Close this search box.

A Jesuit Named Francis

By J. DeVoy

The new pope is something of a mind-bender for products of Catholic education.  Explaining why takes some time, though.

Jorge Bergoglio is a member of the Jesuit order, commonly known as the “Society of Jesus,” which came into existence in the late 1500’s.  (The term “Society of Jesus” previously referred to a military order established by Pope Pius II in 1450 to fight the Turks and spread Catholicism, but was eventually de-militarized and reappropriated to the Jesuits.)  Founded by St. Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits generally are the academic wing of Catholicism and run many of its prominent universities, including Georgetown and the numerous Loyola Universities.  While being academics, Jesuits are also something of the flower-children of Catholicism; despite the order’s original purpose being to counteract Martin Luther’s reformation, the Jesuits have by and large lurched to the liberal end of Catholicism.

Predating the Jesuits, there are the Franciscans.  Recognized by the Vatican as an official order in 1209, the Franciscans, individually known as friars, are a religious order dedicated to living out the principles of St. Francis of Assisi.  There are actually three orders of Franciscans, making things fairly complicated, so for the purposes of this discussion we’ll address only the first order – the Order of Friars Minor (“OFM”).* (The Second Order is the Poor Claires, and the Third Order, Penitents, have their roots in the sixth century.)  Unlike the Jesuits, whose members are required to be priests, one can become a friar even without entering priesthood.   While not all Franciscan friars are priests, all are bound by the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, with poverty being the most distinctive aspect of its order.  Indeed, it was Saint Francis himself who gave up a life of relative material comfort to isolate himself in the woods dedicated to a life of prayer.  Today, we call these people “crazy,” or simply “poor.”

Upon assuming the mantle of the pontificate, Bergoglio took the name of Francis I.  There was an outside shot of Cardinal Sean O’Malley – an actual Franciscan – of becoming the pope.  But now there is a Jesuit acting as pope under the name of the founder of the Franciscan Order, which predates the Jesuit order by more than three centuries.  If this were America, and if this were not the Catholic church, it would be time to sue.

Interestingly enough, this would be an intra-faith dispute that wouldn’t immediately get bounced out of an American court on First Amendment grounds.  Courts refuse to hear intra-faith disputes, or cases between members of the clergy, that concern matters of religious doctrine; to do so would thwart what remains of the barrier between church and state.  A good summary can be found here.  This dispute, however, has nothing to do with faith, and is all about trademark rights.

Someone from a competing source of religious religious order adopting the name of your preexisting religious order’s namesake, and using it as his public name, seems like a non-frivolous trademark and unfair competition claim.  As competing Catholic orders, the Jesuits and Franciscans certainly are in the same market.  In a commercial context, this is analogous to Steve Jobs, before he was kicked out of Apple and while Dell was killing the consumer PC market, renaming himself “Michael Dell” and furthering his persona under that name.  To the uninformed Catholic, Bergoglio has blurred the line between Franciscans and Jesuits.  To the extent normal Catholics knew the two orders even existed, Bergoglio arguably is diverting the goodwill earned by Franciscans toward the Jesuits, to which he belongs and is now the public face of.  Even to someone vaguely “up” on Catholicism, Bergoglio’s decision is just confusing.  From a cynic’s view it looks like a thumb in the eye to Franciscans, using Francis’ name to become more popular based on the work of his order while retaining the intellectual respect the Jesuits have already acquired.

The Franciscans would have a hard time getting in the door to court, although they operate worldwide and have some trademark rights in virtually every jurisdiction that would recognize such a dispute.  The main question would be what Order(s) are the proper plaintiffs to assert rights over Francis’ rights as a source of religious services.  That whole vow of poverty isn’t going to help them retain particularly sophisticated trademark counsel either.  Given Saint Francis’ history and stature within the Catholic church, it seems that Bergoglio would have a good nominal fair use defense as well.  Given Bergoglio’s dislike for ceremony, I don’t doubt he intended his use of Francis’ name to be a tribute to the Saint rather than an attempt to outflank the Franciscans.  But sometimes good intentions aren’t enough.

* The OFM distinction is even further subdivided into three sub-groups, so to speak.  The slightly differing priorities of these groups are externally reflected by different color robes and differing numbers of knots on the cords they wear.  But that’s a topic for another post at a different blog.

H/T: Friar Michael Lasky, who drilled this stuff into my head so thoroughly in high school that I had to do only the most minimal research for this post.  He is currently in Bogota, Colombia, and presumably there to undo the work of Roosh V.

Skip to content