Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Jan. 30, 2019. (CNS photo/Philimon Bulawayo, Reuters)

Wounded Shepherd is the follow-up to Austen Ivereigh’s 2013 biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer. The new book covers Francis’s tumultuous first six years, and begins with the story of Francis telling Ivereigh, in June 2018, that he had only one criticism of what Ivereigh had written about him so far. “I braced myself,” writes Ivereigh. “After a pause, [the pope] said, smiling, ‘You’re too kind to me.’ The word in Spanish was benévelo, something like ‘indulgent.’ Relieved and charmed, I assured him I would be more critical in the future, and we both laughed.” The title of Ivereigh’s new book is no doubt indicative of this resolve, as it comes with Ivereigh’s confession that The Great Reformer contributed to a “great man” myth, in which a superhero arises at a moment of crisis to save the world. It is a myth that provides convenient hooks on which to hang news stories and sound bites, but it does not do justice to the complexity of the past six years, and completely misses the mark when it comes to Francis’s own self-understanding. The new book sets out to show both Francis’s accomplishments and the wounds he has suffered along the way.

Ivereigh alternates between chapters that focus on particular challenges Francis has faced (Vatican finances, the clergy sex-abuse crisis, the environment, the synod on the family) and more reflective chapters that drill down to the deeper foundations of Francis’s spirituality and approach to church leadership (with chapter titles like “A Sinner’s Mission” and “Close and Concrete”). As in The Great Reformer, Ivereigh often explains current events at the Vatican by recalling an earlier episode or period in the pope’s life. This leads to some fascinating insights. In the second chapter, which details one of Francis’s initial duels with Cardinal Raymond Burke, Ivereigh looks back at the pope’s youth and his years as the provincial of Argentina’s Jesuits. Ivereigh suggests that Francis learned his skills as a “master strategist,” as well as his ability to read people, not only from St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises but also from the master strategist in the Argentinian politics of the pope’s youth: Juan Perón. Many of Perón’s techniques—such as playing elites off against the common people, or allowing conflict to run its course until his opponents overreach themselves—can be seen in Francis’s handling of the power struggle over the leadership of the Knights of Malta. Burke, who was the patronus, or chaplain, of the Knights, and his ally Matthew Festing, then the Grand Master of the Knights, did indeed overreach themselves, and Francis deftly outmaneuvered them, removing Festing from leadership in favor of someone more to his liking, while Burke sputtered impotently on the sidelines.

Ivereigh makes good use of his many contacts and acquaintances in Rome, and he knows that when Francis does not directly respond to a challenge from one of his opponents in the hierarchy or the media, he frequently responds in his early morning homilies in the Casa Santa Marta, where he lives. A case in point is Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s open letter that called on Pope Francis to resign. Viganò alleged that when John Paul II named Theodore McCarrick as archbishop of Washington, D.C., there was already widespread knowledge, at the highest levels, of McCarrick’s despic-able manipulation and sexual abuse of seminarians. Viganò also accused Francis of lifting sanctions that Benedict XVI had imposed on McCarrick, an accusation later shown to be false. When confronted by journalists with Viganò’s claims, Francis’s first reaction was silence: “I will not say a single word about this.” Ivereigh interprets that silence in light of homilies Francis later gave at the Casa Santa Marta, in which he suggested that sometimes silence is the only evangelical response to particular situations—as Jesus showed at his trial before the Sanhedrin.

Ivereigh deals similarly with other pivotal episodes in Francis’s papacy. He unpacks in great detail, but without exaggeration, the extent of resistance to Francis’s program of reform from a small but vociferous and well-funded opposition, inside and outside the church. He also provides a trenchant analysis of the appointment of bishops and cardinals under Francis, which is where this pope diverges most from his two predecessors and also where his impact on the church will be greatest. While Ivereigh’s coverage is not comprehensive (he has little to say, for instance, about Francis’s ecumenical outreach or his attempts to overcome the impasse over the appointment of bishops in China), it is broad enough to substantiate Ivereigh’s list of this pontificate’s central characteristics. Francis, he asserts, is “the pope of proximity,” who emphasizes dealing with people as persons, and in person, rather than treating them as instances of abstract categories (“divorced and remarried,” “gay,” “immigrants,” etc.). In his governance Francis knows how to make decisive interventions, but he prefers to create and support processes that encourage the slow, often contentious work of consultation, deliberation, and discernment. He distrusts solutions to problems that set new policies or institute new structures without first pressing for conversion. And for him the need for conversion is greatest when it comes to corruption, one form of which is clericalism.

Francis understands corruption to be an attitude of assured self-reliance; an unwillingness to admit one’s own sinfulness, frailty, and limitations; and a tendency to project them onto others. This spiritual sickness brings a sense of entitlement, an eagerness to demonize one’s opponents, and an incapacity to exhibit empathy and mercy. It also requires constructing and maintaining an elaborate network of deception and gossip, of the type Francis has so relentlessly criticized in the Roman Curia. Corruption knows nothing of mercy, for oneself or for others, and this is why Francis is so insistent on rooting it out. At its deepest level, Ivereigh’s book portrays the pope as a master spiritual director, leading the whole church (the clergy in particular) to open itself to the mercy of God and turn away from corruption.


One need not agree with Francis’s rabid critics to recognize that both his leadership style and the priorities he instinctively embraces can sometimes lead him to jump to the wrong decision.

Wounded Shepherd is a richly detailed and engaging portrait of Francis as pope, and it often succeeds in showing the deeper consistency behind what sometimes appear to be contradictory positions or decisions. But I’m not sure that Ivereigh kept his promise to be more critical than he was in his first book about Francis. It’s true that he disavows his earlier description of Francis as “the great reformer,” or the “gaucho cardinal.” Yet, he replaces it with a portrait of “the great spiritual director,” whose discernment of the needs of his directees is almost always “impeccable.” And when Francis does misjudge—as he did, catastrophically, with the clerical sex-abuse scandal in Chile in 2018—Ivereigh chalks it up to misinformation, and then quickly goes on to describe the pope recovering so surely and decisively from his mistake that it becomes a happy fault.

There is so much to be grateful for in this papacy, as Ivereigh’s book amply demonstrates. But one need not agree with Francis’s rabid critics to recognize that both his leadership style and the priorities he instinctively embraces can sometimes hinder his ability to appreciate other perspectives or even lead him to jump to the wrong decision. His reaction to the reforms proposed by the U.S. bishops just over a year ago is a good example. Reeling over the Pennsylvania grand-jury report and the revelations about Theodore McCarrick, the U.S. bishops proposed reforms in November 2018 that would have allowed independent lay-review boards to receive complaints directly and to initiate investigations of a bishop. This proposal was shot down by the Vatican, and the bishops were urged instead to make a retreat in January 2019 and then wait for the February meeting of bishops in Rome. Ivereigh portrays the U.S. bishops’ proposal as an inept ploy to manipulate Rome and get themselves off the hook, and also argues that they were only “cleaning the outside of the cup.” It was, he argues, a policy “more reflective of a punitive American juridical and corporate culture than a Catholic one,” and he worries about allowing “unaccountable lay persons” (a rather clericalist formulation, it seems to me) to have power to initiate an investigation of a bishop. He endorses Francis’s insistence that true credibility would be restored only when the bishops showed evidence of genuine conversion, and he depicts the February 2019 meeting in Rome as a retreat with precisely that goal. Here, again, Francis figures as the master spiritual director.

This is a clear instance of Francis giving priority to the problem of corruption, in its spiritual dimension, over the need for institutional reform, and Ivereigh’s agreement with the pope on this priority keeps him from considering any other explanation for the U.S. bishops’ proposal. And it keeps him from noting that their proposal is roughly in line with what many lay Catholics want from the church at this moment. An institution can also gain credibility when it has the forthrightness to embrace structures of accountability that serve as checks and balances to those in power, structures that do not rely exclusively on their freedom from corruption. This is not necessarily a reflection of a “punitive juridical and corporate culture”; it can derive from a genuine desire to protect the powerless from abuses of clerical power. This wisdom about checks and balances is today being severely tested in our national politics, but it is still a wisdom that American Catholics can bring to the broader church. Ivereigh, who has little good to say about U.S. Catholicism in this book, does not recognize this, and his portrait of Francis leads the reader to wonder whether the pope does. Given the broader features of Ivereigh’s portrait of the pope, however, one can still hope that, as individual bishops implement more robust lay-review boards in their own dioceses, and as Francis listens to them during their ad limina visits, he will once again enlarge his vision, as he has so often in the past.

J. Matthew Ashley is associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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Published in the February 2020 issue: View Contents
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