Uncovering the hidden key to Pope Francis’s politics

It’s in his leadership of Argentina’s Jesuits, when he laid emphasis on the perspective of the ordinary faithful poor, that the truth is to be found

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

Is the Pope a conservative? After the papal zingers which landed in Strasbourg last week, some — Nigel Farage, writing in the Catholic Herald, for instance — seem to think so. Europe was ‘now a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant’, Pope Francis told a startled European Parliament, before saying that, to reconnect with ordinary people, the EU had to respect national values and traditions. ‘In order to progress towards the future we need the past, we need profound roots,’ he told the Council of Europe, a phrase redolent of Edmund Burke.

If some (including many Catholics) were surprised, it is understandable: most people still don’t know how Pope Francis thinks. After he made what some took to be easygoing remarks about sexuality, people have assumed that he is just another liberal in the western mould. This is a big mistake. Jorge Mario Bergoglio may be, as I argue in my new biography, a ‘great reformer’ in the tradition of St Francis of Assisi — a gospel radical who recalls the church to its dependence on Christ and the Holy Spirit rather than power and status. But in western cultural and political terms, he is a conservative who has spent his life in opposition to the abstract ideologies of the Enlightenment. His background is firmly within the nationalist Catholic culture of Argentina that looks back to the Hapsburgs rather than the French revolution, and which flowered above all in the 1940s and 1950s, when Bergoglio was growing up in Buenos Aires. It was the age of Colonel Perón and his wife Evita. Articulating the ‘national’ and ‘popular’ and Catholic values of the immigrant classes, they inflicted a humiliating defeat on Argentina’s liberal establishment.

When I arrived in Argentina in October last year to research Francis’s early life, I was shocked to discover that the dozens of articles he published as a Jesuit in spirituality journals between 1968 and 1992 were collecting dust on shelves in Córdoba: no one had thought to republish them since his election. The texts are, needless to say, a goldmine: Bergoglio’s thinking is clearly laid out in tight, vivid prose that contains the first outings of many of the concepts and phrases he has made famous as Pope. The articles also show a consistent theme: the danger of detached elites in love with their own ideas, divorced from the people.


After he became Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina in 1973, Bergoglio’s strategy was to wean the Jesuits away from leftist ideology and immerse them in the values and priorities of the ordinary faithful poor. Warning against what he called the Jesuits’ ‘besetting temptation’ of avant-gardism and ‘fascination for abstract ideologies that do not match our reality’, he said over and over that social change must be driven by ordinary people rather than ‘the arrogance of the enlightened’.

In the 1970s, Bergoglio developed principles drawn from his study of the caudillo rulers of the 19th-century Argentine pampas, who governed firmly but intimately; they had a rapport with their people. In 1980, as his period as Jesuit provincial was coming to an end, Bergoglio told the Jesuits that the elites ‘do not see the real movement going on among God’s faithful people’ and ‘fail to join in the march of history where God is saving us’. That sounds a lot like his words in Strasbourg, where he warned EU leaders against ‘living in a world of ideas, of mere words, of images, of sophistry’ and of ‘confusing the reality of democracy with a new political nominalism’.

Bergoglio’s success as provincial — he attracted and held on to huge numbers of vocations — after a time met the determined opposition of a group of upper-class left-liberal Jesuit intellectuals, who lobbied the new Superior General in Rome, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, to have Bergoglio and his allies removed. The tensions that followed led eventually to the future Pope’s internal exile. One of those behind that anti-Bergoglio campaign told me, horrified, how young Jesuits had been encouraged to pray rosaries in the garden and touch statues in the chapel. ‘This was something the poor did, the people of the pueblo, something that the worldwide Society of Jesus just doesn’t do,’ he said. Given that he and his colleagues saw themselves as pro-poor progressives, it was a revealing remark. As Bergoglio used to put it, they were ‘for the people, but never with the people’.

Later, as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio was as critical of the deification of the state as he was of the neoliberal evisceration of the state that followed, when an orgy of debt-fuelled consumption and public corruption led to widespread bankruptcy. The only way out of the crisis, he believed, was to rebuild institutions from below, invigorating civil society so that it could hold both state and market to account. What he hoped for was a government rooted in the values and priorities of ordinary folk. Last week he told the European Parliament that people would only feel close to the EU if it valued traditions, history and roots. Back in 2009 he said that while borders could shift and a nation change, a country ‘either preserves its foundational being or it dies… We can expand it but not adulterate it.’ This is an idea as strong in Francis as it is in Farage, even if their politics vastly differ in other respects. (Farage has now come round to gay marriage and sounds a little different on immigration.)

Argentina’s current president, Cristina Kirchner, has been deaf to Bergoglio’s attempts to persuade her to build a new political settlement out of the revival of civil society. Instead, she has opted for the politics of patronage: co-option by means of state largesse, and mobilising one part of society against the other. She speaks not to the values of the ordinary people but to a narrow group of secularist metropolitan left-wingers. The same-sex marriage bill in 2010 was typical. Bergoglio said conjugal marriage, like a child’s need of a father and mother, were core human realities, and to try to redefine marriage was an ‘anthropological step backwards’.

For Francis, government has a deep and noble purpose: to serve the common good, to protect the vulnerable, to build up bonds of trust and reciprocity. What undermines it are abstract elites, disincarnate ideologies and politicians in it for themselves. As he observed in 2000: ‘Unchecked ambition, whether for power, money or popularity, expresses only a great interior emptiness. And those who are empty do not generate peace, joy, and hope, only suspicion. They do not create bonds.’

Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope is published this week by Allen & Unwin.

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Show comments
  • Damaris Tighe

    Some good stuff here:

    ‘they were “for the people but never with the people”‘ – a good description of the metropolitan liberal/left. If the liberal Jesuits had indeed ‘pray[ed] rosaries in the garden & touch[ed] statues in the chapel’ they may have learned some humility.

    A country ‘either preserves its foundational being or it dies’. Spot on. The liberal elites are trying to disengage western nations from their historical roots & traditions by making citizenship a mere paper transaction.

    • rtj1211

      You’re saying of course that the Christian church has never tried to disengage its people from their histories and traditions, all that pagan stuff which existing in Britain before Rome imposed its will on all.

      Christianity is one of the most totalitarian concepts on the planet, full of imperial history, demanding the subjugation of whole peoples to its doctrines.

      Just because it might suit you doesn’t allow you to make out Liberalism to be all evil but Christianity to be all Good. You can opine such, but historical facts say that far more people have died due to Christianity than anything that ‘liberals’ have imposed on the world.

      If you actually had a mature faith, you would realise that.

      Do you??

      • Bruce Lewis

        Such as the neo-liberalism of Malthus and the “Chicago boys” of Colonel Pinochet?–or even better, the dialectical materialism of the Marxists and Maoists, or the atheistic nationalism of the Nazis? You actually think that the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions slew as many as THOSE religions did? Even the benighted Crusaders never wallowed so much in blood as the atheistic regimes of the Twentieth Century did.

  • BFS

    Pope Francis is in the same line as John Paul II and Benedict 16, he wants to keep the church doing what it is suppose to do which is to direct the gaze of it’s followers to Jesus.

    A mission for the church that was re affirmed in the council vatican II, 1962. Evangelization, is the pope’s mission.

    With such God given mission, he is neither in the right not in the left. He wants to help us to follow Jesus, and unite us and save us and not divide and destroy as many so often do.

    Needless to say the eternal truth of the church are never questioned or even discussed by neither the right nor the left in the church.

    What we see in the media is pure fantasy. Stories created by the navel gazing politically correct relativist, non intelligent media, to serve often their own purpose.

    • Bruce Lewis

      Yes, to everything you’ve written above, but what you lose sight of is that there really IS a “political agenda” in the pope’s religious position: that “political agenda” is decidedly opposed to neo-liberal capitalism, which is the reigning agenda of most “Western, democratic governments.”

      • victor67

        Indeed, neo-liberalism is fundamentally unchristian .
        The church should have embraced liberation theology.
        Archbishop Romero murdered by right wing death squads trained and funded by the CIA
        ” If I feed the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why they are poor they call me a communist”
        For this truth he was murdered.

    • rtj1211

      The eternal truths, as you put it, include the political deal done in Nicaea to decide which Gospels to put in the New Testament. All terribly politically correct, you know.

      But you don’t question that inside the church either, do you??

      It might give you the sort of crisis of faith that would leave you bereft.

      • Bruce Lewis

        Actually, we DO question that inside the Church, and many Christians are now trying to re-consider how to put those so-called “Apocryphal Scriptures” back, while, at the same time keeping our allegiance to the Incarnation. Christian orthodoxy has ALWAYS consisted of reconciliation of seeming contradictions through dialectics, but modern Christian fundamentalists recoil from it, and eventually lose that “faith” which is nothing more than a TRUST that “all will be well” in God’s universe (cf. “…the substance of things HOPED for, the evidence of things NOT SEEN…”). But it takes some scholarship nowadays, to keep in touch with it, and Fundies will have no “truck” with Newman’s Development of Doctrine, in the same way that Luther would “have none of” the Letter of Saint James. (See the heresiarch’s Table Talk.)

  • CraigStrachan

    Why would a “nationalist Catholic culture in Argentina look to the Hapsburgs” (who if I recall aright had a few problems of their own with nationalism)?

    • Damaris Tighe

      I took it to mean that the later Hapsburgs saw themselves as the protectors of minority nationalities within the empire, & the empire itself as an umbrella for the nationalities. Of course this didn’t stretch to national independence!

      • anon

        I took it to mean looking back to the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata. In any case it is not the best explained point in the article.

    • rtj1211

      Quite a lot of Argentines are of Germanic descent you know.

  • tolpuddle1

    The article proves how empty some words (like Left, Right, conservative, liberal) have become.

    Emptiest when used in a religious context.

    • rtj1211

      The words are arbitrary, hackneyed but not empty if you actually know what they mean.

      ‘Left’ focusses on the cooperative subset of human nature; ‘Right’ on the competitive. Left on the sense of equality, right on the sense of hierarchy.

      Conservative means ‘preserving the status quo’, which in the UK has been coopted as meaning loyal to the Crown, the Institutions of State etc. Liberal is associated with Freedom to Trade, freedom of the individual etc.

      None of these things can exist in isolation, as all come up against the issues highlighted by the alternative.

      The reality of the world is that using ‘leftist’ approaches in miniature works best for some people, whilst ‘rightist’ approaches work better for others.

      Unless you are prepared to play God and condemn some for the nature they were born with, to select out a subpopulation for no better reason than your own dogma, then you simply cannot be either of the left or of the right.

      Usually, you are either wanting to do something or be someone. Even then, you need often in this country to ‘be someone’ before you are allowed to ‘do something’. Too often, by ‘becoming someone’ you lose forever your ability to do that which it was that you ‘became someone’ to do……

      And when it all goes wrong, Christians turn to Jesus for consolation, others turn to other faiths and those who see beyond all the religious brands simply say: ‘that’s life’.

      • Bruce Lewis

        But some of us strongly disagree that “that’s life,” and think that life has another purpose than “being ‘someone’” or “doing something” other than developing a soul–and a soul for others and for that great other “Other.”

  • a girl

    The big question is: has there ever been a good-looking pope, like the jesus always depicted: handsome well-proportioned face with a good skin, and nice fit human torso with the male broad shoulders tapering to the waist — or do popes always have the face that only a mother could love, precisely because they look just like a male form of their mother? (Dumpy and flabby, as well.) Let’s face it, the man is normal but not picturesque. Why are humans hideous or at the very least, hard on the eyes? I’d rather look at most cats and dogs and flowers in preference to humans. I just find the latter ugly, uglier than most monkeys in fact. It seems a strange state for what is otherwise the highest animal. We are right up there with hagfish in our physical meh. What to do? There is Don Johnson, and then there is this guy. I suppose it’s just as well that he’s lived his life as a celibate.

    • praxan

      Are you feeling OK?

    • rtj1211

      Perhaps you’d like to ask what happens to testosterone levels after 40 years of ascetiscim?? After all, if you eliminate all the natural male urges, aren’t you in part turning yourself into a female??

      • a girl

        He doesn’t look a very convincing female but I see your point. However, I’ve seen lots of men that have never felt so pruned and they’re not in great shape, either. Of course I shouldn’t pick on the poor bloke, but it’s interesting that Jesus and the disciples and the saints are all depicted as handsome, strapping, even brawny men (consider Michelangelo’s works) in the most pious art, which raises the question of whether handsomeness is part of holiness. If it is, what does that say about most clerics, who are neither athletic nor beautiful?

  • lookout

    See Tom Horn.

  • Rhys

    “Is the Pope a conservative?”

    Is the pope a Pope?

  • rtj1211

    ‘For Francis, government has a deep and noble purpose: to serve the
    common good, to protect the vulnerable, to build up bonds of trust and

    One wonders how many here would consider that the statement of a communist??!!

    Bonds of trust: trust between whom, at the expense of whom and to the detriment of what?

    Bonds of reciprocity: who decides what reciprocity means, how are reciprocal gifts evaluated (despite what some say, the only way you don’t get shafted through reciprocity is by keeping score somehow, since if things which others claim that you value aren’t valued by you in actuality, then reciprocity can become extremely one sided, as I know to my cost in at least two situations in my lifetime).

    How do you define ‘the common good’? What happens to those who don’t benefit from ‘the common good’ (since the reality of the faithful poor is that they always ostracise a minority and always will)?? Are they ‘acceptable collateral damage’ or are they falsely badged as ‘God’s warning to the faithful’ when actually they are the victims of the faithful’s behaviour growing up??

    ‘Protecting the vulnerable’: just be careful that you aren’t engaging in protection rackets of those who are vulnerable only to bullies, self-serving metropolitan elites and really don’t want to be ‘protected’ ever in their lives……..

    Like all organisations, the Catholic Church will ostracise those that don’t fit in. The question is whether they can live without Catholic values without the ‘faithful’ destroying the meaning of their lives in an imposition of their own arbitrary values.

    They certainly couldn’t for several centuries of Catholic global imperialism.

    Perhaps the test of the renewal of the Catholic Church is whether it can tolerate them now??

    • Bruce Lewis

      who decides what reciprocity means, how are reciprocal gifts evaluated?

      Answer: the Beatitudes do.

  • John Andrews

    A populist Pope is a good idea.

  • Jack Ross

    To be honest, it seems that John Adams was correct when he noted that our sacred Constitution could only be preserved by a moral and religious people.