The Great Reformer

Francis and the Making
of a Radical Pope

By Austen Ivereigh

Henry Holt. 391 pp $30

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Reviewed by

Kenneth A. Briggs


Pope Francis is in the spotlight like a star poker player in a high-stakes match before a vast audience waiting for him to show his full hand.

In less than two years, he has come from obscurity to revivify a moribund papacy, projecting a quality of compassion and uplift that has given the Roman Catholic Church a chance to shake off the doldrums of fiscal and child abuse scandals and the confounding departure of Benedict XVI.

The Argentinian pope has infused that narrative with compassion and mercy, mixed with rebuke of policies and practices that foster injustice and crush the poor.

On the justice issues, his framework is Catholic teaching, but his style is reminiscent of American populism and progressivism. On church matters per se, he has raised expectations that liberalizing changes are in the works.

But beyond creating enormous stores of good will, at least in the short run, nobody yet knows for sure how that promise and those clues will pan out as he plays that hand.

The pope's latest biographer, Austen Ivereigh, a noted British journalist and church insider, is convinced that outcome will be as bright as its title, The Great Reformer, proclaims in advance of conclusive evidence. To his credit, he profiles Jorge Bergoglio in greater depth here than have previous attempts, and more adoringly by far.

In a graceful style, Ivereigh illuminates Bergoglio's path from tango-loving teen to Vatican heavyweight with copious anecdotes and historical and theological insight. His rigorous research unveils fascinating details and does not skip the controversies that intervened along the way. The most troublesome remain Bergoglio's role during Argentina's "Dirty War" against leftist guerrillas and dissidents, which opponents claim was too hands-off or feckless, and his clashes with fellow Jesuits.

In keeping with the title, however, Ivereigh spins detail into a nearly flawless personality and disconcertingly tries to explain away or rationalize serious criticism. Bergoglio, the gifted son of Italian immigrants, progresses seamlessly from smaller responsibilities as teacher in a Catholic academy to larger ones as novice master, provincial, and archbishop. The accounts of his frayed relationships with other Jesuits, his responses to "Dirty War" crimes, and frictions over his stance on social justice inevitably exonerate Bergoglio. Ivereigh's subject is a paragon of virtue, discernment, intelligence, and pastoral sensitivity, the long-awaited guide to a return to the uplift of Vatican II. While Ivereigh's elegiac witness has its place, his career as a journalist and commentator may lead readers to expect greater objectivity. Overwrought promotion strains credibility.

If Francis, who comes across as conflict-averse and consensus-friendly, does fulfill Ivereigh's "Great Reformer" prophesy, the author locates the source in Bergoglio's love and admiration for el pueblo fiel, the "faithful people" he found in the slums of Buenos Aires. This is the spiritual model on which the pope would renew the church, cleansing it of elitism, "spiritual worldliness," and corruption.

Its origin was the resounding 1968 pledge by Latin American bishops to exercise a "preferential option for the poor." Bergoglio took that mission in a direction of his own, conforming to Rome's criteria by rejecting elements of secular social activism that he judged inimical to Catholicism, most pointedly anything that smacked of Marxism. In doing so, he alienated leading Catholics who espoused liberation theology, which was open to using Marxist analytical tools. He is by every measure a consummate church loyalist, siding with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, against the region's most vigorous and creative cause for social justice.

Francis' fervent belief is that the world needs Catholic prescriptions and doesn't need anything from the world. He reaches out to that world compassionately and bracingly, but embodies a variety of exceptionalism that exalts Catholic truth supremely. The "people's faith" provides Francis with a "vaccine against the destructive effect of ideology - of left or right," Ivereigh concludes. The most painful test of that inoculation was his dispute with liberation theologians.

Ivereigh sheds little light on what pueblo fiel really means, beyond deep reverence for traditional devotions and compliance with given church practices, or how its contents might influence Francis' decision-making. It is one thing to emulate that piety; another to draw reform from it.

How far would he go in following the lead of a folk culture which is likely to embed its own biases and superstitions? It's tempting to idealize or romanticize what is basically foreign. Or to protect fanciful concepts of it. Bergoglio has shown willingness to bend rules to foster the people's faith - having as archbishop offered communion to the divorced among them, for example.

That may be his modus operandi. He may already have played his cards and is content to let the church figure out the rest.

Kenneth A. Briggs, former religion writer for the New York Times, is the author of "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns" (2006).