In 1979, almost a year into the papacy of John Paul II, a novel called The Vicar of Christ spent 13 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The work of a Princeton legal scholar, Walter F. Murphy, it featured an unlikely papal candidate named Declan Walsh—first a war hero, then a United States Supreme Court justice, and then (after an affair and his wife’s untimely death) a monk—who is summoned to the throne of Saint Peter by a deadlocked, desperate conclave.
Once elevated, Walsh takes the name Francesco—that is, Francis—and sets about using the office in extraordinary ways. He launches a global crusade against hunger, staffed by Catholic youth and funded by the sale of Vatican treasures. He intervenes repeatedly in world conflicts, at one point flying into Tel Aviv during an Arab bombing campaign. He lays plans to gradually reverse the Church’s teachings on contraception and clerical celibacy, and banishes conservative cardinals to monastic life when they plot against him. He flirts with the Arian heresy, which doubted Jesus’s full divinity, and he embraces Quaker-style religious pacifism, arguing that just-war theory is out of date in an age of nuclear arms and total war. (This last move eventually gets him assassinated, probably by one of the governments threatened by his quest for peace.)
Murphy’s book is mostly forgotten, but his hook, the idea of a progressive pope who sets out to bring sweeping change to Catholicism, has endured in the cultural imagination. The priest-novelist Andrew M. Greeley’s 1996 potboiler White Smoke, for instance, culminates in the election of a modernizing Spanish cardinal, whose conservative opponents are undone by the wily politicking of two Irish American prelates. Two years ago, Showtime shot a pilot for a series called The Vatican, in which Kyle Chandler (a k a Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights) played a rising-star New York cardinal with progressive views—only to spike the show, perhaps feeling overtaken by events, 10 months after Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned.
The possibility of a revolutionary pope isn’t one that most Vatican-watchers have taken seriously, and not only because a college of cardinals with members appointed by John Paul and Benedict seemed unlikely to elevate a true wild card to the office. The reality is that popes are rarely the great protagonists of Catholic dramas. They are circumscribed by tradition and hemmed in by bureaucracy, and on vexing issues Rome tends to move last, after arguments have been thrashed out for generations.
Yet now we have a Pope Francesco in the flesh, and elements of Murphy’s vision have come to pass, or so it seems: the attention-grabbing breaks with papal protocol, the interventions in global politics, the reopening of moral issues that his predecessors had deemed settled, and the blend of public humility and skillful exploitation—including the cashiering of opponents—of the papal office and its powers.
The Church is not yet in the grip of a revolution. The limits, theological and practical, on papal power are still present, and the man who was Jorge Bergoglio has not done anything that explicitly puts them to the test. But his moves and choices (and the media coverage thereof) have generated a revolutionary atmosphere around Catholicism. For the moment, at least, there is a sense that a new springtime has arrived for the Church’s progressives. And among some conservative Catholics, there is a feeling of uncertainty absent since the often-chaotic aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s and ’70s.
That unease has coexisted with a tendency to deny that anything has really changed since the former cardinal and archbishop of Buenos Aires became pope. From the first unscripted shocker—his “Who am I to judge?” in response to a reporter’s question about gay priests—many conservative Catholics have argued that the press is seeing what it wants to see in the new pontiff. Taking his comments and gestures out of context, reporters are imposing a Declan Walsh frame on a reality in which continuity is still the order of the day.
The conservative observers are often right. Some of Francis’s gestures mirror moves his predecessors made to less fanfare or acclaim. Some of his forays into world affairs, like the opening to Cuba, build on Vatican diplomatic efforts begun before his time. Some of his leftward-tilting public statements—the critiques of global capitalism, the stress on environmental stewardship—are in step with the rhetoric of both John Paul and Benedict. Some of his headline-grabbing comments (on the compatibility of Catholic doctrine and evolutionary theory, say) get attention only because certain reporters have no real clue about what Catholicism teaches; others (like his alleged promise that pets go to heaven) because journalists will believe any story that fits the “maverick pope” narrative.
Yet the media are not deceived in thinking that Francis differs from his predecessors in substance as well as style. He may not be a liberal Catholic as the term is understood in an American or European context, but he has a different set of priorities than the previous two popes did. He reads the times differently, and elements of his agenda are clearly in tune with what many progressive Catholics (and progressives, period) in the West have long hoped for from the Church.
The exact details of that agenda can sometimes be difficult to discern. Phrases like master of ambiguity circulate among admirers and critics alike. But there are now a number of biographies of Francis/Bergoglio in English, and three of them, read together, give a provisional sense of where this pope is coming from. They also suggest why his pontificate, without being as deliberately revolutionary as the reigns of the liberal popes of fiction, might have dramatic consequences for the Church.
The arc of Bergoglio’s life and career follows a literary script: youthful success, defeat and exile, unexpected vindication and ascent. Each of his three biographers approaches the story in a different way. Elisabetta Piqué, a correspondent for the Argentine newspaper La Nación, has written an intensely personal work (Bergoglio baptized her two children); her Pope Francis: Life and Revolution draws richly on interviews with Argentinians touched by Bergoglio’s pastoral work. The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, by the British Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh, has the widest angle and the most depth, taking in Argentina’s distinctive history as well as the particular trajectory of its now most famous son. In Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, Paul Vallely, another British Catholic writer on religion, develops a distinctive interpretation of his subject.
But the basic narrative is there in all three treatments. The descendant of Italian immigrants to Argentina, devout from an early age and committed to the priesthood after a teenage epiphany, Bergoglio entered the Jesuit order in 1958, just four years before the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome. His training was long (Jesuits spend more than a decade “in formation”) and initially old-fashioned in its rigors; the order in Argentina devoted a great deal of its work to educating the national elite. But by the time he took his final vow and became a Jesuit in full, in 1973, the reforms of the Council and the turbulence that followed had dramatically changed his order, and divided it.
Many of Bergoglio’s fellow Jesuits believed they had a postconciliar mandate to make the pursuit of social justice the order’s organizing mission. In Latin America, the emerging Big Idea for what this meant was liberation theology, which promoted a synthesis between Gospel faith and Marxist-flavored political activism. Argentina’s provincial, the head of the country’s Jesuits, Ricardo O’Farrell, offered encouragement to these ideas. He backed priests who essentially wanted to live as political organizers among Argentina’s poor. He also supported a syllabus rewrite that was “heavy on sociology and Hegelian dialectics,” as Ivereigh describes it, and lighter on traditional Catholic elements.
But O’Farrell soon found himself dealing with a crisis: the number of men entering the order plummeted, and more-conservative Jesuits openly revolted. In the summer of 1973, he stepped aside, and at just 36, Bergoglio was elevated in his place. In many ways he made a success of things. The order’s numbers rebounded, and he won many admirers among the priests formed under his leadership. But he made enemies as well, most of them on the order’s theological and political left. Radical priests felt that their revolution had been betrayed, and a coterie of Jesuit academics fretted that Bergoglio’s program for Jesuits in training—which restored traditional elements abandoned by O’Farrell—was too reactionary, too pre–Vatican II. Ivereigh quotes one critic marveling that Bergoglio encouraged students to
go to the chapel at night and touch images! This was something the poor did, the people of the pueblo, something that the Society of Jesus worldwide just doesn’t do. I mean, touching images … What is that?
His leadership also coincided with the 1976 military coup and the “Dirty War,” during which left-wing Jesuits were particular targets for the junta’s thugs. Bergoglio was accused of complicity in the arrest and torture of two priests, a charge that Ivereigh and Piqué think is baseless; Vallely hedges, but seems to mostly concur. Indeed, all three biographers make clear that Bergoglio labored tirelessly behind the scenes to save people (not only priests) in danger of joining the ranks of the “disappeared.”
But he did not attack the Dirty War publicly, and the Jesuits under his leadership kept a low political profile as well. The entire Argentine Church was a compromised force during the junta’s rule, and Bergoglio probably couldn’t have played the kind of role that, say, the soon-to-be-beatified archbishop Oscar Romero played in El Salvador. But some in the order blamed his conservatism, as they saw it, for the absence of a clear Jesuit witness against the junta’s crimes.
Eventually these critics gained the upper hand. Not long after Bergoglio’s term ended in 1979, his policies were altered or reversed. Just over a decade later, following a period in which the Argentine Jesuits were divided into pro- and anti-Bergoglio camps, he was exiled from the leadership, sent to a Jesuit residence in the mountain town of Córdoba, and essentially left to rot.
That exile lasted almost two years, and ended when John Paul II’s choice for the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Antonio Quarracino, reached out and picked Bergoglio to serve as one of his auxiliaries in 1992. The rescue made everything that followed possible, but it also completed the former provincial’s break with his own order. Ivereigh notes that over the next 20 years, during which he took many trips to the Vatican, Bergoglio never so much as set foot in the Jesuit headquarters in Rome.
Told this way—conservative Jesuit fights post–Vatican II radicalization, finds himself shunned by left-wing confreres, gets rescued by a John Paul appointee—the story of Francis’s rise and fall and rise sounds for all the world like The Making of a Conservative Pope. And indeed, a number of Catholic writers greeted Bergoglio’s election—some optimistically, some despairingly—with exactly that interpretation of his past’s likely impact on his papacy. But it seems fair to say that this interpretation was mistaken. So how, exactly, did the man who fought bitterly with left-wing Jesuits in the 1970s become the darling of progressive Catholics in the 2010s?
Piqué’s biography doesn’t even attempt to explain this seeming paradox. She blurs the tensions by treating Bergoglio’s 1970s-era critics dismissively—without really digging into the theological and political roots of the disputes—and then portraying Bergoglio the archbishop as basically progressive in his orientation. After succeeding Quarracino, she writes, he fought with “right-wing adversaries in the Roman Curia,” publicly showed annoyance at “obsessive strictness” on sexual ethics, and so on.
Source: The Atlantic | Ross Douthat