. At that point comes the ‘reward’ of the Sacraments.