A DIRTY WAR
MICHAEL WALSH Pope Francis: conversations with Jorge Bergoglio Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti HODDER AND STOUGHTON, 263pp, £17.99 • Tablet bookshop price £16.20 Tel 01420 592974 On Heaven and Earth Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka BLOOMSBURY, 236pp, £14.99 • Tablet bookshop price £13.50 Tel 01420 592974 Pope Francis: untying the knots Paul Vallely BLOOMSBURY, 2271'p, £11.99 • Tablet bookshop price £10.80 Tel 01420 592974
t is best to be upfront about these things. It will not have escaped the eagle-eyed reader that the name of the author of the third of these books can be found each week on the back page of this paper: Mr Vallely is a director of The Tablet. He is also a friend, and my name is included within the impressive array of acknowledgements. Both of which circumstances, readers may surmise, make it unlikely that I am going to be anything but complimentary about this volume. They are of course largely correct but for the wrong reason. By the end of this stint of reviewing I have read through 10 biographies of one sort or another of the new Bishop of Rome. This emboldens me to say, without hesitation, that Vallely's is undoubtedly the most satisfactory of an otherwise lacklustre bunch. Not that there aren't quibbles. It has, like the others, been written in a hurry. There is a degree of repetition. There are a few mistakes. You might get the impression, for example, that the oft-quoted Augusto Zampini is a priest of the Diocese of Buenos Aires. He is not. There are occasional misprints and the afterword is too long. But Untying the Knots answers the question other attempts left hanging in the air: why was Jorge Bergoglio so unpopular with his fellow Jesuits? Every biographer of Francis, and here Vallely is no different, starts with the collections of interviews with Rubin and Ambrogetti revealingly titled in the original Spanish edition El Jesuita and the discussions with the
rabbi of Buenos Aires, Abraham Skorka. The first of these is essential for an account of Bergoglio's early life, the second for an insight into what he thinks. Both books, however, are in different ways unsatisfactory.
Rubin and Ambrogetti permit the cardinal, as he then was, to skirt around issues of his role in Argentina's "Dirty War" in a manner which, on the showing of his own book, Vallely would not have allowed. Nor has this so-called "authorised biography" been well served by its translator, or translators: there appears to have been a committee at work. The discussions with Skorka, though illuminating, seem contrived and hardly discussions at all, more intertwined and well-prepared monologues. We learn that Bergoglio thought celibacy for the diocesan clergy should stay at least for now. We learn, too, that he does not think feminists do the cause of women any favours, for it "puts women on the level of a vindictive battle". He believes in the existence of the devil and detests clerical careerism. He finds English a difficult language, but he admires the English mystics. He is an intensely spiritual man, though no slouch at diocesan administration. And as for doubt, he appears to be all for it: "the bad leader is one who is selfassured and stubborn", he says, an encouraging conviction in a pope.
All this material is available to anyone who sets out to write a biography, but Vallely, as befits a long-time journalist, has also done the legwork. He has talked to Bergoglio's friends and they are many and he has talked to his enemies who similarly constitute quite a crowd. Vallely thinks he knows (and I think he's right), what went wrong when Bergoglio was Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina between 1973 and 1979, though I still find it puzzling that the charismatic General Superior of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, posted him to a second major post if he had made such a hash of the first. Vallely recognises the importance of the thirty-second General Congregation in the life of the Society of Jesus. He also knows, and this is something I have certainly not seen mentioned elsewhere, that the General Congregation coincided with a potential rebellion within Spain against the changes which were being envisaged. A group of conservative rebels set off by train to Rome, and it was Bergoglio, in Rome for the Congregation, whom Arrupe chose to persuade them to turn round and go home. However, he was, says Vallely, opposed to the tenor of the Congregation. If he was so opposed he might have been expected to have vigorously expressed his views, yet one Jesuit who was there, and to whom I have spoken, remembers nothing about him
Vallely thinks that he will be better on women than his predecessors. The sentence quoted above raises a question about that. He also believes, along with Bergoglio himself in conversation with Rabbi Skorka, that the opening of the Vatican archives will put an end to the debate about the role of Pius XII during the Second World War. Again, I am sceptical. In any case, with the accession of a new Pope the papers of Pius XII are next in line to become available in accordance with normal Vatican procedures. If they are not, then there is indeed reason for suspicion. Vallely also draws too sharp a line between liberation theology and the popular religious culture which Bergoglio has espoused. As I remember it, liberation theologians were for the most part much in favour of fostering popular religiosity while it was an over-zealous interpretation of Vatican II that was in danger of killing it off.
The Italian Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister thinks that Bergoglio will govern like a Jesuit. He will seek advice Jesuit superiors are obliged to have consultors then make his own decisions. That is not quite the collegiality Vallely is expecting. But there is another way, says Vallely, that his experience as a Jesuit superior will impinge upon his pontificate. In his conversations with Rubin and Ambrogetti he admitted that he became superior very young and made mistakes, serious mistakes. He defends his role in the Dirty War by pointing out he was a religious superior, not a bishop. Vallely believes he has questions to answer. Bergoglio thinks he sinned "Today I ask forgiveness for the sins and offences that I did indeed commit," he told the journalists. But there are issues over the two kidnapped Jesuits and particularly over the babies who were "disappeared". Reflecting on his sins, as he does in his Jesuitinspired examination of conscience, Bergoglio has learned humility: his "soul has been touched profoundly", remarks Vallely. His modest, unaffected approach which since he became Bishop of Rome has drawn such plaudits is not an affectation, argues Vallely, but has been hard-earned. It is now part of the man. I find that thoroughly convincing.
Read this book, forget the rest.