Life is not simply a bare succession of events, but a history, a story waiting to be told through the choice of an interpretative lens that can select and gather the most relevant data. In and of itself, reality has no one clear meaning. Everything depends on the way we look at things, on the lens we use to view them. If we change that lens, reality itself appears different. So how can we begin to “read” reality through the right lens?
Austen Ivereigh’s new book, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, is commendable for more than its well-researched accounts of many of the pivotal decisions Francis has made, his attempts at reforming the Church, and other noteworthy events of his pontificate. In this book, Ivereigh interweaves and substantiates his insights into Francis’ thinking and approach to the papacy with original interviews and detailed analysis. Additionally, he dives deeply into the historical record–providing essential background information about the life, upbringing, and formation of Jorge Bergoglio–and integrates the backstories into his analysis of Francis’ pontificate, revealing many of the events that formed Bergoglio as he grew up in Argentina and ascended through the Jesuit and episcopal ranks.
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Still, one cannot reduce the success of Ivereigh’s book to engaging storytelling or his diligent background work. Ivereigh provides, most of all, an image of Pope Francis’ papacy that is much fuller–more human, we could say–than those written by others, particularly those who remain almost blindly critical of the Holy Father. Aware of the fact that he might inadvertently lionize Francis, and being self-critical of his aggrandizement of Francis in his previous book, Ivereigh illustrates by example how writing with the Spirit of charity better reveals the essence of Francis’ papacy: his successes and failures, his virtues and his sins.
And yet, it is also clear that Ivereigh does have an axe to grind, particularly against those players in this grand drama who have been critical of the Pope or who are cast in opposition to him. As one can imagine, Cardinal Burke is a favorite target. Ivereigh often lumps people into two camps: those who are on board with Francis and those who oppose him. As to the latter, Ivereigh often deploys the epithet le lobby, representing a powerful group with entrenched interests, made up of both clergy and laity, who resent their loss of influence due to Francis’ reforms. In other cases, he refers to “rigorists”–Catholics who advance a strict adherence to the law–in contrast to Francis’ emphasis on mercy and the internal forum. Ivereigh characterizes certain people who he deems to be emblematic of le lobby and the “rigorists” (and with plenty of evidence), but he does not always take a nuanced view of papal critics. Sometimes he ignores how some of them disagree with Francis on some matters, yet agree with other aspects of Francis’ reforms. These elements of Ivereigh’s book are reminiscent of Ross Douthat’s lazy “two-sided Church” narrative that he relied on in his book, To Change the Church, only in reverse.
In many cases, however, Ivereigh’s criticism of attempts to undermine Francis and his reforms is justified, as when he expertly crafts a comprehensive, well-sourced narrative about the standoff between Pope Francis and the Order of Malta, including Cardinal Burke. This is undoubtedly one of the most riveting chapters, which builds upon Ivereigh’s reporting on the controversy for Crux. Here, we come to a greater understanding of why Francis and his opponents acted the way they did during this troubling and often misunderstood episode.
In other cases, the criticism is less justified, including throwaway lines that unnecessarily pit St. John Paul II or Cardinal Sarah against Pope Francis. (His citations of John Paul II are particularly confused, at times quoting him favorably, at other times suggesting he was a bastion of ultraconservatism in contrast to Francis’ vision for the Church.) At Wounded Shepherd’s worst, the sourcing gets thin and the reliance on hearsay or private conversation is more evident. In an unprecedented response to one series of events recounted in the book, the USCCB issued a press release challenging the veracity of Ivereigh’s claims that certain conference personnel had attempted to bypass Francis and his policy reforms in the area of sexual abuse in 2018.
Who is right? In the end, Ivereigh is more effective when he takes a more charitable approach in his criticism. While he is quite critical of Francis at times, he provides balanced and measured commentary. In response to his actions surrounding the abuse scandal in Chile and Fernando Karadima, for example, Ivereigh is careful with his words, even while conceding that Francis’ judgement in the matter was initially poor and that Francis may have been blind, even willfully, to the horrors beneath the surface. Regarding Francis, Ivereigh is always respectful even in his harsh criticism.
Others, particularly those that are alleged to belong to le lobby or who are alleged to be rigorists do not receive nearly the same treatment, and it shows. In some parts of the book that describe their actions, Ivereigh’s writing has less support from the historical record, and irrelevant, disparaging background details are often included. In one particularly irreverent section, he repeatedly refers to two priests using an unprofessional and uncharitable portmanteau, for example. In another, he refers to Frederic Martel’s tabloidesque innuendo about Cardinal Burke from In the Closet of the Vatican.
Returning to the quote from Pope Francis that opens this review, how are we to understand and interpret the events of someone’s lift? Any observer of this pontificate has seen how the same events or facts can be presented in a variety of ways. Depending on the disposition of the writer towards Francis–whether it’s Douthat, or Philip Lawler, or Ivereigh–the narrative has been crafted to make Francis or his opponents look good or look bad, according to the author’s priorities and predilections.
Continuing the message in Francis’ quote, “For us Christians, that lens can only be the good news, beginning with the Good News par excellence: ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mk 1:1).’”
Jesus Christ himself is the lens through which reality has its fullest meaning. When we see others with the eyes of the crucified Christ (cf. Lumen Fidei 21), we begin to understand each person as loved by God, frail, in desperate need of God’s grace, but made holy through his act of redemption. If Jesus Christ is the Truth, then this “lens” offers the most real interpretation of life’s events. But when our charity is lacking, or when we lack the faith to see the world as Christ does, we do not see reality but a perversion of it, in which sin is stronger than God, and the Lord is distant from our day-to-day experiences.
The Church will always be in disagreement, but this is essential, provided–and this is most important–that mercy and charity are never relegated to second place. One of the strongest chapters in this respect is Ivereigh’s account of the synod leading up to the promulgation of Amoris Laetitia. While Ivereigh sometimes glosses over aspects of the history and theological traditions that explain the various theological positions, Ivereigh, like Francis, attempts to hold dissenting views in creative tension, allowing disagreement to blossom to a new theological unity through Spirit-led discernment.
Ivereigh’s last two chapters in the book argue that the renewed focus on mercy Francis is advocating for represents a shift in the Church’s priorities. This shift has caused some prelates and theologians angst, especially some verifiable “rigorists.” But mercy, as Pope Francis says, is the “beating heart of the Gospel.” The implications of mercy, which requires significant attention be paid to the concrete realities of one’s life, are nuanced and cannot be entirely summed up by sound bites or pithy quotes. When clergy are forced to take strong stances knowing that they will be quoted by the media, or when the media misinterprets their views, the process of discernment rooted in mercy is derailed.
Francis continues in his message to journalists, “The Kingdom of God is already present in our midst, like a seed that is easily overlooked, yet silently takes root. Those to whom the Holy Spirit grants keen vision can see it blossoming. They do not let themselves be robbed of the joy of the Kingdom by the weeds that spring up all about.”
Thanks to Austen Ivereigh’s fine work, we are able to better understand why Francis makes the decisions he makes, and it’s easier to appreciate his vision for the future of the Church. When it comes to Francis, Ivereigh truly sees the seed of the Kingdom blossoming. But for those whom Ivereigh considers Francis’ enemies, there is often an inordinate focus on the weeds and a certain joylessness, even bitterness, that creeps into his writing. Ivereigh’s book is an important reminder that only in charity is the truth fully revealed. Still, Wounded Shepherd is a much needed account and analysis of Francis’ papacy. Its strengths lie in providing extensive background into the key moments of Francis’ papacy to date. Even more, this book insightfully connects the dots and helps us understand this pontificate, helping us to understand the thematic cohesion of its mission and explaining its theological depth. Most of all, Wounded Shepherd brings us to a greater understanding of Pope Francis as a man, a missionary, and a pastor.
Photo Credit: Osservatore Romano