R. R. Reno is editor of First Things, a journal of religion and public life.
Books about Pope Francis cannot resist words like “revolutionary,” “radical” and “prophetic.” Catholicism faces a crisis, we’re told. Its moral authority has been discredited by sex-abuse scandals. Hopelessly male-dominated, it’s committed to an absurdly old-fashioned view of sex and hobbled by a sclerotic bureaucracy. Catholicism must change or die! This line is drearily predictable. It has provided the scaffolding for a number of books by Garry Wills.
After the pope’s election in 2012, Paul Vallely quickly wrote a biography, “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots.” He has substantially updated and expanded his account in his new book, “Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.” Austen Ivereigh’s “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” remains the unsurpassed English-language biography, but Vallely’s portrait is richly detailed, and he provides the most thorough account to date of the internal politics of the Francis papacy.
Unfortunately, Vallely isn’t a trustworthy interpreter of the meaning of Francis for the future of Catholicism. He, too, works within the predictable framework. Benedict XVI is the conservative bad guy, going so far as to encourage the celebration of Mass in Latin. Francis, he hopes, is the long-awaited progressive who will deliver Catholicism from its medieval captivity.
If this summary of Vallely’s assumptions sounds like a caricature, well, sometimes authors oblige. At one point, he says the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago “dissimulated,” which is to say lied, when he said he found Pope Francis’s public statements confusing. Only the crudest ideologue would make such a claim, especially when he ends, as Vallely does, by calling Francis “paradoxical,” a polite synonym for confusing.
How, then, are we to understand Francis? One of his predecessors provides a clue. John Paul II was a passionate Polish patriot, and his long struggle with communism profoundly influenced his outlook. Francis is an equally passionate Argentine patriot. When he was in charge of the educational curriculum for young Jesuits in training, he substituted Argentine literary classics for the once-obligatory scholastic philosophy to ensure that the trainees would be firmly rooted in their homeland.
This rootedness goes a long way toward explaining Francis’s criticisms of capitalism. The rapid expansion of global capitalism since the fall of the Soviet Union has not benefited Argentina. After the country’s default in 2001 during an extended economic depression, the International Monetary Fund imposed harsh austerity policies. Like so many of the weaker nations in the global capitalist system dominated by the United States, Argentina is a vassal state. How can this not fail to gall a patriot like Francis? It would me.
The individualistic and competitive nature of a capitalist economy has never been congenial to the more corporate vision of society endorsed by modern Catholicism. As Vallely points out, John Paul II and Benedict XVI also criticized capitalism. In secular terms, both were postwar European social democrats, a position very much on the left of the American political spectrum. Influenced by the Argentine tradition of Peronism, Francis seems to have an even stronger commitment to a corporate view of society. Political and economic life should not be a matter of competition or conflict within society, which is why as a younger man Francis rejected Marxism and its theories of class conflict. All modes of social organization should grow out of “the people,” a unified social reality.
As an American, I recoil from this unitary view. The authors of our Constitution wanted a republican form of government. This approach insulates politics from popular, democratic forces, which the Founders distrusted and feared. By contrast, Peronism makes politics a direct manifestation of “the people,” a nearly mythic entity. The danger here is that those who oppose a Peronist are often described as “enemies of the people.” There’s a bit of this tendency in Francis. Although he famously said, “Who am I to judge,” he often issues broad, stinging denunciations.
As important as his Argentine background may be, his Jesuit identity is even more significant. Members of the Society of Jesus undergo a long process of “formation,” often spanning more than a dozen years. They internalize the disciplines of Christian life so that, if necessary, they can cast off external forms and norms for faith. Matteo Ricci, a late-16th-century Jesuit, was a missionary to China, where he educated himself in Confucian philosophy and dressed in a traditional Chinese fashion. He discarded the trappings of his European and clerical identity.
This helps explain Pope Francis’s regular criticisms of Catholic legalism. He dislikes preoccupation with ritual and at times can give the impression that basic rules for Catholic life can be broken. He has flouted many of the rigid papal protocols, starting with his decision not to live in the papal palace. This seems like a progressive approach, but the rulebreaking needs to be seen as the flip side of Francis’s constant call for a deeper encounter with Christ. Francis seeks to make the Jesuit ideal universal for the church: a profound, interior obedience to God that frees us to adopt a flexible attitude toward exterior obligations.
A similar Jesuit theme echoes in his many calls for the church to “go to the periphery.” Francis seeks a church of the poor and has appointed cardinals from parts of the world where Catholicism is a new force, rather than from Europe or the United States. There are times when he gives the impression that anyone working in a church office is a corrupt, worldly person. His 2014 Christmas homily to the Vatican bureaucracy was a long list of their sins. Is he saying Catholics should abandon the institutional church in order to live the pure spirit of Christianity? Probably not, though his Jesuit background leads him to privilege commando Christianity that often works on the skirmish lines between Catholicism and modern culture over the work of regular infantry, who focus more on the day-to-day of prayer and worship. Francis himself is attracted to clerical special ops, telephoning a woman in Buenos Aires to give her pastoral advice, writing a letter to a lesbian author and engaging in sympathetic discussions with an atheist Italian journalist. These are entirely within the ambit of any Christian’s call to engage the world, but unsettling when undertaken by Francis with such enthusiasm and regularity, given that the pope is usually seen as the steady center around which the church revolves.
What does this Jesuit tendency in the Francis papacy foretell for the future of Catholicism? Not long ago, Jesuits were feared as dangerously conservative. For the past two generations, they have been seen as path-breaking progressives. One feature has been common, however: extremism, or radicalism, as Vallely and others call it. But they confuse being extreme or radical with being progressive, which is more than a little amusing. Progressives today are pillars of the establishment in rich-world countries. In fact, there are few countries in the West where Catholicism’s traditional views of sex, marriage and an all-male leadership are not widely rejected by the governing class. Thus, it’s hard to see how the sort of progressivism that Vallely envisions can be either extreme or radical.
It’s no accident that a Jesuit has never been elected pope, until now. The institutional church, like all institutions, shies away from extremism. A bishop’s job is to pass on the faith, and thus the hierarchy of the Catholic Church usually puts a premium on stability and constancy. By my reckoning, therefore, it’s best to think of the Catholic Church as enduring Pope Francis, and endurance is often a fruitful spiritual discipline. The verbal extremism of this pontificate alone can be exhausting in its paradoxical jabs and blows, first in this direction and then in that. This does not mean Francis will not be very influential in positive ways. His papacy has already stirred up a great deal. But toward what end? It will fall on his less-volatile successors to sort out what’s worth keeping and what needs to be set aside.
By Paul Vallely
Bloomsbury. 470 pp. $30