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Is The Pope Catholic?

Francis was elected to be a reformer, yet in the six years since he became pope, the rot in the Church has only become worse.

Even when, as at present, the Catholic Church exercises very little direct political or social power, its continued witness to the world after two millennia retains a compelling grandeur. Empires rise and fall, revolutions come and go, but the Church—miraculously—endures, despite great internal troubles, a great pre-modern bulwark in the modern day against shallow rationalism and moral relativism. And so when the Catholic Church seems to have become unsure, or divided, about its own meaning—as it has been since Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in March 2013—the world notices.

In one of the early, defining moments of his papacy, Francis told the 3 million young people assembled in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day 2013, “hagan lío,” a phrase from his native Argentina that means “raise a ruckus” or, more literally, “make a mess.” He presumably wanted them to bring fresh energy into the daily life of the Church and the world. The prudence of asking young people to do what they are already inclined to do anyway—knowing little, as they do, of the Church or the world—is debatable. But there’s no question that in his various efforts to stir things up, Pope Francis has in many ways, figuratively and literally, made a mess of the stewardship entrusted to him. Several recent books help us to understand that mess and its broadening repercussions.

Enigmatic Figure

The British journalist Austen Ivereigh published the earliest and, despite the flood of books since, still the most important biography in English of the new pope, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (2014). Francis is the first pope from Latin America, and Ivereigh has an advantage over other commenters because he wrote his doctoral thesis at Oxford on Argentine history, a notoriously treacherous subject, which was later published as Catholicism and Politics in Argentina, 1810–1960 (1995). He also worked for the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, archbishop of Westminster and one of several bishops who, as Ivereigh himself admits in the book, collaborated to elevate Bergoglio to the papacy, unsuccessfully in 2005 when John Paul II died and then in 2013 when Benedict XVI stepped down. Ivereigh did serious research on Bergoglio for his book and conducted numerous interviews with people who knew the future pope in his earlier life. All this enabled the author to situate a basically unknown figure at the time of his election within the various social, political, and religious currents of his native environment.

The great disadvantage of Ivereigh’s work, however, is already clear from the title. It would be wrong to say that the book is pure hagiography; it admits Bergoglio made mistakes. But even the most admiring biographer cannot make much of a case that the future pope was highly successful—as a reformer or anything else—in Argentina. Francis is the first Jesuit pope. When he became the provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina during the 1970s, he was so divisive a leader that his tenure ended after only six years. He then held various positions and pursued studies intermittently, in and out of Argentina, but remained so controversial that in 1992 he was asked not to reside in Jesuit houses any longer.

Through friendship with Cardinal Antonio Quarracino of Buenos Aires, he was recalled from a kind of internal exile, made an auxiliary bishop in the capital, and later succeeded his patron as archbishop. There certainly wasn’t much evidence of his carrying out reform, great or otherwise. Vocations were few and Church initiatives modest, though he did start sending more priests into poor areas to minister to the marginalized. When the Vatican was considering making Bergoglio a cardinal in 2001, then Jesuit Superior General Peter Hans Kolvenbach wrote a letter to John Paul II advising against it because of the controversies Bergoglio had provoked over many years and, it is said, because of psychological instability. (The letter, it is also said, has disappeared from the archives.) The basic facts here are not in dispute. Francis has admitted that he saw a psychiatrist during a troubled period in his life, and he did not really repair his relationship with his religious order—which remained broken for 37 years—until he became pope.

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