Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Wounded Shepherd (the Book)

Modern popes play such an outsized role both in contemporary Catholicism and on the wider world stage, that they are inevitably subjects of all sorts of analyses. In the John Paul II era, a very informative and interesting (but also extremely hagiographical) papal biographer was George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999) and The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II: The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010).  Now, in the Francis era, we have something analogous in British writer Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (2014) and his newest book about Pope Francis, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church.

By his own admission, Ivereigh acknowledges that his earlier book about Francis contributed to a "great man" myth "in which an anointed otherwordly figure rises up to defeat overwhelming challenges with superhuman prowess." Six years later, he is more sensitive to "the limits of reform: paths blocked, resistance mobilized, mistakes made." Hence the title Wounded Shepherd.

One area where Ivereigh has been especially strong - in both books - has been the Pope's Argentinian background, and in particular his Peronist political orientation. Everyone knows that Pope Francis is the first Latin American Pope, and we may suspect that being Latin American inevitably has had a significant effect on his worldview. Yet most of us know little about Argentinian history and the impact of Juan Peron and his movement on members of the Pope's generation. Ivereigh sheds helpful light, again in this book as in his previous one, on the Pope's political preoccupations and the influences of his immigrant family, of Argentinian Peronism, and of Latin American Catholicism's apparently unavoidable engagement with Marxism. More personally, again as in his previous book, he illuminates the Pope's personal spiritual development and "how the experience of mercy leads into mission."

In this conflict-prone pontificate, there are, of course, many conflicts one can cover. Ivereigh devotes most of an entire chapter to the 2017 imbroglio involving the Knights of Malta, an event of some symbolic significance and somewhat revelatory in terms of the Pope's priorities and governing style, but otherwise of little interest to those not immediately involved. The next chapter, however, deals with his response to the Vatican's ongoing financial dilemmas. The author is undoubtedly correct in claiming that "no pope chosen in March 2013 would have been in doubt about what was expected of him. The need to clean up and radically reorganize Vatican finances was a major topic of discussion in the pre-conclave cardinals' discussion, uniting senior churchmen who on many other matters of doctrine and theology would struggle to agree." Undoubtedly, the Pope's struggle to deal with the Vatican's finances remains one of the major stories of this pontificate - as also, however, is the unraveling of that initial ore-conclave unity.

Ivereigh walks the reader through the manifold complexities of the Vatican's fiances and the efforts - those successful and those less so - to get a handle on the situation, so that the Vatican has ceased to be "Italy's pocket wild west." But he also highlights how the Pope's priorities go deeper than better financial structures and management. What mattered most to Francis "was to get at the spiritual sickness that lay at the root of the problem: the nest-feathering mentality that was the very opposite of the mid-set of service presented in the Gospel." Hence his emphasis on corruption and for "a major external shock" to turn it around.

Inevitably this gets into a discussion of one of the strongest sources of the Pope's popularity (and an important contributor to his credibility) - the Pope's personal austerity and frugality, illustrated, for example, by his preference for a "car an ordinary Italian family might use," and by his unusual living arrangements. Ivereigh acknowledges that the Casa Santa Marta is hardly "humble," and that the Pope's principal objection to living in the Apostolic palace was actually that he was lonely there. "For me it's a question of personality. I need to live among people and if I lived alone, perhaps rather isolated, it wouldn't be good for me." (All of which, of course, ignores the reality that the Pope can create as much companionship - and/or isolation - for himself as he chooses, regardless of his residence, and that the Pope could have avoided isolation in a way which was less norm-shattering.) In any case, the Pope's own personal explanation for his peculiar, living arrangement would seem to contradict Ivereigh's later, less nuanced, more ideological interpretation that the Pope chose Casa Santa Marta "because he didn't think of himself as Rome's emperor, but the Church's pastor-in-chief." That kind of extreme, ideological language that seems to canonize one option and mock other alternatives actually does a disservice to a balanced understanding of the real importance and real merits of this pontificate.

That said, I think Ivereigh gets it right when he emphasizes that the papal reform program "is a religious reform, one centered on conversion, not simply a structural makeover." Thus, in his curial reform project, Francis has been more like "a spiritual director leading a group on a retreat, creating time and space for change while setting boundaries and clearing blockages." Hence, "the reform that has seemed  so sweeping and dramatic has been, in reality, gradual and gentle." Of course, it is not so evident that the Curia (and others) have always received Francis's constant criticisms the way Ivereigh presents them! 

One group the Pope has widely been perceived as being in conflict with is certain elements in the US Church. Thus, for example, when the Pope updated the Catechism's teaching on the death penalty, there were, ivereigh notes, "Howls of protest from right-wing Catholics in the United States, who served up a toxic mix of theological justifications against any changes in doctrine" - revealing "again, how isolated from mainstream Catholic values were large parts of the American Church."

Ivereigh is at his best connecting the Pope's present with his Argentinian and Jesuit past. Appropriately, he sees the Aparecida synod (the 5th General Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council) as key to understanding Francis' evangelizing mission, and also key to understanding some of the differences between the Pope's Latin American approach to the problems posed by "a secular liquid world" and the approach of the wealthier north whose "default setting has been a strategy of accommodation to the age." He notes how, prior to his first Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium it was the Aparecida document he invoked to explain his priorities - "the insight that the greatest threat to the Church lay not outside but within, from the temptation of fearful self-enclosure when faced with the tribulation of change."

Ivereigh's analysis also highlights Francis's focus on and repeated repetition of Benedict XVI's famous 2005 observation in Deus Caritas Est that "being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." Hence Francis' move "to emancipate the Church from the ethicists." 

This move also throws further light on the problematic situation in the US, where the Church "seemed to have been captured by a family-values moralism that was defined best by what it was against." Ivereigh interprets the Pope's American appointments as signalling his "support for a more credible ethical witness - in which immigration, gun-control, the death penalty, poverty, and the environment are also Gospel concerns." 

Ivereigh comments on virtually every episode in Francis' pontificate - the synods, the papal documents, the less formal pronouncements, etc. The book's strength remains what has always been the author's strong suit - his detailed familiarity with the Pope's personal national, and Jesuit background and his ability to make the connections between those elements in his background and his present policies. That very strength may also weaken the work since it overwhelms the reader with so much tedious detail that may easily diminish a reader's attention and patience.  Perhaps it is an unfortunate feature of hagiography that it just can't seem to stop accumulating more and more illustrations of the same fundamental point! 

Whatever the future may hold, in the present this pontificate is clearly epochal. This book's subtitle, Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, is obviously ideological and polemical and confrontational - probably more of each of those than it needs to be. But there can be no denying that this Latin American and Jesuit Pope has brought something vibrantly new to the Church's center-stage - and with it a valuable challenge to certain styles of being Church that, even if originally well intended, have exacerbated the Church's separation from the modern world and from ordinary contemporary people, Ivereigh phrases this as liberating "Catholicism from its attachment to power and self-sufficiency" and turning "it outward, ad gentes, so that the Church lives no longer for itself but to serve humanity."  

That, of course, is always the challenge facing the church, in every time and place, while the obstacles of attachment to power and self-sufficiency have also always been ever-present obstacles along the way.. Perhaps a little less attachment on our part to a fashionable hermeneutic of revolution would better situate this fascinating Pope and his ambitious agenda in that larger context of what the Church is always called to be about.

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