WHO is Pope Francis and where is he taking the Roman Catholic Church? What made him into the man we see today? Questions like this have swirled around the Vatican since the little-known Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope in March 2013, and many Catholics are still not sure how to describe him.
In a new book titled The Great Reformer, British writer Austen Ivereigh connects the pope to his Argentine roots, showing how his country, its culture and its politics helped shape him.
Ivereigh, former deputy editor of the London Catholic weekly The Tablet and former spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, spoke to Reuters about the book.
Q: There were lots of books about Pope Francis after his election. Why another one?
A: Those books focus mostly on his period as cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires. My interest has been in what you might call the deep past of Argentine history and the church in Argentina.
Twenty years ago, I did my doctorate on the subject. Q: What is most Argentine about him? A: Culturally, he is very “porteno” – of Buenos Aires – in his accent, his way of speaking and sense of humour. What makes him Argentine in a much deeper way is the experience of coming out of a Catholic, nationalist and populist political culture. And what makes him distinct in Argentina is that he’s lower-middle class.
Q: Initial reports after his election said Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was a conservative Jesuit who later became a liberal bishop. You don’t agree?
A: The misreading of Peronism and nationalism as a form of fascism is what really underlies this. Much of the controversy over Bergoglio after his election, such as his position under the dictatorship during the Dirty War, stems from that misreading. Both the guerrillas and the dictatorship were factions in a dispute between two elite ideologies, neither of which spoke to the interests of ordinary people.
Bergoglio always rooted himself in the ordinary, simple, faithful and uneducated people. In that sense, he is a populist.
He was never a conservative, never a right-winger, and he never became a liberal.