Untying the Knots Paul Vallely Bloomsbury, hb, £16.99
Books on Pope Francis (Jorge Bergoglio) are appearing thick and fast. Paul Vallely was an early entry into the field with Untying the Knots, first published in 2013. His book won wide praise but its story of how Bergoglio, a young conservative Jesuit, underwent a conversion during the period when he was exiled to Cordoba to stop him interfering in the affairs of the Argentine Jesuit province was challenged by Austin Ivereigh’s The
According to Ivereigh, Bergoglio did not change his fundamental beliefs, only an authoritarian style that was probably the result of him being given too much responsibility too early in his ministry. The option for the poor always meant a great deal to him but he was opposed to Marxism and thought some of his Jesuit colleagues more interested in political ideology than practical action.
Linked to the argument about the extent of Bergoglio’s early conservatism is a dispute about how far he was responsible for the fate of two Jesuits arrested by the military. Vallely raises more questions about this than Ivereigh, arguing that while Bergoglio did not intend to harm the Jesuits and acted to save them when they were in danger he nonetheless did put them in a perilous situation by seeking to exclude them from the order and even dissuading a bishop from offering a position to one of them.
The problem was that the two Jesuits disobeyed Bergoglio’s order to leave the slums and cease work that exposed them to danger.
Set besides the two well-researched books of Vallely and Ivereigh is a slim book by an Argentinian journalist who knows the Pope well, Elizabeth Pique. The Pope told Pique that he was never a conservative and the journalist herself thinks one of the big conversions in his life was to a new appreciation of the charismatic movement.
Jorge Bergoglio is a complex person and it is difficult to decide where the truth lies. Pique quotes one Argentinian journalist describing him as a ‘man of power’. Such a person is always going to make enemies.
Bergoglio was a charismatic leader of the Jesuits who had many supporters but also many opponents. Vallely has listened to the critics as well as the friends and they have a case. Ivereigh, who has a much greater knowledge of Argentine politics, tends to listen more to the friends and comes across more as an apologist for the Pope than Vallely. All that can be said with certainty is that the final account has not yet been written.
In this new edition of Untying the Knots, Vallely fleshes out the picture of the earlier Bergoglio he offered in the earlier work but he also adds nine new chapters on Francis as Pope. His account is basically positive but he does not hide the criticisms that are coming from the left as well as the right.
Marking his report card, Vallely says that he has done well on reforming the Vatican bank, made a start with the curia, been slow to see the need to take action on abuse and has difficulty understanding the issues raised by women. His priorities are reform of church governance, the Synod of bishops, and the Vatican finances.
Critics say he has dragged his feet over abuse but, as one psychiatrist who has worked with victims and is a member of the Vatican commission tells Vallely, it is a complex issue that can’t be rushed.
One of the most significant moves made by Francis has been to give more power to the Synod of Bishops and to set up a council of eight cardinal advisers. He is trying to move away from a centralised Church in which all decisions are made by the Pope or by the Roman curia acting in his name. This has big ecumenical implications, not least for relations with the Orthodox, and it is significant that Patriarch Bartholomew was present at Francis’ installation as Pope.
It may seem paradoxical that a ‘man of power’ is using his power to decentralise the Church but given the powerful and entrenched conservatism of the curia it needs a man of power to push the Church in this direction.
Will the changes survive Francis’s departure? John Wilkins is quoted warning that if the curia could nullify Vatican II in 10 years they can nullify Francis’ legacy in 10 days. Jesuit historian John O’Malley agrees the reforms could be reversed but argues that Francis’ legacy will survive as a dangerous memory that will be used to judge his successors.
Vallely rightly describes Francis as orthodox in his beliefs but radical in his application of the gospel. With comments such as ‘Who am I to judge?’ he has opened up the possibility of disagreement and debate in the Catholic Church. Ironically his conservative opponents such as Cardinal Bourke are contributing to this by voicing trenchant opposition to him. It will be difficult in future during a conservative papacy for traditionalists to say there is no place of dissent in the Church after the example they are setting in this papacy.