Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, February 21, 2021 (CNS photo/Vatican Media).

Every new book on the Francis pontificate has the advantage of being more up-to-date than its predecessors, and John Cornwell manages to squeeze in the Amazon synod and even “Francis in the Time of Coronavirus.” Yet for all its breadth and range, and the qualities that a veteran Church reporter brings to such a project, Church, Interrupted does not seek to be a systematic chronology of the Francis years. It is too perceptive, personal, quirky, and emotionally involved, which turns out to be its strength.

In asides at the start and close of the book and scattered throughout the text, the British writer and Cambridge academic shares the story of his intense but painful relationship with the Catholicism of his childhood, and the frosting of his ecclesial faith in later life. Cornwell was appalled by the abuse scandals and oppressive ecclesiastical culture—as he saw it—of the John Paul II years. After finding little to hope for from Benedict XVI’s pontificate, he was astonished by “a moment of grace” in Francis’s election in March 2013. Cornwell saw in this new pope the “possibility of new beginnings...for the entire Church, practicing, lapsing and lapsed.” Hence this book, an exploration of this irruption of grace, what Cornwell describes as a welcome “interruption” of the course the Church had seemed set to follow.

The premise, of course, is discontinuity: Cornwell’s love of Francis and antipathy toward John Paul II and Benedict XVI is explained, in part, by the writer’s life story. Having moved from a pious working-class Irish childhood in London’s East End into that most preconciliar of institutions, the minor seminary, Cornwell abandoned priestly training for agnostic freedom and life as a journalist at a national newspaper. After marrying a Catholic, his faith was rekindled, but “there was no return to the Church of certitudes, ultimate truths and righteousness.” Catholicism became an object of his reporting. His first Catholic book was the result of a Vatican official inviting him to investigate the true story of how John Paul I met his end after just a few weeks in 1978. A Thief in the Night, which was published in 1989, debunked the lurid conspiracy theories surrounding Albino Luciani’s untimely passing, yet still read like a whodunnit. It was a bestselling page-turner, and delighted Cornwell’s Vatican handlers.

With doors opened in Rome, Cornwell could have built a career out of books defending the Church. But his next Vatican-endorsed project, to refute claims that Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer, led him in the opposite direction. Given privileged access to newly opened files on Eugenio Pacelli’s beatification and diplomatic career, Cornwell says he stumbled upon “a circumstance that seemed to me even worse in its consequences, fully justifying the book’s title, Hitler’s Pope.”

It was publishing gold: a gripping account of the pope’s failure to speak out against the Nazis based on primary Vatican material hardly anyone else had then seen. Hitler’s Pope roiled the Vatican—“I appeared to have fulfilled the role of ‘devil’s advocate,’ which John Paul II abolished to expedite hordes of new saints,” Cornwell recalls wryly—and triggered an avalanche of academic theses on Catholic “collaboration” with fascism and anti-Semitism. Some would say the response created a counter-mythology even more obfuscating than the official version. But Cornwell defends his record, claiming that these “rigorously academic” articles and books were an improvement on the hagiographies.

Where once he skewered the Polish pope, now he wields the skewer to defend the Argentine pope from his merciless critics.

Breaking Faith (2001) and The Pontiff in Winter (2004) were devastating in their indictments of the corruption and failures of the John Paul II years. They make a powerful case for the prosecution, which revelations since 2005 have largely vindicated, but there was an edge to Cornwell’s j’accuse, a barely disguised anger and contempt, which could partly be explained by more recent books, above all Seminary Boy (2006) and The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession (2014). In these books Cornwell lays bare his suffering from the toxic cocktail of sex, sin, and abuse in the Church culture he experienced as a young man. Hence the revealing aside at the close of Church, Interrupted. The John Paul II papacy, he says, had “encouraged an oppression aimed at reinstating the sin-cycle of former years.”

In Breaking Faith Cornwell dreams of a pope who ceases to berate and condemn the sinfulness and wrongness of the world, yearning for a pastor who would instead “mend the breaking faith of our Church” and see in “the sinners, the marginalized, the dissidents, the discouraged” people in need of love and inclusion. Francis has fulfilled that hope. Church, Interrupted is the mirror opposite of The Pontiff in Winter. The savage indictments have given way to a touching admiration and affection. Where once he skewered the Polish pope, now he wields the skewer to defend the Argentine pope from his merciless critics.

Some of his sharpest lines are reserved for the anti-Francis lobby, whose convoluted, self-contradictory criticisms reveal their bad faith. “Francis could not win, could not be allowed to win, whatever he did or said, or did not do or say,” Cornwell writes, in what could be a perfect description of Jesus and the Pharisees. Noting that many of Francis’s critics are converts in search of a more militant affirmation of particular moral concerns, Cornwell observes the curious feature of conservative attacks, “that [Francis’s] extension of moral concerns to embrace neglected issues meant a repudiation of others, even though there were deep parallel connections.” Thus the pope’s condemnation of capital punishment and nuclear weapons, for example, are used as evidence to claim (absurdly) that he is soft on abortion, which reminds Cornwell of the joke about the mother who buys her son two ties for his birthday. When he next sees her, he is wearing one. She says: “So you didn’t like the other one?”


Church, Interrupted is made up of twenty-four brief chapters, each around the length of a Commonweal article, which take “soundings across [Francis’s] key initiatives and reactions to events.” It is a jerky format that plays to Cornwell’s gifts of concision and forensic focus. Each short essay supplies enough background information for the reader to grasp the significance of Francis’s “interruption,” then homes in on key stories and anecdotes to illustrate the departure. It makes the book highly readable and accessible and, for an outsider curious about the Francis Effect, a fine introduction to the heart of what makes this pontificate so extraordinary.

Perhaps the best chapter is on gossip, which Francis constantly returns to as an evil to be extirpated from the Vatican—and with good reason. The atmosphere in Rome is “like a permanent Sunday afternoon,” where “the physical structure creates a sense of hothouse separation, an enclosed palace filled mostly with celibates adrift from the real world.” Cornwell is delighted that Francis is the first pope “to lambaste the malicious tongue-wagging of the Roman prelates,” whose cynicism and failure in charity corrode the Church’s mission.

Also sophisticated is the chapter on China, about which Francis has said almost nothing publicly, but which has been a major focus of his diplomacy. The secret accord with Beijing over the nomination of bishops has been heavily criticized from all sides—not least by the emeritus archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and the island’s former British governor, Lord Christopher Patten—but Cornwell sees it as a necessary gamble, a bold attempt to end a situation in which the Chinese government has been dividing and ruling the Church.

Yet sometimes the format of the book constrains Cornwell to an efficient summary without much insight: on Laudato si’, for example, we get little beyond a précis of the encyclical. On women in the Church, Cornwell makes a good case for seeing Francis as an innovator introducing “striking changes” but, in explaining why the pope has not gone further toward ordaining women, falls back on the cliché that he is a man of his time and place. (If Cornwell thinks Francis has been timorous or retrograde he should say so, rather than patronizing supposed Argentine “machismo.”) Sometimes the research is light: when Francis said that women were the “strawberries on the cake” of theology, it was to complain that there were so few in the International Theological Commission that they risked looking like a token presence.


The point of holding polarities in tension is to seek their resolution on a higher plane.

These are peccadilloes of omission, but in one important case Cornwell misrepresents a major tenet of Francis’s thinking. One of the key narratives of the book is what Cornwell describes as “a consistent feature of [Francis’s] papacy: a capacity to hold opposites in tension, his many paradoxes giving rise to disruption.” The theme appears in many of the chapters: thus, on China, “his agreement with the government over the nomination of bishops is another example of his capacity to hold opposites in tension and move forward by interruption.” But the idea is never properly explained, and seems to obscure more than it reveals.

Of course, it is true that Francis, like all good leaders but to an exceptional degree, is able to navigate tensions and conflicts. And it is also true that Francis has developed Romano Guardini’s theory of dynamic polarities into a method of governance and discernment. As Massimo Borghesi showed in The Mind of Pope Francis, and as the pope well explains in our book Let Us Dream, the idea of holding polarities in tension lies behind the emphasis on synodality that has so marked this pontificate.

But it is not only a matter of containing opposites in tension, still less a bid to interrupt or disrupt by doing so. The point of holding polarities in tension is to seek their resolution on a higher plane—by allowing the Holy Spirit to create a new way of seeing that reconciles the opposition by transcending it. In Querida Amazonia, and explicitly in Let Us Dream, Francis uses the metaphor of “overflow” to describe this action of the Holy Spirit, which in the context of the synods indicates the path to follow.

Not grasping this point leads Cornwell to mischaracterize Amoris laetitia as “written so as to lead to potentially opposite conclusions simultaneously,” a classic instance, he says, of “Francis, once again, holding two opposites in tension without resolution.” Yet whatever people may think of it, as far as Francis was concerned Amoris reflected the resolution of the 2015 synod: that the issue of communion for divorced couples is resolved in a different way of applying the law, one that is attentive to the operation of grace in the concrete lives of individuals. It is no longer, then, a matter of what Church law should or should not allow or disallow, but a matter for discernment by the couples and their pastors in the light of their unique histories—as Cornwell himself goes on to explain rather well.

This matters because it is all too easy to feed one of the anti-Francis fantasies, that the pope is strategically “ambiguous,” operating a devious plan to turn everything upside down while appearing to do the opposite. (Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church, for instance, turns on this myth). This is to misread what Jesuits call “apostolic discernment in common.” One can hold differences in tension in search of illumination or guidance, as part of a process of discernment, as has happened in the synods over certain vexed questions. But it is a time-limited exercise. Either there will be resolution through “overflow,” as in the family synod, or the differences will harden and polarize, as happened at the Amazon synod with respect to the question of ordaining married men. In the latter case, where Francis saw no “overflow,” there could be no resolution or advance, at least in the short term.

If it is not Francis’s polarities-in-tension that has “interrupted” what Cornwell had come to see as the Church’s normal flow, what has? Where is the break? For as Cornwell says, it is not as if Francis has weakened, or diverged from, the Church’s magisterium. The answer must lie in the pope’s performance of the Gospel. But which part? For Cornwell it appears as what he calls the pope’s “audacious prudence,” his “consistent Christian counsel of prudence and clemency that recognizes human frailty: the way we are.” It was the tender mercy of God—loving us in spite of us—that Cornwell ached to see in the successor of St Peter; and seeing it, he can hope again.

Church, Interrupted
Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis

John Cornwell
Chronicle Prism
$27.95 | 304 pp.

Austen Ivereigh is a British biographer of Pope Francis, and a Fellow in contemporary Church history at Campion Hall, Oxford.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the April 2021 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.