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Getting the pontiff

Paul Vallely

The last chapter of my new book Pope Francis: the Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism is entitled: 'Prophet or Politician?' The question mark was a habitual hangover from all my years of journalism in which interrogatory headlines are deemed to be better at enticing the reader. If there was ever any doubt about the answer to the question that has now been dispelled. The Pope's visit to the United States has demonstrated, clearly and publicly, that he is both.

I went out to the States the week before the papal visit and lectured at half a dozen universities on 'What the pope of the poor will say to the world's richest nation'. Looking back at my predictions I'm pleased to recount that I anticipated pretty much all the content - the prophetic words. But I was wrong about the tone - which I had expected to be reproving but which was deeply and skilfully political.

Ahead of the visit, on a trip to Bolivia, he had issued his most ferocious denunciation of global capitalism. In its unrestrained form, he said, quoting Basil of Caesarea, it reeked of 'the stench of the dung of the devil'. That came on top of Francis's two most important publications to date, Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato si' both of which lamented the impact of modern capitalism on those the globalised economy system leaves behind. Laudato si' had concluded that the indifference of the wealthy to the environment has its roots in the same spiritual malaise which accounts for our lack of care for the poorest people on the planet.

Those concerns remained clear in his messages. Global warming, inequality and poverty, the arms trade and the world's refugee crisis were his repeated themes. And he drilled further down into the policy detail than previous popes have - describing the Sustainable Development Goals as 'an important sign of hope', applauding the US-Iran nuclear deal, calling for reform of the UN's international financial agencies, and focusing specifically on the need for an effective deal at climate negotiations.

But he was entirely different in his pitch. He began by telling bishops - many of whom have been confrontational campaigners against abortion and gay marriage - to tone down their approach. 'Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart,' he told them. Despite beginning by stating he had not come to judge or lecture them, Pope Francis proceeded to do exactly that, with a rebuke which was indirect but perfectly clear and firm.

He then practiced what he was preaching with addresses at the White House, Congress and the UN General Assembly which repeatedly used terms like encounter, dialogue, cooperation and consensus but which were quietly challenging for all that. Typical of his technique was the way he praised to Congress the example of four great Americans - Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. But he was asking by implication if modern America was living up to the high standards they had set.

Perhaps the most finessed of his tactics was to speak to US politicians of the need for 'absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions' and then - just as the anti-abortion lobby were about to burst into applause - the pontiff, in a jink as deft as any of his footballing heroes, embarked on an uncompromising denunciation of the death-penalty.

Then there were the dogs that did not bark. The American Right, including many US bishops, were hoping to hear - in addition to the denunciation of abortion which was notable by its absence - some fierce finger-wagging against President Barack Obama for including contraception in his signature Obamacare healthcare provision. Others expected him to condemn the US Supreme Court for approving gay marriage. Instead the Pope's speech on religious liberty emphasized rights only in the context of responsibilities. The dignity of the individual was set in the context of the common good and the need for social solidarity.

Everything I had explored in the book was on show. Francis is a pragmatist but also a risk-taker. He prefers people to dogma, and life to law. He is orthodox on doctrine but revolutionary in his application of it - an approach which is clear in his dealings on everything from the Vatican Bank and the Roman bureaucracy to the Synod of Bishops. This is a pope of paradox - a man who has turned out to be a radical but not a liberal, an enabler with an authoritarian streak, a self-confident man in constant need of forgiveness, and a churchman who combines religious humility and political wiles.

One of the most attractive qualities of Francis is that he learns from mistakes. My book tells the story of a man who has undergone a deep inner transformation - growing out of what as Pope he has called the 'great interior crisis' he underwent in Cordoba when he was sent into a two-year exile by the Jesuits after 15 years in which he was charismatic but authoritarian and immensely divisive. That exile, and his later work as Bishop of the Slums in Buenos Aires, wrought a profound and long-lasting change in both his personal and political vision. Pope Francis is a man who has changed radically, and is now doing his best to get his Church to change in the same way.


Pope Francis: the Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism is published by Bloomsbury.