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A papal biography

“Francis, Bishop of Rome” by Michael Collins, The Columba Press, Dublin, p. 121. 9.99 Euro.

I must confess to never having read a biography of a reigning pope before I encountered this small but beautifully produced little book, which seems to be intended to capture the Christmas market. As such it will do well, and deservedly so as it is a competent piece of work which recounts the remarkable story it sets out to tell in clear, if patronising, prose. But how seriously should we take its basic thesis that the election of Pope Francis from Argentina marks a major departure of the history of the Western Church?

There are fears on the right; as there are hopes on the left.  The liberal right sees Francis an exponent of liberation theology, keen to impose Marxist inspired “solutions” which won’t work. The left sees a humble man, focussed on the needs of the poor, the unlucky, and those forced to the edges of society.

Who is correct? What is clear is that both sides are agreed that we are to some extent in uncharted territory. Whilst South America has always been a major element in Catholicism, its insights have never before been likely to be so influential. There are important questions here. Questions which are made all the more pressing by the very recent election of a left wing President in Chile, and by the situation in Venezuela. More precisely, what are we to expect from the new Pope? What are his priorities, and what are his views?

Unfortunately the importance of these questions are not properly reflected in the research or depth of the analysis presented by Father Collins. The author is utterly uncurious. For example he mentions ( Collins, p. 15)  the interesting fact that one of the most important formative influences on the young Bergoglio was that of a Marxist who “who encouraged Jorge in his pursuit of knowledge,” and who lend him Communist books. There is nothing inherently damaging about this. Some of the twentieth century’ s most notable conservatives have had youthful flirtations with the left. But it is both interesting and potentially important. I for one badly wanted to know much more. What exactly did the young Bergoglio read in this connection? Did he struggle with “Capital?” Or did he restrict himself to the “Manifesto.” Why doesn’t Father Collins tell us? And if doesn’t know why does he not pick up his telephone and find out?   Surely we have the right to expect some detail and texture about the influences that surrounded the young man who was to become Pope.  In this instance something more than a  story designed to show Bergoglio’s decency ( which surely we should be able to assume) is required. And yet  Father Collins provides nothing more than the blandness of anecdote.

This profound lack of curiosity is exacerbated by the book’s lack of scholarship. It contains no index, no footnotes, no references, no bibliography, and indeed no other information as to where the information it contains comes from. This is not then really even an exercise in journalism, but  rather an example of the spin doctors art- no more than what the Americans call – a campaign biography. The Pope’s very office demands more than this.

Is this a harsh judgement? I must confess to being disappointed to reach it. But it is a conclusion which is nevertheless confirmed by a glance at another papal biography of rather the same kind to which by happy accident I have had access. “The Crown of Glory” (1957)  by Aldan Hatch and Seamus Walsh about Pope Pius 12th is now a period piece. But what struck me forcibly as I glanced through it alongside Fr. Collin’s offering was how similar the two book were.

Of course there are sometimes remarkable differences in tone. When Pius arrived in Argentina for the Eucharistic Congress in 1934 he delighted in the welcome given to him by the Argentinian navy (p. 106)- something that would certainly have horrified Francis! Lkewise Alden and Walsh describe the Papal apartments as being “small” (p. 201,  see also p. 203- 204 ) while Father Collins tells us that Francis refuses to move into  them because they are so big that three hundred people could live there! ( Collins, p. 111) But for all that there are far more similarities than there are differences between the two books. Nether can shake off the tone of uncritical adulation. Neither can ask any difficult questions.  Both are filled with anecdotes which ostensibly reveal the “real” Pope but which  are in fact hardly more than verbal versions of the  “photo ops.” so loved by public relations men.

Surely, if the Catholic Church is really to make a new start with a new Pope; then one crucial component of such a renewal would be a new openness which would render such uncritical but trivial  biographies such as these unnecessary?

Note: For the hell of it I have just ( 11/02/14 ) googled Alden Hatch to discover that he wrote- among other things- a campaign biography about Eisenhower in 1952!