Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church
by austen ivereigh
henry holt and co., 416 pages, $30
Disaffected Catholics of the “conservative” tribe typically criticize the current pontificate on four fronts: for diminishing Catholic thought with an anti-intellectual bias; for undermining a healthy Christian anthropology; for feeding disunity and confusion; and for downplaying the singular nature of the Christian revelation. It also—so they argue—has played loose with the notion of truth, thereby conflating mercy with indulgence, treating mercy as a kind of new, trademarked product of this papacy, and detaching mercy from justice, a virtue tied inextricably to truth.
These strong claims are too often voiced in frustration or anger, and thus easily dismissed. But writing such critics off as reactionary cranks, the go-to tactic of many of Pope Francis’s defenders, is not just derisive and condescending. It also doesn’t work. Contempt for people who offer their questions and criticisms out of principle, even if they’re mistaken or needlessly harsh, has the opposite of the desired effect. It stiffens resistance and proves the need for more of it. Name-calling is a bad way of winning over the alienated.
In that light, Austen Ivereigh’s latest book, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, could have been a friendly, candid midstream assessment of the Francis pontificate, the kind that might reassure critics (or at least win a truce) with conciliatory honesty. Ivereigh clearly has the intelligence and skill to produce such a text. But that’s not the book he wrote.
Along with the hubris and “hermeneutic of rupture” hardwired into the title—the author seems unaware that many of the persons raising questions about the current pontificate want to love Francis, want to believe in the pope’s leadership, and already live their faith sacrificially—Wounded Shepherd is 416 pages of sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious personal background on Francis and internal Church politics, undone by belligerent polemics and a sugar spike of hagiography that would kill a diabetic.
Readers may remember that Ivereigh dismissed Catholic converts who question the current pontificate in 2017. As he wrote then, it’s
likely that their [convert] baggage has distorted their hermeneutic, and they are suffering from convert neurosis.
A neurosis is a pathological or extreme reaction to something that simply doesn’t correspond to reality. A war-scarred victim, for example, might react to a friendly cop’s question by throwing herself on the ground and covering her ears. You understand why she does it, but it’s neurotic . . .
Then there is the neurosis of the convert escaping the shifting sands of relativism, who projects onto the Church the idea of something fixed and distant and unchangeable, frozen at some point prior to the Council. This makes them susceptible to the traditionalist Catholic horror not just of the Council’s reforms, but of the very idea of change, as if this could be avoided.
Ivereigh’s foray into amateur-hour psychoanalysis triggered a sharp reaction and, to his credit, a prompt apology. But a version of the same condescending dismissal of those who deviate from lockstep approval of the current pontificate, its seeming ambiguities, and the confusion it leaves in its wake is on display throughout Wounded Shepherd. One of the recurrent arguments of today’s ecclesial, self-consciously progressive left is that Catholic “conservatives” are guilty of a Manichaean division of the Church into monochromatic whites (orthodox good guys) and blacks (faithless bad guys). But exactly the same Manichaean spirit (evil reactionaries vs. enlightened reformers) permeates the author’s work down to the chromosomes.
Thus Raymond Burke is caricatured in the book for his “fear-filled, mournful lectures and dark pessimism about the state of the world and the Church,” his “well-oiled media operation,” and his alleged “childlike trust in the merits of Donald Trump.” Experienced ethicists like John Haas—a veteran of the Pontifical Academy of Life and longtime president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center—are described as “rigorist” and their work shrugged off as “hopelessly one-sided.” George Pell is cast as yet another beleaguered “rigorist” in the Ivereigh lineup of benighteds with “closed hearts.” The reader soon discovers that “rigorist” is one of Ivereigh’s favorite words; it drops in and out of chapters as often as a complaining maiden aunt.
I find Ivereigh’s narrative of the 2015 Synod on the Family especially curious, since I helped staff half a dozen of the delegates offsite in Rome throughout the gathering. The famous letter of 13 cardinals to the Holy Father, in which men tasked to be the pope’s senior counselors raised concerns about aspects of the synod, was not, as Ivereigh claims, “a curiously wordly [sic] argument” but a respectful, carefully worded, private appeal to the pope never intended to be made public. Any suggestion otherwise is false. And its subsequent leak to the media—not by the signers—got portions of the text wrong, either through incompetence or deliberate misrepresentation. A similar private letter to the pope from a leading European bishop-delegate, voicing some of the same concerns in the same filial spirit, was simply ignored.
The vaunted openness of the 2015 synod was considerably more selective than Ivereigh indicates. The choreography may have differed from the years of Karol Wojtyła’s “long war on relativism”—the author’s description—but the authoritarian background radiation was every bit as strong, and arguably clumsier. When Francis “stood up to accuse Pell’s rebels of a ‘hermeneutic of conspiracy’” in the synod’s closing remarks, the effect was certainly electrifying—in an astonishingly offensive way.
The fidelity of bishops who spend nearly a month of their lives away from their people and the demands of their local dioceses to counsel the pope on issues of substance might reasonably be presumed. But not so in Wounded Shepherd. Exposing and excoriating “the serpent’s tail in the rigorists’ attitudes” is a theme throughout Ivereigh’s text. The exquisite irony is that, for all the author’s words about Francis’s flexibility, openness, and dedication to mercy, Ivereigh’s own book lacks charity. Nor does it seem to occur to him in any serious way that some of a wounded shepherd’s wounds might be self-inflicted or (even worse) inflicted by overzealous and mean-spirited friends.
Howdy Doody was among my favorite shows as a child, and one of its key puppet characters—the cantankerous Mr. Bluster—makes surprise guest appearances (in different rigorist forms) again and again throughout this text. But the persons on both sides of the ecclesial spectrum raising questions about the current direction of Rome’s leadership are people, not puppets.
Which means that the Church, the Holy Father, and the author’s own abilities deserve better than this book.
Francis X. Maier writes from Philadelphia.