Pope Francis As Reformer, Evangelizer — And Doctrinal Conservative Austen Ivereigh, author of a new biography of Pope Francis, says the media have misjudged the pope's comments on abortion and homosexuality — but that Francis is a radical in other respects.
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Pope Francis As Reformer, Evangelizer — And Doctrinal Conservative

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Pope Francis As Reformer, Evangelizer — And Doctrinal Conservative

Pope Francis As Reformer, Evangelizer — And Doctrinal Conservative

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Pope Francis was in Turkey today on a state visit. He called for religious tolerance between Christians and Muslims at a violent time in the Middle East. Just over the border in Iraq Syria, the so-called Islamic State has been slaughtering Shiite Muslims as well as Christians and other groups they deem heretical.

People are watching Francis' visit closely in part because the Pope has the tendency to surprise people. His comments about gays, abortion and nonbelievers have made headlines. And he's made fighting poverty a central focus of his papacy. Austen Ivereigh is the author of a new biography, "The Great Reformer: Francis And The Making Of A Radical Pope." The book examines Francis' upbringing in Argentina, his Jesuit background and how that influences the way he runs the church and leads the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. Ivereigh says Francis has already drawn a clear contrast with his predecessors.

AUSTEN IVEREIGH: The difference between him, I think, and the other popes is that he frequently stops and makes the person that he's talking to the protagonist. So suddenly the focus really is on ordinary people, the people that he's talking to.

And I draw the contrast between that and, say, Pope Benedict who was very shy, so he would withdraw from people. John Paul II, of course, was like a great emperor. He could hold great crowds in thrall.

So I think this is a new style of pope, a new way of being pope among the people, and that is, as it were, to make the ordinary people the protagonist.

WESTERVELT: And not just among the people. You suggest he's got a new way of sort of walking the talk about the dispossessed perhaps in a way recent popes have not.

IVEREIGH: Yeah, I mean, I think he's - the first Pope to come, of course, from the New World. He's the first pope really to come out of that context where poverty is dominant. Now that's a very different kind of context from which popes have traditionally come.

That gives him a sensitivity to poverty. It gives him a sensitivity to need and to vulnerability. And from the very beginning, therefore, he's identified with and used the language of what he calls the existential margins, the existential peripheries, as he calls them.

Now existential peripheries is obviously places of pain and suffering, but it also has a kind of concrete sense in Latin America as being the shanty towns that encircle the cities.

So this is the place he wants the church to be seen in, to identify with, to speak from, to evangelize from. That's what also makes him a radical in that Latin American liberation theology tradition.

WESTERVELT: His time in Argentina was not without controversy. He's been accused by some human rights activists for complicity in the Argentine dictatorship, in the so-called Dirty War of the '70s and early '80s. Francis tried to shelter Jesuits, but the left attacked him for not speaking out. Why didn't he speak out more?

IVEREIGH: Well, he didn't speak out, because speaking out would have contradicted his two objectives during the Dirty War, which were objectives, in fact, given to him from Rome. One was to protect the Jesuits from the regime. And the second was that he should help the victims of the dictatorship.

And, of course, he couldn't fulfill either of those objectives if he took a position of opposition to the regime, which anyway wouldn't have resulted in anything, because anybody who did speak out against the regime was quickly silenced or exiled.

So those were his two objectives, and he pulled it off to a remarkable extent. Not one Jesuit lost his life. And he did protect, we now know, and sheltered dozens of people who were fleeing the dictatorship.

WESTERVELT: I'm speaking with Austen Ivereigh. His new book is "The Great Reformer: Francis And The Making Of A Radical Pope." He's made some comments, it seems, to bolster liberals. He said Jesus, you know, had redeemed everyone including atheists. He said the church spends too much time talking about abortion and gay marriage. But you write that his comments should not be misinterpreted as, you know, doctrinal flexibility.

IVEREIGH: I feel very strongly that he's been consistently misjudged by one group of Catholics and also, of course, by certain parts of the liberal media, which are trying to paint him.

They know he's shaking things up, which he is. But they mistake that for a kind of attempt to change doctrine. I mean, on all the core Catholic teachings, he is a absolutely straight-down-the-line orthodox Catholic.

But he is also an evangelizer and a missionary. And his observation - the famous observation - that we shouldn't bang on too much about abortion and those other issues, his point is not that abortion isn't wrong. I can cite you many speeches in which he gives searing denunciations of abortion. It's that he says it is not enough for people to look at the Catholic church and say, yes, that's what the church stands for.

What's missing from the picture, he says, is the merciful face of Christ - the church that heals the wounds, that raises people up, that nurtures them, that forgives them. And so what he's trying to do is to say, actually, that's the face of the church that needs to be presented.

Now, this isn't a PR exercise. What he's actually saying is that people need to experience that before they are ready to accept the rest of it.

So what is conversion? Conversion is when somebody first experiences the love and mercy and forgiveness of God, and then, having assimilated that, then, as it were, chooses the Christian life, chooses the moral life, and so on. But you can't go to the second without the first.

WESTERVELT: Austen, in both tone and title, you call Francis a radical reformer. But he's only been pope for a little over a year. Isn't that a bit premature? What has he - what has he really reformed in terms of the way the Vatican and worldwide Catholicism are run?

IVEREIGH: I'm very confident that history will judge Pope Francis to be one of the great church reformers, even if his papacy comes to a close within the next couple of years for reasons of age or infirmity. And I'm convinced of that because he has already done and said enough to have turned around so many things in the church. And he's put entrained reforms of governance, which I think are irreversible and which are at the moment transforming the church and will actually transform the church for many years to come. So I'm convinced, actually, that the next papacies will be papacies that actually implement the reforms that he has begun.

WESTERVELT: That's Austen Ivereigh. His new book is "The Great Reformer: Francis And The Making Of A Radical Pope." Austen, thanks for coming in.

IVEREIGH: Thank you.

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