Book review of
Church, Interrupted: Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis
The most immediate image that comes to mind reading John Cornwell’s new book, Church, Interrupted, is a flower in bloom. At Where Peter Is we have struggled to keep pace with the controversies and misinformation spread about Pope Francis, and our proximity to all of the negativity colors our perspective. We can easily lose sight of just how positively transformational Pope Francis has been. A pope of many firsts, Francis has effectively preached the Gospel of mercy to all corners of the globe, inspiring millions. Cornwell is one of those millions, unafraid to share his own hope-filled vision of Pope Francis—a blossom of hope, the spring after a long cold winter.
We read early on in Cornwell’s book about the deep pain he and his family felt for decades, multiple family members struggling with the Church’s rules regarding divorce and the reception of the Eucharist. He was once a student in seminary, where he was abused by his confessor and became disenchanted by his educators’ hardline approach. Eventually, he left the Church. He spent decades as an “outsider,” albeit one still very much connected to the Church’s history, only to be encouraged by his family’s faith to come back into the fold. The problem, as he recounts, is that the Church was just entering into the abuse crisis, which sent him reeling once again. After patiently suffering through the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, his disillusionment was eased by Francis.
In this book, Cornwell speaks in many ways for those Catholics who feel disconnected from the Church, Catholics who love the Sacraments and the traditions, but find the Church’s teachings insensitive or antiquated. Many of these Catholics see in Francis a ray of hope that the Church might one day change. At times, however, Cornwell’s progressive optimism and hope in Francis leads him astray in factual matters. For example, Francis has not “long urged” universal basic income (p. 211) as he claims—this is based on a faulty translation of his words and later clarified by the Vatican—nor is he a crypto-supporter of women priests (pp. 98-99). Cornwell is also unduly critical of past papacies, and often measures a caricature of them against the elements of Francis’s papacy that he praises.
In Cornwell’s view, the Church has battled ideological foes for too long. Whether confronting secularism, communism, or relativism, the Church—particularly during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict—sought to educate and encourage Catholics to stay strong and to fight back against these evils. For Cornwell, this approach was “fine” (p. 258), but insufficient to reach those like his mother who were struggling to live in light of the Church’s teaching. Who was going to speak to her hurt and her needs? Enter Francis. Never before had the representative of the whole Catholic Church spoken so directly about the pain plaguing many Catholics today in such a poignant and relatable way. He not only spoke those words, but lived it, rethinking traditions, always asking how the old way can be improved to be an opportunity for outreach and for mercy.
Throughout the book, however, there are subtle indications that Cornwell fundamentally misunderstands Francis. In breaking from the specifics of the traditions, the truth is that Francis has not at all abandoned the traditions themselves, but has sought to make the old traditions blossom anew with the love and hope of Christ. Powerfully, Francis wrote in Gaudete et Exsultate:
… [W]e seek to find in the treasury of the Church whatever is most fruitful for the “today” of salvation. It is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past, since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances and what was useful in one context may not prove so in another. The discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial “today” of the risen Lord. (173)
Likewise, a recurring theme in Cornwell’s book is a pope who has emphasized mercy in the place of dogma, one who opens up pathways where previous popes had closed them down. He writes,
Francis revealed that his legacy had been shaped toward a profound influence in social and environmental spheres rather than in dogma, and with a powerful spiritual message of compassion and clemency. (p. 234)
In one sense this is true, and Cornwell is fairly nuanced on this point, but “rather than” suggests that Francis represents a departure or rupture from dogma, as if the social and environmental dimension is separate from dogma. It is not one versus the other. For one thing, Francis is outspoken about the dangers of relativism and secularism, just as the previous two popes we were. What Francis has striven to ensure is that dogma never becomes “dead stones” that we “hurl at each other” (Amoris Laetitia 49). Francis’s strengths do not come from divorcing the Church from her 2000 year history, but from understanding how the Church is called to act in the world today, drawing on her history as a source of inspiration. Any hope placed in Francis risks serious disappointment if there is an expectation that Francis will abandon Catholic dogmas or break from Tradition.
Cornwell is right to point out that future historians are unlikely to identify “the least divergence from the magisterium of the Church.” Instead, Cornwell sees in Francis someone who is unafraid to challenge the status quo and who is unafraid of holding in opposites in tension. He cites Francis calling for a “daring prudence” (prudenza audace), which in Cornwell’s view is a new “third way.” On this point, Cornwell astutely notes that the key to understanding Francis is his “consistent Christian counsel of prudence and clemency that recognizes human frailty” (p. 247).
But I fear Cornwell is missing a critical, though subtle, distinction. Francis’s “third way” is precisely the merciful grace that bridges the gap between weakness and the ideal, that takes us in our frailty and makes us whole. This “third way” is “the Way” of Jesus Christ, and has been (or should have been) the foundation of the Church’s preaching for the last 2000 years. While Cornwell misses this particular nuance, his book is still a testament to how effective the pope has been in reaffirming the primacy of mercy in the Church’s life. As Francis wrote in Misericordiae Vultus:
Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy… The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.
Cornwell’s engaging work, Church, Interrupted, reminds us that the Church needs to flower in order to attract and grow, and that it is not sufficient to make the Church a museum, beautiful to look at but stodgy and cold. Cornwell’s Francis—a realistic enough portrait that at times exaggerates the pope, not unlike what his conservative critics do—has made the Church bloom once again. We can all hope that—nourished by the Word of God, the Church’s teaching, and mercy—the seeds of faith planted during Francis’s papacy will draw strength from their deep roots and produce a vibrant Church, where diversity is welcome and celebrated and everyone feels at home.
Church, Interrupted: Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis was released by Chronicle Books on March 9, 2021. Kindly note that the review is based on an uncorrected advance review copy. Order from Amazon in hardcover or for Kindle format by clicking here. Click here to order directly from the publisher.