How Jesuitical is the Pope?

Mealy-mouthed and equivocal or just shy? Two new books help us to understand the motives and beliefs of the enigmatic Pope Francis

Books The Catholic Church
Pope Francis: Equivocal or just shy?

When the name “Bergoglio” was announced from the Vatican balcony, it was greeted with a moment’s stunned silence. Who was this man, now head of 1.2 billion Catholics? What was known about him? Argentines and professional Vatican watchers immediately caught on. The rest of the world was a beat behind.

Presses have turned quickly since then. Editor and Vatican analyst Robert Moynihan has been quicker than most, barely six weeks passing between “Habemus Papam” and the publication of Pray For Me. Billed as the “ultimate introduction” to the life and spiritual views of Pope Francis and written in just two weeks, Pray For Me favours short sentences and punchy paragraphs.

This is Moynihan as the Vatican’s anti-Dan Brown: “Restaurants emptied, and the people of Rome hurried to see who the new pope was. It was dark now, and cool, and there was a slight drizzle . . . He stood silently for a while, gazing out over the crowd of some 200,000. He did not speak.” Heavy on description, light on analysis, Moynihan approaches his subject as a journalist keen to give a soft focus. There are anecdotes about the papal penchant for public transport, and much kissing of babies.

The reader does get some new information: there’s a potted biography and a chapter on Pope Francis’s spiritual guides and influences but Pray For Me is largely given over to events immediately after the papal election, allowing Moynihan to sidestep areas needing greater attention. The controversy surrounding Bergoglio’s time as a Jesuit superior during Argentina’s “dirty war” gets a mention if only to reiterate the unknowns.

Where Pray For Me is written in the first flush of love for Pope Francis, wanting others to feel the love too, On Heaven and Earth deepens what Catholics outside the Spanish speaking world can know about the man himself. Published as Sobre el cielo y la tierra in Argentina in 2010, its translation into English offers an insight into what Catholics can expect from their new leader.

On Heaven and Earth brings together a series of dialogues between Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, a rabbi and biophysicist. For years both men promoted inter-religious dialogue in their native Argentina, seeking to build bridges between Catholicism, Judaism and the secular world. They scheduled a meeting to talk and share their thoughts, a fruitful event leading to a series of meetings and recorded conversations about the big issues “seen through the prisms of local society, global concerns and the evidence of villainy and nobility that surround us”. As a transcript of those conversations the resulting book is organised and edited, certainly, but unpolished to some extent; discursive, not a collection of carefully prepared statements.

Twenty-nine short chapters cover a range of topics. God, the Devil, atheists, same-sex marriage, women, abortion, fundamentalism, euthanasia, divorce, science, the Arab-Israeli conflict — all the neuralgic issues are there. On the face of it Skorka and Bergoglio do not shy away, but the dialogue is tentative, conciliatory even. “Dialogue requires that each participant become acquainted with the other person,” writes Rabbi Skorka in a foreword. Each participant in this conversation states their view, that the other might become acquainted with it, but there’s little disagreement or vigorous debate. The tone is measured and thoughtful with Bergoglio remaining slightly in the background. What he says is clear, economically and diplomatically expressed, but mutable. On the issue of priestly celibacy, for example, he says, “For the time being, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy” — that “for the time being” leaving a question mark hanging in the air.

For those looking to see where Bergoglio stands on fundamental questions there won’t be any surprises. This Pope is definitely Catholic. He clearly articulates Catholic teaching and if he’s a little backward in coming forward about where he stands personally it’s due to characteristic self-effacement. Those willing to read between the lines can assume Bergoglio’s orthodoxy. His emphasis on testing doctrine over time indicates a Pope who won’t start making changes to please a secular liberal consensus: “I am respectful of all new spiritual proposals, but they must be authentic and submit themselves to the passage of time.” Still, there are those who will be made uneasy by having to make assumptions about orthodoxy.

On Heaven and Earth reveals a Pope who is conservative but open to change, open to dialogue. Dialogue in this case means a respectful attitude towards difference while maintaining an emphasis on where people meet. In Bergoglio’s words, “It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals . . . To dialogue, one must know how to lower defences, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth.”

Jorge Mario Bergoglio comes across as a warm and hospitable man, making homely references to Argentine comic books El Tony and Mafalda. Likewise Skorka, but it’s the rabbi who seems more prepared to initiate potentially crunchy dialogue or to say “you have touched on a sensitive topic,” meaning “let’s stay there for a minute.” Discussing the Holocaust, Skorka notes: “I have always said that in the death camps, they did not just kill six million Jews, but they killed Jesus six million times over. That is because many of Jesus’s ideas and his message were Jewish since he carried the message of the Prophets.” Bergoglio acknowledges the shared ground: “This is a very Christian belief: Jesus is in every suffering person.” Skorka, very respectfully, from a distance, then asks: “Monsignor, what do you think about how the Church acted at the time?” Bergoglio gives an on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that reply before saying: “Who knows if we could have done something more?” Skorka won’t let it go: “That’s the question, Monsignor. Could it have done more?”

When Bergoglio equivocates, the reader remembers his Jesuit training, but at times in On Heaven and Earth it’s hard to tell what’s mental reservation and what’s characteristic shyness. Both stand him in good stead when it comes to maintaining the necessary reserve in talking across difference with the world’s media ready to pounce. As has already been seen with a papal homily concerning the doctrine of salvation, critics of the Vatican are quick to misinterpret when given the room. If the liberal press is apt to see the straightforward Pray For Me as a PR exercise on behalf of the new Pope, On Heaven and Earth may let us know more about Pope Francis and where he stands, but it will keep critics circling a while yet.