clergy abuse asia
Pope Francis

Jorge Bergoglio, the man from Argentina, has just celebrated his fourth anniversary as Pope Francis. People are asking, “What has he achieved?”

The South American Pope is now an acknowledged world leader who has shown a remarkable ability to create change in the oldest multi-national organisation that teaches the world how to think. And he’s achieved his biggest change in just five words: “Who am I to judge?

We have seen how for nearly 800 years, since Thomas Aquinas, the Vatican has taught judgement. We have seen how many thousands of missionaries from the Vatican have spread this brain software (Greco-Roman logic) around the world and then into our brains since we were very small children.

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This is the brain software that is still taught today and even in state schools. It’s the right/wrong system: get the right answer and don’t make any mistakes.

Pope John XXII said that to deny Aquinas was tantamount to heresy, and he canonised him. Later, in 1879, Pope Leo XIII proclaimed that Thomist Aristotelian doctrine should be accepted as “the official doctrine of the Church”.

In the last millennium, this thinking software is probably single Europe’s greatest export.

Has it served us well? Yes, it has served us very well indeed … but it is just not enough. Defending our righteousness makes us very slow thinkers. And the high cost of the judgmental I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong confrontations and conflicts are exorbitant and too often fatal. We need a much better way of thinking.

If Pope Francis has his say, the Vatican will now teach discernment.

This is a very, very big transformational change in global thinking policy. It is enough to make him the greatest lateral thinker in the world. It is also enough for him to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

Why is this change so significant?

Start with your own case. If you were taught in the Western education system (Europe, the Americas, British Commonwealth), like I was, the brain software for thinking that you were given is: right or wrong. Even Asian countries are now beginning to think this way.

It’s all about judgement. It’s logical. It’s either black or white. It requires little cognitive effort. You just react to things as they are presented. That’s it. I like it or I don’t like it. It’s all about believing you are “right”. It’s inside-the-box thinking. Sure, logic may be right enough to believe in … but is it true?

By contrast, on the other hand, good judgement is not easy at all. It may even be outside the box. It goes way beyond merely black or white reactions but ventures innovatively into the vast grey domain of thinkspace.

“Metacognition” is the technical word cognitive scientists use to describe “thinking about thinking”. Metacognition, like mindfulness, is a higher order of perceptual thinking than lower order logic. It requires much, much more than black/white judgemental thinking. It requires good judgment. It requires discernment.

In the wise words of Pope Francis, “Not everything is black over white, or white over black. No! The shades of grey prevail in life.”

What is discernment? The Oxford English Dictionary defines discernment as “good judgement”.

According to Wikipedia:

“Discernment involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. Considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgment; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.”

The quality of your thinking is a very personal thing. It directly impacts on the quality of your future. If you don’t do your own thinking, then others will do it for you. They may not do it well or even in your interests at all.

[The curious case of the red hat that changed Catholic history]

Thinking produces consequences. None of us can ever escape the consequences of the pattern of choices we make. This also applies at the group level as well as the global level.

Many people are now saying that the most important thing in the world today is the quality of human thinking. It is said that the quality of our future will be a direct consequence of the quality of our thinking.

Let’s return to the campaign of Francis for the teaching of discernment. Pope Francis insists priests must be taught to see shades of grey. During World Youth Day 2016, Francis had a Q&A session with his fellow Jesuits in Krakow on the high importance of discernment in everyday life. He asked the Jesuits to start teaching discernment over judgement. The Pope charged them to begin an outreach to seminaries and diocesan priests. He has charged Jesuits with sharing the careful art of discernment. He felt that some seminaries are not teaching the skills priests need when facing difficult pastoral situations brought to them by those seeking guidance. He fears they are too judgemental, too black and white.

The Pope said: “Some programs of priestly formation run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined in advance”.

He thinks that priests who weren’t taught during their formation years the “wisdom of discernment”, may later “find themselves in difficulty in accompanying the life of so many young people and adults.

“Many people leave the confessional disappointed. Not because the priest is bad, but because the priest doesn’t have the ability to discern situations, to accompany them in authentic discernment. They don’t have the needed formation.”

This is what the Pope said. This is what he is saying again and again. The Vatican newspaper noted on that occasion that the Pope referred to the need for discernment 35 times in his papal exhortation!

He has been repeating this in his daily homilies where he lives in the Santa Marta Vatican hotel. He is saying this on his travels and sermons Urbi et Orbi.

This new Vatican pivot from its sharp, black and white, mediaeval Thomist philosophy of judgement to a new Franciscan one of grey discernment must begin to have profound global consequences over time.

This is, after all, what we have been waiting for, for many years. And, I can’t help thinking that Jesus, who famously warned again casting the first stone of judgment, would approve.

If he does nothing else during his pontificate but switch the Vatican from judgment to discernment, then this will be enough to make him one of the greatest popes whoever lived. The Grey Pope. Go Francis! Go another four years!

*Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is a Melbourne cognitive scientist at School of Thinking and a writer at and has been a Vaticanologist for 30 years.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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