"The Great Reformer": Pope Francis Biographer on How Pontiff Became Star Diplomat & Voice for Change

December 31, 2014


Austen Ivereigh

a British writer, commentator and co-founder of Catholic Voices, a lay group that works to improve the church’s representation in the media. He is the author of a new biography called The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.

Pope Francis emerged this year as a star diplomat when he played a key role in the thawing of relations between the Cuba and the United States and presidents of both countries thanked him by name for his support. Earlier this month, the pope offered to assist the United States with another diplomatic hurdle: its efforts to close the Guantánamo prison. The Vatican has reportedly offered to help find adequate humanitarian solutions through its international contacts. We speak with Austen Ivereigh, whose new biography about the pope outlines these achievements, including the pontiff’s call for the Catholic Church "to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence" even as he has stopped short of embracing the ordination of women to the priesthood. Ivereigh also examines Pope Francis’ recent steps to recognize the significance of liberation theology in Latin America, which has faced a decades-long attack by the Vatican for its socialist orientation.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Patti Smith performing "People Have the Power" at this year’s Vatican Christmas Concert. Last night at her year-end concert in New York on her 68th birthday, she talked about the significance of performing at the Vatican. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, on this last Democracy Now! program of the year.

We continue our conversation on Pope Francis with Austen Ivereigh, British writer, commentator and co-founder of Catholic Voices. Ivereigh is the author of a new biography called The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.

Earlier this month, President Obama thanked Pope Francis by name for his role in negotiating a more open policy on Cuba. The Vatican also released a statement noting the pontiff had hosted delegations from both countries in October to negotiate the deal after he had written to both leaders. Pope Francis also commented on the achievement.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] Today we are all happy, because we have seen how two nations, who were separated for many years, yesterday took a step closer to each other. You see, this was brought about by ambassadors, by diplomacy. Your work is a noble one, very noble.

AMY GOODMAN: The announcement of the Vatican’s role in the beginning of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations is also noteworthy because Pope Francis plans his first trip to the United States next September. The Vatican has not said he will also travel to Cuba then. Austen Ivereigh, talk about why the pope cares so much about this issue and what his role was in these negotiations.

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: Well, when I wrote my biography, of course, I didn’t realize that this was going to happen, what just happened, the extraordinary breakthrough in the restoration of relations between U.S. and Cuba. But I did comment in one of the chapters about his visit to Cuba shortly after he became—he wasn’t quite archbishop of Buenos Aires, but he was, as it were, waiting in the wings to be made archbishop. And he was sent to Cuba as part of the delegation of Latin American bishops who were accompanying Pope John Paul II on his historic visit to the island. And he wrote afterwards a book called Dialogues between Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro, and, of course, it’s a fascinating book now to look back on in retrospect, given what we now know about his involvement in bringing about this historic breakthrough.

And one of the things that comes across in the book is that he has a very powerful critique, very similar to that of the Cuban bishops, of communism as an ideological imposition, as a dead hand, as something which actually runs against Cuban traditions and values, but he’s also equally critical of the consumerist capitalism that, of course, that communism, that system, has rejected. So he positioned himself very clearly in that book in favor of a long-term democratization, of pluralism and democracy in Cuba, though in such a way that it would respect the country’s soul, as he calls it, its traditions. And he’s also—was a very strong critique back in '98 of the embargo, which he described as futile and pointless, given that the two countries were no longer in a state of war. So it was a classic situation where there's an ideological confrontation. This is, if you like, Pope Francis’s life mission, has been to bring together—to bring about reconciliation, to break through the impasses which exist when people erect ideological barriers. They see the world through a particular lens or a particular filter. They demonize the other, and they end up in a self-defeating, intractable kind of opposition, which of course benefits nobody. So, in a way, looking back now, I can see that this was really ripe, a classic topic for him.

What we understand about his role in this is that, from the very beginning, he was—he’s also very close to the cardinal archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. And it was Ortega, I think, who asked him to be involved very early on in this. So, what we understand is that even though it began in Canada, the meetings between the U.S. and Cuba, Pope Francis’s intervention was vital in building up trust, creating a space where both sides could come together in a neutral space within the auspices of the Catholic Church, which, as it were, has no financial or economic or political interest directly in the issue. And it was Francis’s own sort of patient interventions, his encouragement of both sides, I understand also his letters to both leaders at a particular moment that was crucial over the summer, is what paved the way for this extraordinary breakthrough.

And what it does is it opens the door now to change, and a change and an evolution, that Cuba is going to have to be, to some extent, a democracy. It’s going to have to be a free-market country. But on the other hand, you know, he’s a Latin American pope, and he knows that Latin America has to find its own model, a model of economic growth which is true to its own traditions and which locates itself—Cuba, after all, is, even though it isn’t necessarily a highly practicing Catholic country, nevertheless is a country of that Catholic humanist tradition, and therefore the church will play a very important role, I think, in bringing about, in bringing to birth, in nurturing the democratic transition in Cuba.

So, a wonderful example of Francis as bridge builder, as the man who creates spaces for the holy spirit to act—this is his whole spirituality. In many ways, this is his life’s work. He did it as a Jesuit provincial back in the 1970s, later as cardinal archbishop in Argentina, also as a leader in the Latin American church, and now as pope, building bridges of trust through which, as it were, the holy spirit can act, to create new possibilities, new creative possibilities, which have not been—which are humanly, as it were, unimaginable. This really is him.

AMY GOODMAN: And speaking of him as an Argentine leader, his fellow archbishop, Óscar Romero—talk about what his role is now in recognizing Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was murdered, gunned down, March 24th, 1980, I think it was, also Miguel d’Escoto, the former foreign minister of Nicaragua.

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: That’s right. So, Archbishop Óscar Romero, gunned down, as you say, at the altar in 1980, he was archbishop of San Salvador and, in many ways, an iconic case of the Latin America church standing with the poor and being willing to sacrifice itself, its own privileges, and in the case of Óscar Romero, indeed, the very lives of the priests who stand with the poor.

Now, Óscar Romero’s martyrdom—and it clearly was a martyrdom—should have enabled him to become a saint, to be canonized by the Catholic Church a long time ago. But the process of canonization was blocked in Rome from a very early stage, under John Paul II, by a group of Latin American conservative cardinals, particularly in the Vatican, who saw Óscar Romero as emblematic—believed that Óscar Romero was too political. This was, if you like, the political church, which they wanted to put a stop to. So his cause was really frozen. It was put on hold. And one of the first things that Pope Francis did—here he is a Latin American, a Jesuit, a man who himself has always stood with the poor and identified with that task of the church—one of the first things he did was to unblock the process, so that now there is nothing to stop Óscar Romero being declared a saint. However, there is still a process to be undergone. You know, nobody can become a saint without undergoing certain processes. There needs to be a miracle and so on. And, however, he, as pope, can, if he wants, accelerate that process.

Now, Pope Francis has talked about going to Latin America in 2015. He hasn’t said which countries. We’ve heard the Bolivians say that it’s likely to be Bolivia. We don’t know what other countries it will be. I think it’s actually a fair bet to say that it’s very likely to be El Salvador, because I think he would love to of course declare Óscar Romero a saint, or at least to beatify him, which is to declare him a blessed, which is the stage prior to canonization.

In doing that, he will be sending a very powerful signal that the Catholic Church is not, you know, on the side of the rich, but on the side of the poor. Obviously, the Catholic Church desires the salvation of everybody, the Catholic Church is interested in the welfare of everybody. But in situations of oppression, where, as it were, a very few control the political and economic system to the detriment of the poor majority, the church should be standing with the defenseless poor majority, because that’s where Jesus was, that’s where the church should be. So, a very, very powerful signal.

And I think, you know, unblocking the process of sainthood of Óscar Romero, together with this groundbreaking encyclical on ecology, will really reposition the Catholic Church in a way that hasn’t been seen for generations and really will be a very, very powerful turning point. And, of course, already through Cuba and through other initiatives like in the Middle East that Pope Francis took last year, he has returned the Catholic Church to the center of global politics, as in many ways it was under the first decade of John Paul II, but very clearly positioning himself and the church on behalf of the developing world and the poor in those acts.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of reinstating Father Miguel d’Escoto, who had been suspended from clerical activities when he became a political leader in Nicaragua? He was among the Sandinistas. This crippled a lot of liberation theology, the way the church had gone after religious leaders in Latin America at the time. Could you talk about Reverend d’Escoto?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: Well, I mean, it—yeah, d’Escoto. The d’Escoto case would be, again, the rehabilitation of d’Escoto, very important because it sends a message that actually what Francis values here is the person and his priesthood, his ministry, his witness. So, I suppose this is—what this is about is depoliticizing Christian witness. In many ways, you can argue that under John Paul II, when there was a clampdown on liberation theology and on Latin America, that what happened was that, if you like, if theology had been used at the service of a certain kind of left-wing politics—and there definitely was a danger of that in liberation theology—the risk was that in the clampdown, there would be the opposite. In other words, somebody would not be recognized for their virtues and their witness, precisely because of their political engagement.

So I think Francis is very interesting on this, because, actually, as I show in the book, he was totally committed to the basics of liberation theology, as expressed in the great meeting of the Latin American church in 1968 in Medellín, Colombia. That’s when you first had the phrase, "the option for the poor." That’s when the church identified itself with that stream of liberation, which was seeking the liberation of Latin America from colonial and postcolonial servitude. But then what happened with liberation theology was that in the 1970s, in particular, it became politicized. It became identified with certain socialist movements which were seeking to capture the state and then to use the state to redistribute wealth, much in the manner of the Cuban Revolution.

So, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis back then, as a young Jesuit, opposed this politicization. He opposed what he saw as the—as ideologies using the church for their own ends. So, even though he identified with, as it were, you know, the basic tenets of liberation theology, his own liberation theology was a particular branch of liberation theology, which was not much known about at the time, because we always associate liberation theology with what came out of Peru and Central America. But, in fact, what was happening in Argentina was a very important theology called teología del pueblo, theology of the people, which was actually all about respecting and understanding the values and the traditions, the spiritual traditions, and popular religiosity of ordinary people. And that was where Bergoglio situated himself.

So, now, this has been a source of contention, because people said that—he’s been described by some in Argentina—some of his fellow Jesuits saw him as a conservative, because he resisted the politicization of liberation theology. But, in fact, I think, as I show in my book, it’s much better—safer to see him, actually, as a defender of the traditions and the values of the ordinary people against elite ideologies. So, quite an important—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he is repenting—

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: —and subtle distinction, may seem subtle, but very important.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think, Austen, he’s repenting for what happened in Argentina with some liberation theology priests, the deaths of them, today as pope?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: Well, I mean, he’s never—he’s never identified with any kind of repression of liberation theology and was always critical of it. But I think what’s happening now in, for example, the—on freeing the cause of Óscar Romero and indeed d’Escoto and indeed his dialogues with Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian theologian, is that, you know, he—we’re now in a post-communist, post-socialist era. Liberation theology in Latin America is no longer identified with left-wing politics, and therefore it’s safe for him now to rescue, as it were, the really important gospel tenets of liberation theology, which are, you know, the option for the poor, the identification with ordinary people, and a critique of power and a critique of a certain form of capitalism which denigrates the poor. So I think that’s what’s going on. It’s the rehabilitation of the essence of liberation theology now in a post-left-wing period. That’s how I would describe what he’s doing.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have about a minute to go, and I wanted to go to the issue of women and nuns. The Vatican has praised the role of nuns in the United States following a controversial years-long probe into their adherence to Catholic doctrine. The report marks a shift in tone from a 2012 Vatican reprimand, which resulted in an all-male takeover of the largest group of U.S. nuns. The nuns were accused of promoting "radical feminist" ideas and challenging teachings on homosexuality and the all-male priesthood. Can you talk about what his position is now and end on the issue of abortion and homosexuality?

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: Right, well, just on that very report into women religious, indeed, the final report which came out on women religious is very, very positive, very praiseworthy. And Francis, I think, would be the first and has been consistently praising of women and of women religious. However, the report, the investigation into the leadership of one of the main groups of women religious in the United States is yet to come. And, actually, that is the report that is likely to contain some of the critiques that were first expressed in 2012. So we’ll have to wait to see on that.

But just on Francis and women, in general, as I show in my book, he’s had a number of women who have been very, very close to him, some of the most formative influences in his life, particularly his grandmother, but also certain very important people involved in politics and in human rights have been women. He now has, as pope, and as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, a number of women who are very close to him. He respects women. He admires strong women. That’s a consistent thing which comes across.

On the issue of women priests, he has made clear that Catholic tradition is a male priesthood because of the Catholic understanding that the maleness of Jesus Christ is in some way represented by the priest. Now, you know, he’s not going to change that, because, actually, in many ways, Francis is a very conservative man. He believes in conserving the traditions of Catholicism. That’s what ordinary people—you know, that’s what they believe. And so, his reforms are taking place within the context of Catholic tradition.

He does, however, want to see more women in positions of leadership in Rome, and we’re going to see in the course of 2015 a very important Vatican reform being announced, a reform of the curia, in the structure and the governance of the curia. And there will be women who are put in positions—more women, I should say, put in positions of authority—


AUSTEN IVEREIGH: —in the Vatican than we’ve seen up ’til now.

AMY GOODMAN: Austen Ivereigh, we have to leave it there, but I thank you so much for being with us. Austen Ivereigh, British writer, commentator, co-founder of Catholic Voices, a lay group that works to improve the church’s representation in the media. He’s the author of a new book; it’s called The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. He’s speaking to us from Oxford, England.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll hear from Bill McKibben, major address he gave in the Swedish Parliament. Stay with us.

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