Francis pontificate ‘a place of spiritual combat,’ claims papal biographer
Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh spoke at Fordham University on Nov. 4 to promote his latest book about Pope Francis. (Fordham University/Leo Sorel)
NEW YORK — The resistance to Pope Francis is largely made in the USA, a product of an alliance between religious culture warriors and right-wing Republican politicians, Austen Ivereigh*, best-selling papal biographer, said during a talk sponsored by Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture here.
“Catholics are with the pope. That used to be the traditional understanding,” Ivereigh said. But that understanding has been challenged. He noted there is “a struggle going on. This pontificate is a place of spiritual combat.”
Ivereigh, a former editor at The Tablet, said that Francis remains popular with Catholics in the pew, but that a well-funded opposition comprised largely of ecclesial elites are fighting his agenda. The resistance would prefer a church focused on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage; Francis has upended those priorities, emphasizing instead concerns such as the environment and welcoming migrants.
The British author’s newest work on Francis is titled Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church. He said the title reflects the pope’s agenda, to move the church from a reliance on abstract principles and dogmas to a lived experience of conversion.
The resistance to Francis, said Ivereigh, borrowing an image from Don Quixote, is a sign of the progress the pope is making, because as he moves along, much like the fictional knight on horseback, the dogs are b
Francis invites criticism, said Ivereigh, but the resistance to his papacy goes beyond modulated dissent into questioning his very papacy, offering an alternative magisterium to his teachings.
“They don’t see it that way,” he said of the pope’s critics, who include American Cardinal Raymond Burke and German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, both of whom he specifically named.
Francis’ critics are akin to the Pharisees of the Gospel, said Ivereigh, as they fight his call to conversion of the church. The dynamics played themselves out during the October Synod of the Amazon, which included a virulent opposition from some American and European Catholics, as well as the stealing of Amazonian figurines depicting a pregnant woman that were dumped into the Tiber.
The Synod, marked by its input from Catholics in the Amazon region who called for allowing for married clergy and women serving as deacons, offered “the hermeneutic of the Shepherd versus the hermeneutic of the colonialist,” he said. The inclusion of indigenous symbols and costumes, seen by some critics as pagan, rankled those in the Francis resistance.
Francis, a Jesuit, likened efforts to inculturate the Gospel among the indigenous in the Amazon to the failed efforts of the 16th century Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who tried to forge a Christianity in China that built upon the culture there, only to be later rejected by the church.
The treatment of Ricci was a mistake, said the pope, something that he didn’t want repeated in the Amazon Synod deliberations.
The resistance to the Amazon Synod focused not on the possibility of married clergy or women deacons, but on its intense consultation with what some Europeans and North Americans considered pagan cultures with little to offer the wider church.
Two years of consultation with Amazon Catholics, said Ivereigh, indicated that Catholics in the region sought “a church to be close to us, 24/7, not just passing through.”
But the resistance to Francis would have none of it, he said. “The people of God spoke and they were told they are heretics.”
Francis has generated resistance since the beginning of his papacy, said Ivereigh, particularly via symbolic actions that rankled his critics. It began with his washing the feet of a young Muslim woman in a Holy Thursday ritual; his outreach to Muslims, and his openness to the LGBT community, including his recent meeting with Jesuit Fr. James Martin, a frequent target of those opposed to including LGBT people in the church.
Francis’ critics, he said, doubt the mercy of the Incarnation, and would prefer to focus on rules and regulations.
Ivereigh was interviewed by Mary Kate Holman, a doctoral student in the theology department at Fordham University. (Fordham University/Leo Sorel)
The roots of Francis’ approach to the papacy lies in the role that he played as a leader in the Latin American church, the region of the world, said Ivereigh, where Vatican II has been taken most seriously.
Then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was a leader in the Aparecida meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007. One message from that meeting, said Ivereigh, was that “the church has to change in order to evangelize modernity.”
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Francis regularly notes that the Christian experience is with the person of Jesus, not a series of philosophical teachings. “It’s an experience, not an idea,” said Ivereigh, noting that the pope’s critics are prone to what he described as “an isolated conscience” marked by “a spirit of self-sufficiency, an attraction to power.”
Ivereigh described himself as an admirer of Francis, who he got to know while researching a book on the repression in Argentina during the 1980s. Some say he’s gone too far, that his biographies of Francis lean toward hagiography, rather than objective history.
“I’ve gone where the story has taken me,” he said about covering this eventful papacy and the spiritual combat it has generated over the past half dozen years. “My role is to explain how he thinks, and what he’s doing.”
[Peter Feuerherd is NCR news editor
Austen Ivereigh, biographer of Pope Francis, in speaking to a gathering at Fordham University in the U.S., where he was talking about his next book of the Pope, did not mince words when he spoke of the orchestrated opposition to Francis – mainly in America and Germany – which, while not dismissing papal infallibility (which would be to question the whole basis of papal authority in the Roman Catholic Church) yet deigns to severely criticise the Church renewal strategies of the present Pope:
“ Francis’ critics are akin to the Pharisees of the Gospel, said Ivereigh, as they fight his call to conversion of the church. The dynamics played themselves out during the October Synod of the Amazon, which included a virulent opposition from some American and European Catholics, as well as the stealing of Amazonian figurines depicting a pregnant woman that were dumped into the Tiber”.
These rebellious ‘Defenders of The Faith’ – people like U.S. Cardinal Burke and German Cardinal Gerhardt Muller and their followers – seem hell-bent on destabilising the current papacy in order to shore up their own understanding of the need to protect Holy Church from what they see as heretical misdirection at the instigation and with the blessing of Pope Francis.
The latest spat of criticism has come during and after the recent Roman ‘Synod of the Amazon’, where the Pope witnessed and approved of some inter-cultural activities – (both social and liturgical) that demonstrated his willingness to harness and incorporate the indigenous spirituality of the Amazonian people in their own expressions of worship – that proved culturally unacceptable to Francis’ critics.
The combative attitude of his detractors – who are generally powerful and wealthy conservative prelates in the U.S. and other places in the Church – demonstrates quite clearly their determination to overturn the efforts of Pope Francis to bring the Catholic Church into the modern age. Francis’ renewal is entirely in keeping with the intent of Pope John XXIII in his leadership of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
However since Vatican II, even reigning Popes – including Benedict XVI – seem to have given way to reactionary conservatives in and outside the Vatican, in their desire to turn back the clock to a more restrictive and less adventurous trajectory of opening up the Catholic Church to a new age of Justice and Integrity for ALL people.
As an Anglican, I recognise the dangers inherent in ecclesiastical conservatism. We. too, in our own Anglican Communion of Provincial Churches around the world, are presently suffering from forces of rebellion against the prospect of opening up our Churches to ALL people – regardless of their race, ethnicity, colour, class, gender or sexual orientation, or other social or economic difference, in the belief that every single human being is created in the Divine Image and likeness deserving of our care and respect.
The latest incident here, in Aotearoa/New Zealand, has been the raising up of a local independent quasi-Anglican Church (ACCANZ), as part of a Movement called ‘The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans’ a specifically ‘Confessional Church, birthed by a new Protesting Church Movement in Anglicanism called GAFCON, which has set itself up to oppose the reforming process in our Church to include – for instance – the Blessing of a Same-Sex Couple who have been married in a legal State Ceremony.
Fear of Change would seem to be the prime motivation of protesters against any movement towards the correction of injustice or inefficiency in the administration of Church affairs. Entrenched, outdated understandings of how Churches should teach and exemplify the characteristics of Jesus in the Gospel can be a serious barrier to effective ministry – especially in times of radical change in the experience of how to minister to a radically different world from that of the first centuries of the Church.
One need look only to the Scriptures themselves for a hint of what is going on in these sorts of situations – where a lack of radical love for one another can lead to a stale and arid state of spiritual warfare, in which the struggle for peace, equality and justice is opposed by powerful bastions of entrenched ‘tradition’, fearful of their loss of self-congratulatory religious standing in the community. In their all-too-ready (often unmerited) harsh judgement of the ‘Other’, the ‘Pharisees’ amongst us can seek to destabilise and replace existing structures with our own more ‘holy’ and more comfortable brand of ‘righteousness’ – based on our own understanding of what is Godly. However, God is not mocked. Jesus said that people would know his disciples by their LOVE – certainly not by their (self)-righteousness. Surely, the lesson from Scripture is that we are ALL sinners, redeemed by Christ!
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” – should be our constant humble plea. Jesus once said to someone who called him ‘Good Master’: “Who are you calling good? There is one alone Who is Good”. If Jesus at his incarnation could point to His Father as being the sole repository of goodness, how can we ever deign to imagine ourselves as better than anyone else?
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand