Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, author and commentator, whose articles have appeared in many journals on both sides of the Atlantic. A former deputy editor of The Tablet and later Director for Public Affairs for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, he frequently appears on radio and TV programs to comment on stories involving the church. He holds a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford, where he completed a thesis later published under the title Catholicism and Politics in Argentina, 1810-1960. He drew on that research for the book for which he is best known in the United States, his biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (Henry Holt, 2014), which came out recently as a Picador paperback with a new epilogue.
Dr. Ivereigh is also the founder and coordinator of Catholic Voices, which trains Catholics in media skills. He recently produced a new edition of the book coming out of that project, How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2015).
On Oct. 18, I conducted the following email interview with Dr. Ivereigh about his work.
Your book on Pope Francis calls him “the great reformer.” What kind of reform has Francis undertaken?
Francis is the process of carrying out a major reform of the church in the traditional Catholic fashion: restoring what has been lost, updating what has ossified and seeking a thorough conversion of habits and culture, in order better to offer the Gospel to the world. Yves Congar, whose 1950 book on church reform influenced Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was a Jesuit student, describes pretty well what is authentic church reform (as opposed to the accommodationist or secularizing trends in many movements of that name), and I think Congar gives us the right lens to view the Franciscan reform.
First, it does not challenge or dilute core Catholic doctrines, and is grounded in and respectful of church traditions; it is a reditus ad fontes, a return to sources. Second, it opens up the “center” (normally the church hierarchy, above all Rome) to the “periphery,” that is, to the local church or the religious orders, and specifically the voices of the poor and marginalized. Third, it has a pastoral purpose. The aim is to make it easier for people to access God’s love and sacraments and parish life. The supreme law of the reform is the salus animarum, the good of souls.
The big changes are in governance: the reform of the papacy itself, the implementation of the previously stalled Vatican II attempt to restore collegiality and synodality, and of course structural reforms in Rome, so far particularly of finance and communication with an overhaul of the curia on the cards. But all the structure and governance reform—especially the synod, which is his greatest reform thus far—is designed to enable the above. It has a pastoral purpose. Put simply, Francis wants to unleash the missionary and evangelizing energies of the church.
This same book was subtitled “the making of a radical pope.” In what way is Francis a radical pope?
First, because, in the tradition of church reform, he is seeking to restore the church to its roots, its core mission, which is to offer the Good News of God’s mercy without the attachments of wealth, power, status and the ego. (Hence his constant battle against what he calls “spiritual worldliness,” which is the confusion of the Gospel with worldly interests and causes.)
Second, he’s a radical because he roots his papacy in the needs and concerns of ordinary people and is wresting control of the church from the princes in order to place it at the service of the poor. In hundreds of gestures, large and small, which have captivated the world, he constantly puts people before institutions, the poor before the rich, the sinner before the righteous. In this, of course, he models himself on Christ, whose constant demonstration of God’s mercy—that is, his particular concern with the poor, the suffering, the sinner, etc. —made him the greatest radical of all time.
What do you predict for the future of the Catholic Church under Francis?
We’re now halfway through what he thinks will be a five-year papacy. There’s not a lot he will see in terms of the fruits of his efforts. But he always says that the true evangelist sows, and others reap in God’s good time. He sees himself as opening up spaces for God to act, as initiating processes. But here’s my prediction. He is initiating a new era for the church, and I believe his papacy will shape or define the next papacies. That’s why I call him a Great Reformer. What he has unleashed cannot be, in the short term, put back in the bottle.
How has Pope Francis continued the legacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI?
He stands on their shoulders. The Francis reform is only possible because the theological settlement of Vatican II brought about the long papacy of John Paul II and the teaching clarity of Benedict XVI. I think his theological debt to Benedict XVI is particularly great; in many ways he is taking Benedict on the road. But I also see him continuing St. John Paul II’s great diplomatic campaigns, making the Holy See a major force in international affairs again, and building bridges, as John Paul II did, with other faiths and churches. (If John Paul II’s great achievement was with the Jews, Francis has a particular bond with the Orthodox.) There are many other examples.
How has Pope Francis departed from the styles of John Paul II and Benedict XVI?
The big shift has been from the church as teacher to the church as mother, from the church as a lighthouse on a hill to being the torch in the crowd. Mothers also teach, of course, but through tenderness and nurturing rather than declamation.
And then there are the structural and governance reforms I listed above. They were the big overdue business left over above all from the final five years of John Paul II, when the Vatican was in many respects dysfunctional and corrupt. John Paul II took little interest in curial governance, and then was too weak to do anything much about it; Benedict XVI saw clearly what needed to be done, but lacked the capacity to do it. Both popes were teachers, rather than governors. Francis is a pastor rather than a teacher, but one who really knows how to govern—an Ignatian mix of desert saint and Machiavelli, as an Argentine Jesuit described him to me.
There is a strong media narrative of pauperism around Francis. They see in the black shoes and the Fiat 500 a kind of rejection of papal wealth and pomposity. But I think that’s exaggerated. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were both people of great austerity and simplicity, and John Paul II, in particular, carried on Paul VI’s reforms in seeking to make the papacy less of a Baroque court.
What Francis has done, however, is establish a whole new rapport with ordinary people. He makes them the protagonist. He’s created a new kind of Catholic populism, which sees him as being on the side of the poor and challenging the elites. A big part of that is what has been called the “revolution of normalcy.” Francis wants to get rid of what unnecessarily distances him from ordinary people—hence the decision to live in the Santa Marta. But it’s not iconoclasm. He still uses the Apostolic Palace for meetings, but prefers not to live in it; in the same way, he still rides the popemobile, but won’t let himself be encased in bulletproof glass. He must have contact with what he calls el santo pueblo fiel de Dios, God’s holy faithful people, and whatever unnecessarily inhibits that contact he will oppose.
What do you foresee will be the greatest gift of Pope Francis to reforming or renewing the Catholic Church?
That’s easy: the restoration of mercy as the primary attribute of God. This isn’t merely an intellectual or theological proposition; it’s the evangelization strategy. Put simply, Francis is convinced that to experience God’s unconditional love, concern and forgiveness is to know God; and that this experience unlocks conversion. Therefore, the church’s resources and energy must be directed to offering that experience. Charity and evangelization are coterminous.
It’s the insight of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Week One of the Spiritual Exercises. And it’s important that it be Week One. The church in the past 30 years has been pretty good at skipping it, believing that proclamation and clarity alone are sufficient for conversion.
As a scholar of politics and religion in Argentina from 1810 to 1960, what can you tell us about the cultural context that produced this pope?
It’s in chapters one through eight of The Great Reformer! The whole book suggests that you can’t understand Francis without understanding Argentina: the immigrant experience, the opposition of colonialism and nationalism, the paralysis of ideological polarization, the frustration of economic stagnation, the rich-poor divide, the experience of Celam and the great Latin-American episcopal assemblies.
As I show in the book, the Argentina that produced him was nationalist, Catholic and obrerista – precisely what Peronism drew upon. Argentina has never had a mass left-wing movement, because of Peronism. Francis shares Peronism’s skepticism about liberalism and socialism, as well as its nationalism and populism. That makes him annoyingly hard to pin down on the usual left-right axis. Nor does he fit easily into the progressive-conservative polarities of American Catholicism. Outside a radical fringe, the Latin-American church has always been very Roman, but at the same time very identified with the poor.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?
What he said to me when we met was adelante! (“carry on!”), which I think is what many of us would like to say to him too. But if I had sit-down time with him I’d ask: Please tell me the five things you want to have achieved or set in motion by the time you step down or die, and where you see the main obstacles to them being achieved.
From your perspective, what’s the greatest need in the Catholic Church today?
Self-confidence and unity. We’ve spent a long time immersed in intra-ecclesiastical arguments, and being beaten up for our very real failures. Now, with greater humility and self-awareness, with a new consciousness of our dependence on God’s grace, it’s time for us to take the lead again in Western culture. The self-obsessed, consumerist individualism is imploding; it has no broader narratives left, only cold elite doctrines. And what it’s spawning—fundamentalism in religion, and a kind of secularist theocracy—is appalling. We need a revival of the church to reinvigorate our society and institutions. And I think it’s coming.
What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?
Mark chapter 11, when John the Baptist’s disciples are sent to ask Jesus: Are you the real thing, the Messiah? And he says, “Go and report what you see,” as he points (at least in my mind’s eye) to scenes of great joy: people who can walk again, see again, live again. I like the passage not just because it presents visible signs of the Kingdom, which frankly we all need to see sooner or later, but because it assigns a role to journalism in making them known. “Go and report what you see” has this wonderful confidence in the power of journalism. Not “here’s what you should tell John,” which would be PR, but “report what you see”.
How do you pray?
Badly, irregularly, inconsistently, and distractedly. But usually early in the morning, with the day’s readings close by, and by listening first to the terrific Jesuit app “Pray as You Go” (or its Spanish version, “Rezando Voy.”) When I don’t pray, I feel homesick and get ratty and anxious. My wife encourages me, because she says I’m much nicer when I pray.
What people living or dead have influenced your Catholic faith most strongly?
My father, whose faith I first rebelled against and then made my own. People who have shown me great mercy and understanding when I’ve least deserved it, including many Jesuits, in different countries. The 1930s and ’40s editor of the influential Argentine Catholic weekly Criterio, whose editorials made me realize that my politics were essentially Catholic. My old boss, Cardinal Cormac, was an influence too.
I have to mention quite a few monks, among them Thomas Merton. Recently I’ve realized that reporting on the church over many years (especially in Rome, during the synods) has brought me into contact with many wise and loving bishops and cardinals whose learning has rubbed off on me. The list is much longer, but that’s just a few. The church for me has been like an extended family.
What do you want people to take away from your life and work?
I hope I’ve helped people understand, that’s all. Maybe cleaned a few windows, so people can peer in more easily.
What are your hopes for the future?
To be open and ready when I’m called.
Any final thoughts?
I shall spare you them!
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.