Paul VALLELY, Pope Francis. The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism. New York. Bloomsbury USA. 2015, pp. 470, $30.00 ISBN 978-1-63286-115-3. Marco POLITI, Pope Francis Among the Wolves. The Inside Story of a Revolution. New York. Columbia University Press, 2015 pp. 270, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-231-17414-5. Massimo FAGGIOLI, Pope Francis. Tradition in Transition. Mahwah NJ, Paulist Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-8091-4892-9.  Reviewed by Daniel H. LEVINE, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI 48109-1045.


There is by now a small industry devoted to understanding Pope Francis: who he is, how his life and experiences have shaped his outlook, his public persona, and what he is attempting to accomplish in the Vatican, in the Church as a whole,  and in the world. These three books work this ground, but with very  different language and agendas.  Vallely and Politi  each provide a general overview, with special attention to Francis’ education, experience and evolving outlook, to his early actions, to his public persona, and to particular issues like the sexual abuse and financial scandals. Each author pays careful attention to the opposition Francis  has faced within the Church and above all within the Roman Curia. As his title suggests (Pope Francis Among the Wolves)  Politi uses more sensational language but in substance the two authors are in agreement. Both also highlight and in a sense rescue the role played by the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI by his own efforts (ultimately unsuccessful)  to work on these issues and above all by his resignation, which opened the way for a change oriented successor. Faggioli sets Francis in a theological context, with particular concern for how he embodies change with continuity. He situates the election of Francis within “an obvious crisis” in the church, and understands what he has done and said as the expression of a revivified interest in Catholic Social Doctrine and a definitive embrace of the expression and heritage of the Second Vatican Council.

From the very beginning of his Papacy (from the election and first appearance on the Vatican balcony) Francis has reshaped the public persona of the Catholic Church. In everything  he does and says, from how he dresses, the shoes he wears, the car he drives, where he lives and what and where he eats, Francis embodies the idea of a church committed to move away from medieval pomp to greater simplicity (“a grammar of simplicity," Faggioli 58) and  a joyful engagement with the world as it is. He  articulates a vigorous agenda centered on mercy, addressing inequality, violence, and ecology. To ensure that  these initiatives take hold and have lasting effect, Francis has also advanced a vigorous program of reform  within the institutional church. Vallely and Politi provide  a wealth of fascinating detail on these initiatives. Among many  a few stand out: reform of the Vatican curia to limit  and monitor its power; cleaning up Vatican finances and making them more transparent and accountable. Although the problems with Vatican finances have long been well known, the detailed portrait provided by Vallely and Politi retains the ability to shock even the most cynical observer. The level of corruption, venality,  sheer incompetence, lack of transparency and often simply criminal behavior, including but not limited to money laundering,  is stunning.  Francis has devoted considerable energy to cleaning up and restructuring Vatican banking and finance generally, and bringing them in line with contemporary standards of accounting and accountability.

Francis has  advanced  a  more collegial working model  of the Church; and has begun  to accommodate church structures and appointments to the fact that Christianity (and the Catholic Church in particular) is no longer primarily a European religion. The future is found in the global South and Francis has recognized and welcomes that reality with episcopal and other appointments that bring non European prelates to more prominent roles. Faggioli writes that the election of Bergoglio to the papacy “is an unprecedented step toward the fulfillment of what the German theologian Karl Rahner called ‘the world church.’” (61)

Faggioli’s book situates this narrative of change, reform, and opposition in an  explicitly  theological context. He locates Francis squarely in the tradition of the Second Vatican Council, and underscores how much his outlook has been shaped  by Catholic Social Doctrine, a body of thought and writings that has been less prominent in recent years. “If Pope Benedict made clear the contours of the ‘politics’ of the message and its audience (both inside and outside the Church) a ‘social Catholic’ like Pope Francis re-proposed the essence of a theology that is indigestible to the neoliberal economic culture, to a progressivism that finds it hard to accept the ethical demands of Catholic morality an integral part of the ‘common good’ and to a gentrified Catholicism that would like  to make Jesus Christ  a self-righteous moralist€¦.the Pope who came from the south of the world took note of the marginality and peripheral situation of Christianity in the contemporary world in order to make it not a lamentation on the deplorable state of the Church today, but a key to the pontificate of a church that starts from the margins.”  (14) With the election of Francis, the Vatican has also in effect declared a truce on the battlefield of feminist theology  (53)

Faggioli notes a parallel between John XXIII and Francis. “John tried to disengage Catholicism  as such from the Cold War; Francis is trying to disengage Catholicism from the ‘culture wars.’ The objections (or worse than objections)  against  both popes arrives from the ones who see their attempt as an appeasement. There is a clear reversal of trends with Francis, when compared to the pontificates of his two predecessors.” (81)   Faggioli also underscores how much Francis has enabled the church as institution to engage the world in new  ways,  bringing Vatican diplomacy back to the global scene (49). Recent prominent involvements  include engagement with issues of migration and the treatment of refugees, work on the  violence in Syria, on US - Cuban relations, and brokering negotiations to end the long standing civil war in Colombia.

Francis has set so much in motion that it is difficult to believe that he has been pope for only a few years. The obvious questions are  to what extent and in what ways these  initiatives may survive and prosper and what impact will they have on how Catholicism is lived and experienced, and how they will affect the ways in which the church as an institution and community  act in the world. Vallely, Politi, and Faggioli are all moderately optimistic, while acknowledging sustained and often fierce from both clerical  and lay conservative groups. It is no simple matter to change the culture and direction of an institution like the Catholic Church, with its embedded traditions and enormous geographical and cultural spread. Change is bound to be slow and marked by hiccups and setbacks. But Francis has made a significant beginning, one that responds to a real constituency.  While changing the public persona of the church, he has also shown himself to be a skilled politician and an astute manager of bureaucracies. As Marco Politi states repeatedly in his book,   Francis “plays for keeps”   and it is beginning to show.