Review of The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis: Moving toward Global Catholicity by Massimo Faggioli

It is difficult to draw a clear and balanced picture of Pope Francis. A polarizing figure for some, and an unassuming but respected Church figure for others, the pope has defied misguided efforts to define him, ideologize him, or re-frame him. The job of contextualizing Pope Francis and his papacy is an arduous one, especially when his pontificate still seems far from over (thankfully), and after years of his critics distorting the narrative. But Massimo Faggioli attempts to do just that in his book, The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis: Moving toward Global Catholicity. He does this through an analysis of Pope Francis’s background, the history of the papacy and Francis’s predecessors, and the methodology underpinning his reign up to this point. Though not exhaustive by any means, as Faggioli himself admits, The Liminal Papacy serves as an insightful but careful look at Pope Francis and his papacy. 

Massimo’s book comes at a critical time in Church history. In this age of instantaneous communication, the Church is as far-reaching as it has ever been. This is also a time of almost unprecedented transition in the Church. Despite these circumstances, the pope was thought to be a known quantity when he was elected. Instead, his papacy has been one of surprises from the beginning, which is complemented by the new age the Church has entered. Faggioli writes,

“Francis is an outsider, both to the academic and curial circles of papal Rome and to the circles of Italian Catholicism; this means that he has a particularly obvious detachment from both Italian politics and Italian church politics. Francis is also the first pope to reassess the relationship between the papacy and synodality, both in the Synod of Bishops and in the life of the church more generally. He is the first pope who is not afraid to side with the poor in a programmatic way from within the Roman Catholic Church and to advocate a “poor church” and a “church for the poor” (7-8).

Our transitory age helps exemplify the strengths of the pope, as well as to emphasize his overall mission towards the poor and those existing at the margins. He is a pope for the world, not only the West. As Pope Francis states in Evangelii Gaudium, “We need to pay attention to the global so as to avoid narrowness and banality. Yet we also need to look to the local, which keeps our feet on the ground” (45). 


The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis: Moving toward Global Catholicity

Author: Massimo Faggioli
Publisher: Orbis Books
To Order: Available from Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle editions)

An academic book as its core, Faggioli chooses to put Pope Francis in his own words as much as possible. Quoting extensively from general audiences, encyclicals, and other church documents, Faggioli helps the reader to truly hear what Pope Francis wants to communicate through his own words. Unlike the pope’s harsher critics, Faggioli is cautious about placing undue words or concerns into the gentle pontiff’s mouth, yet he is also careful to flesh out the implications of those words. This helps to deepen the reader’s understanding and appreciation for what Pope Francis has done thus far in his papacy. 

Faggioli’s efforts to contextualize Pope Francis’s papacy leads to some interesting comparisons as well, such as a lovely analysis of the similarities between Pope Francis and the pope to whom he is most frequently correlated, Saint John XXIII. “Both John XXIII and Francis make clear (in different ways) that the papacy is not bound by a North Atlantic and European political and cultural alignment” (45), writes Faggioli. Born of poor families and both embarking on clerical careers that were not typical of most popes, they were men marked by their times, yet still stood apart from them. Their similarities are striking and masterfully presented through Faggioli’s careful research and respect for history. Seeing these two Popes brought alongside one another does the job of illustrating that Francis is far from a radical or maverick who is breaking with tradition. But there are obstacles to his papacy that John XXIII did not have to surmount. Benedict XVI’s resignation, for example, while accepted (Faggioli shares his misgivings about this decision), created one such hurdle.

Another idea that Faggioli illustrates rather brilliantly is how Pope Francis must be understood as a post-Vatican II cleric. His two predecessors, Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, were intimately involved with the Council. Pope Francis, however, received much of his formation in the Council’s aftermath, which was felt in a very unique way in South America. Faggioli knits together the consequences of the impact of Vatican II on Francis through various images and concepts. One example is the idea of the Church as a polyhedron, where each point holds a distinctiveness and they exist in tension through their connections. The idea of a “big tent” Catholicism, which Francis craves for the world. “But what is especially typical of Francis’s reception of Vatican II is not only this anti-elitism, but also the retrieval of the almost forgotten emphasis on the poor and the ‘preferential option for the poor…’ (59).

What may be the most compelling of Faggioli’s analysis is found in one of the middle chapters: “Catholicism from the Peripheries.” It not only maps out the “geography” of Pope Francis, but lays out—in a very concrete way—the foundation of Pope Francis’s inspiration. It is in the margins that the pontiff urges us to venture into the thick of it. Francis also wishes for the margins to draw closer to us. This transitory period requires a breaking down of barriers and for the margins to become thinner, to become closer to us. “The liminality of Francis’s pontificate lies in his reinterpretation of the borders in this age of new walls” (81). We cannot escape one another with false protections or vapid escapism. Francis wants the Church to be there for all, regardless of their status in life or their ability to live well. 

Pope Francis is a figure who refuses to be categorized or claimed by any ideological movement, and Faggioli highlights that to great effect, even if he himself cannot always escape the same binaries in his text. While the faux-war between conservatives and liberals seemingly has no effect on Francis himself, it frames the ideological debate surrounding his papacy, especially in the United States, where a hotbed of his critics reside. There is a large and loud contingent among the “neo-traditionalists,” as Faggioli labels them, that despises Francis. And while not as loud, there are some “liberals” that also move against him, but Faggioli appears to only pay attention to these reactionaries generally. 

While it must have been a monumental task to begin, this book ends on a quiet, open-ended note. The reason for this is that Francis’s papacy is not yet over. Faggioli’s book comes at a critical time in Church history because the Church is as far-reaching as it has ever been, in this age of instantaneous communication. It is also a time of transition that is almost unprecedented in the Church. This work is slim by all accounts, but its content is far from light. It has many more useful and revealing reflections and insights for the reader to discover. Any Catholic who is willing to delve into the messy ecclesial history of the Church in order to better understand the current pontiff would benefit from Faggioli’s work. In fact, I would not be surprised if The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis is cited in the years to come as one of the most vital explorations of Francis’s remarkable papacy.


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Alexander Pyles is a writer and book reviewer based in Northern Illinois. When not wrangling his two kids, he is usually reading or writing. You can find him at www.pylesofbooks.com or @Pylesofbooks.

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