Austen IVEREIGH. The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.  New York. Henry Holt and Company, 2014. Pp. 445,  ISBN 978-1-62779-157-1 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-62779-158-1 (electronic book).  Reviewed by Daniel H. LEVINE, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI 48109

          In his short time as pope, Francis has breathed new life  into the public face of Catholicism. In word and action he has demonstrated that the church can engage the modern world in something other than a defensive manner. He has also initiated numerous reforms within the structures of the Vatican itself, on issues ranging from finance to bureaucratic organization, from public access to the promotion of a simple, open, and welcoming  personal style. He has underscored the joy of faith and emphasized the centrality of  active engagement with those in need, or “mercying” as he puts it. The stark contrast with his predecessors’ monarchical style and stress on loyalty, obedience, and purity has inspired numerous efforts to figure out precisely who Francis is and how he got to be this way

This book is part of that process. There is much to admire and appreciate here, but there is also much to question. The author is an experienced Catholic journalist, who has been an advisor to English Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor. He also has considerable on the ground experience in Argentina, and deploys an impressive array of sources (in Argentina as well as in Rome)  in his depiction of who Pope Francis is, how he came to be this way, and what he seeks to accomplish as Pope.

The strengths of the book are primarily in the author’s discussion of the Pope’s life, education and career, and of how his thinking and practice evolved. In a well written narrative, the author helps us understand how the Pope became the man he is today, and how his ideas about the Church (and more importantly about  the meaning of faith and what faith asks of us) evolved and consolidated into a consistent style of thought, self presentation, action, and relation to those around him, within the institutional church and in society. Ivereigh traces   influences from family, schooling, particular priests, friends, books and perhaps above all, from the learning experience of becoming Provincial of Argentina’s  Jesuits at a time when the Argentine church (like the country) was  sharply divided. This discussion is integrated very effectively into an account of the evolution of the Vatican, and the kind of crisis in which it found itself in the years prior to Francis’ election.

Alongside these notable strengths, there are important weaknesses. This is a very Catholic book by a Catholic journalist. There is of course nothing wrong with this, but in this particular case, the book often edges from biography into advocacy, from analysis into something close to apologetics, with a considerable dose of defensiveness.   Ivereigh is well informed about the Latin American church, but his views are occasionally limited or one sided. For example, he notes the high Vatican control over the agenda and documents of the continental bishops meeting at Santo Domingo (1992). This is contrasted to the openness and optimism of the next meeting at Aparecida in 2007.  But at Aparecida documents were subject to multiple editing and elisions by the Vatican before being released. The documents themselves incorporate optimistic elements but a dominant note is the cultural defensiveness one associates with Pope Benedict XVI.

Many of the author’s judgments about Argentina are polemical and tendentious.  He  is particularly defensive about Francis’ own role as Jesuit Provincial during the worst period of Argentina’s “dirty war” He acknowledges that the church, like the country, was divided (bishops and priests were murdered) but generally dismisses any criticisms  as politically motivated. He   reserves particular scorn for three kinds of critics (1) the human rights community in Argentina (including figures who specifically  criticize the church like Emilio Mignone, Horacio Verbitsky or the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo), (2) the two President Kirchners (Nestor and now Cristina) and (3) those pressing  for more detail and accountability in the case of the two Jesuits Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were abducted and tortured. Numerous accounts have charged the Pope himself, then Jesuit Provincial, with either being complicit or turning a blind eye to their abduction.  

On the human rights community, Ivereigh ignores a lot of evidence and focuses on the fact of division in the country , and on elements and individuals in the church who worked to resist repression and rescue victims. He argues strongly that the situation in Argentina is not comparable to Peru or Central America (where there was considerable church led resistance) or even to Chile, where the Vicariate of Solidarity was only one of many ways in which the church confronted a brutal regime and worked to save victims and families.  Argentina of course has its own particular history, but the argument is not convincing. In fact the main body of the Argentine hierarchy (and its outsized military vicariate) did much to legitimize the military and were complicit in abuses ranging from kidnapping and torture to abduction of children from executed political prisoners to give them in adoption to politically reliable and certifiably “good Catholic” families.  This is extensively documented. If the author is going to enter this discussion, he should acknowledge the facts in a more complete way.

The author’s dislike of the Kirchners seems to rest above all on the fact that their political project (classic Peronism) prefers state focused action to engaging in the general dialogue promoted by the Church and specifically by then Cardinal Bergoglio. His  contempt  extends to what he describes as the state run human rights industry, including efforts at what Argentines call  “recovery of memory” which has broken the silence, brought light to cases and justice to victims and survivors, and trial and conviction of many  who were guilty of crimes against humanity. President Kirchner’s dispute with the hierarchy in 2005 over the dismissal of a military vicar is not explained. The individual in question stated that those who promoted contraception through the distribution of  condoms should be tossed in the sea with a millstone around their necks. In a country where victims were tossed out of helicopters in chains this was more particularly offensive. Ivereigh’s  account of the dispute over the equal marriage bill is  similarly slanted and  incomplete. He states  that the Kirchner-supported same sex marriage bill  came  “out of the blue” in 2010 but this ignores a long background  of social and legal movements pressing for this change.

The author’s   defensiveness comes out most  clearly in his discussion of the Yorio and Jalics case.  He recognizes  that Yorio suffered but criticizes  him for engaging in  ”the narcissism that suffering can induce.” (163) This is  surely adding insult to the injuries sustained by a person who (like many) was abducted, held in chains and tortured!!!   The Pope himself is more generous, and has also acknowledged in open court that he could have done more. Ivereigh appears to believe that appeals within the church to officials like Archbishop Tortolo, would have a positive impact, but this ignores the well documented record of  mutual support between the military junta and Tortolo and others like him  in the hierarchy.

There can be no question that Francis has breathed a new presence into the Papacy, and in this way, into the public face of Catholicism.  This is well summarized in the last few chapters, even if the author seems to go a bit overboard, describing  the changes initiated by Francis as “republican” in character (372)  There is also more to say about the whole issue  of sexuality and also of gender, extending to the general     question of the status of women (including nuns) within the church. This is an issue on which Pope Francis remains staunchly conservative although personally welcoming to gays and divorced people.

In summary, there  is a great deal of value in this book and a wealth of detail that will be of interest to many readers. But the discussion of the Argentine context is too one sided and polemical for this to stand   as a definitive account of the relation between Pope Francis the man,  and the country  and Church in which he grew up. There is more to know and more to understand. A more balanced and less polemical and defensive view of the past would help a lot.