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.