British writer and veteran Catholic professional Austen Ivereigh has a terrific new book out called The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. Among other things, he’s masterful in explaining how navigating the ideologically charged period of Argentina’s “Dirty War” prepared the pontiff to try to hold a divided Church together.

Predictably, that’s not the part making headlines.

Instead, it’s Ivereigh’s claim that several moderate-to-liberal European cardinals constituted “Team Bergoglio” (referring to the pope’s given name) in the March 2013 papal election, pushing his candidacy forward. Some readers also took Ivereigh to mean they solicited Bergoglio’s prior agreement to serve.

Both arguably could represent violations of Church rules, since canvassing for votes in a conclave and making deals with candidates are forbidden.

Those rules, however, are tough to define or police, because cardinals are supposed to have frank discussions about who’s best suited to lead, and the difference between that and “canvassing” is fuzzy at best.

As Ivereigh put it to me this week, “It’s clear there was a group of cardinals who believed Bergoglio was the right man and were suggesting him to others. Was this a ‘campaign?’ It depends on what the word means.”

To be honest, if that’s a “campaign,” there’s probably never been a conclave without one, because it’s hard to know how else anyone would ever get elected. Moreover, one hopes the cardinals make an informed choice, rather than just picking names out of a hat, which presumes they can speak candidly without fear of being charged with breaking the law.

In any event, people have been inclined to take Ivereigh’s reconstruction seriously, in part because one of the cardinals he names, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of the United Kingdom, is actually his former boss. Others he asserts were on the team include Germans Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann plus Godfried Danneels of Belgium.

As one might expect, the official denials have been emphatic.

Earlier this month, a Vatican spokesman released this statement: “The four cardinals explicitly deny this description of the facts …. They want to make known that they’re stupefied and unhappy by what was published.”

In response, Ivereigh said he never meant to suggest the pope was involved in his own election and that in future editions he’ll amend the text to make that clear.

None of that has stopped the Catholic blogosphere from interpreting Ivereigh’s original description in the most sensational possible light.

In extreme form, some commentators have suggested that the apparent violation of conclave rules could call into question the legitimacy of the pope’s election.

I ran that by a respected Church lawyer this week, whose take was that even if the cardinals actually ran a bare-knuckles campaign with Francis explicitly approving, it still doesn’t mean he isn’t the pope. Even the far worse crime of simony, meaning that somebody literally bought the cardinals off, doesn’t invalidate an election, so this certainly wouldn’t.

The brouhaha comes on the heels of another recent book by veteran Italian Catholic writer Antonio Socci titled Non È Francesco: La Chiesa Nella Grande Tempesta, which translates as “It’s Not Francis: The Church in a Great Storm.” Its gist is that Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation in February 2013 was invalid, so Francis isn’t the real pope.

Socci offers several arguments to support that claim, including defects in Latin grammar in the resignation announcement, the way Benedict has continued to hold himself out as pope, albeit retired, and alleged irregularities in the voting procedure. There’s also the suggestion that Benedict may have been pressured into stepping down by a cabal of cardinals who opposed him.

For the record, Benedict called this speculation “simply absurd” in February, saying “there isn’t the slightest doubt about the validity of my resignation.”

Unsurprisingly, the drumbeat questioning Francis’ legitimacy is mostly coming from people disgruntled with the course he’s setting. But, given that it’s out there, two points are in order.

First, robust debate about the policies Francis is pursuing is absolutely legitimate.

A pope has to make a staggering number of decisions every week, and the idea that all of them are beyond reproach is comical. Francis himself has called for people to “speak boldly,” so raising objections is hardly an act of defiance.

Second, here’s a dose of political reality: There simply is no serious possibility in the real world that Francis’ election is going to be rolled back.

To begin with, it’s built into the DNA of the Vatican to abhor instability, and admitting that a papal election was illegitimate would be the Chernobyl of instability. Every pope from that point forward would face suspicions about whether he’s entitled to the office.

Moreover, even those cardinals most put out by some aspects of what Francis is doing have never so much as hinted that his election is in doubt, and the College of Cardinals is the only place where a serious constitutional crisis could take shape.

To be sure, some Catholics are cheered by the new winds blowing in the Francis era while others are alarmed, and both should be able to speak out without being accused of either sycophancy or sabotage.

The price of admission to that conversation, however, is clear: Francis is the pope … deal with it.

Pets in heaven

Pope Francis is a magnet for myths and urban legends — remember the one about him going out incognito at night to feed the homeless? — and he may have been the object of another one this week, with reports that he told a young boy that animals will go to heaven.

According to David Gibson of the Religion News Service, there’s no evidence Francis ever said that, despite the fact that it managed to wind up on the front page of The New York Times.

Yes, a pope did once say that paradise is open to animals, but it was Pope Paul VI, not Francis. In the 1970s, Pope Paul VI said, “one day we’ll see our animals again in the eternity of Christ.”

According to Gibson’s reconstruction, the confusion began when Corriere della Sera, Italy’s main daily, ran a piece about some remarks by Francis on the renewal of creation, and the correspondent quoted the line from Paul VI. From there, it became conflated with what Francis had said, and it was off to the races.

Given that Francis has shown himself to be remarkably open to taking questions from the media, perhaps one day soon we’ll have the chance to ask what he actually believes about the salvation of pets.

For now, the first lesson is this: Beware of every breathless report you hear about Francis.

In the meantime, a sprawling discussion has broken out about Catholic teaching on the salvation of animals that illustrates another important insight, which is that the Church doesn’t actually have hard-and-fast answers to all of life’s questions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official compendium of teaching, doesn’t directly address the issue of whether any animals other than human beings will be found in the afterlife.

Popes have been all over the map on the topic. Despite Paul VI’s famous line quoted above, Pope Benedict XVI, in a 2008 homily, said that animals “are not called to heaven.”

(For the record, that wasn’t because Benedict didn’t like pets. He’s a notorious cat-lover, and there’s even a children’s book about him called Joseph and Chico: The Life of Pope Benedict XVI as Told by a Cat.)

Theologians are equally divided.

Some stress the unbridgeable gulf between humanity and the rest of the animals, while others, such as Italian Paolo De Benedetti, cite Psalm 36 — which is sometimes translated, “Men and beast you save, O Lord” — to make the case for animals being included in eternity.

“If God has given them life and doesn’t restore it to them, you’d almost have to conclude that death is stronger than God,” De Benedetti says. “No animal, from the mildest to the most ferocious, has ever reached the perfidy of certain people, so in a sense their right to eternal life is more secure.”

The second thing to be learned from the latest bit of Francis mythology, therefore, is that more often than you might think, the answer to the question of “What does the Church teach on X?” will be, “Nothing, for sure.”

The Pope and the Dalai Lama

This week the Dalai Lama was in Rome for a summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners but did not meet Pope Francis.

The Vatican didn’t officially confirm the reason was to avoid offending China, but the Dalai Lama all but did, saying a meeting “wasn’t possible because it would have created inconveniences” — code for, “Beijing wouldn’t like it.”

In the abstract, it’s easy to grumble that the Vatican shouldn’t bend over backwards to accommodate the Chinese like this, and that if the price of establishing diplomatic relations is going soft on human rights concerns, even allowing China to dictate the pope’s calendar, then it’s too high.

For other world leaders, these judgment calls generally are weighed in terms of domestic politics. An American president might ponder what the human rights crowd back home is thinking, as opposed to the business community eager to tap Chinese markets and capital.

For a pope, however, these calculations are far more complicated. He’s got roughly 13 million Catholics on the ground in China, who will be the first to pay the price for whatever he does or doesn’t do.

Here’s what has to be in the back of Francis’ mind:

Legally speaking, China recognizes only four forms of religious expression: Buddhism, Taoism, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Adherents are tolerated but expected to worship under the auspices of a state-controlled body, which for Catholics means the “Catholic Patriotic Association.” Some Catholics, however, refuse to submit, ending up in what are often regarded as “underground” or “catacomb” churches.

At the moment, there are several Catholic bishops in detention in China, while others are under surveillance by security agents and not able to travel or to speak freely.

These include Bishop James Su Zhimin, 77, the ordinary of Baoding, who disappeared in 1996, and Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang, 88, of Yixian, who disappeared in 2001.

Given the periods of imprisonment and house arrest they suffered prior to their disappearances — and presuming they are still alive — Zhimin will have spent 40 years in captivity, and Enxiang will have endured at least 51 years.

The story of Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai is emblematic.

Ma was ordained as a bishop in July 2012 with the consent of both the Chinese government and the Vatican. At the end of the ceremony, he announced that he wanted to be the bishop of all, and as a result would not join the Patriotic Association. It was the first time a bishop of the “open” Church had made such an audacious statement at his ordination.

Ma was placed under house arrest in the Shanghai seminary, which has been closed down by the government and now functions as a kind of prison. He has remained there ever since. He communicates with the outside world though poetry posted on a blog, and he is reportedly being subjected to political indoctrination three times a week.

When detention doesn’t work, authorities are willing to play rougher.

According to reports, at least 20 “underground” Catholic priests have been tortured to make them join the Patriotic Association over the past two decades. One of those priests, the Rev. Peter Zhang Guangjun, was physically and verbally abused and denied sleep for five consecutive days.

In light of that grim record, when a pope faces a decision about China he always has to think: “If I say or do X, are there going to be more Bishop Mas and more Father Peters?”

It’s the same reason, by the way, that after a private meeting in 2006, Benedict XVI also didn’t receive the Dalai Lama when he was in Rome in both 2007 and 2009.

Anxiety for the fate of vulnerable Chinese Catholics may not always counsel restraint, but it’s impossible for it not to be a factor.

A February for the ages

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, SJ, announced this week that February 2015 shapes up as a month for the ages on the Vatican beat.

The pope’s new commission to lead the fight against sexual abuse meets Feb. 6-8; his “G9” council of cardinal advisors will get together Feb. 9-11; a general meeting of all the cardinals from around the world will take place Feb. 12-13; and finally a consistory to create new cardinals will be held Feb. 14-15.

A full analysis on the significance of the consistory is here, but, briefly, here’s why each of the other looming appointments is also key.

This will be the first meeting of the “Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors” following the staff’s move to new Vatican offices and the selection of new members, which means there’s an expectation this time the group will get down to business.

The lineup of new members is intended to broaden the geographic reach of the commission, and it is expected to include two people from Oceania, one from Asia, two from Latin America, one from the United States, and a married couple from Africa.

In part, the idea is to make “zero tolerance” a truly global policy, and observers will be watching to see whether the new members can make that happen.

It’s not clear whether the meeting will happen before or after Francis reaches a decision on Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the lone US bishop criminally convicted for failure to report a charge of child abuse.

In any case, people will be looking to the commission to signal its commitment to accountability for bishops and other Church personnel.

Francis sent an investigator to Kansas City-St. Joseph in September, which is often a prelude to removing a bishop, but there’s been no indication of what might happen in this case.

In terms of the G9, Pope Francis once again is expected to take part in the meetings, mostly by listening rather than injecting his own ideas.

The group, which amounts to the pontiff’s kitchen cabinet, is currently studying proposals for reorganizing and streamlining the Vatican bureaucracy.

A Vatican spokesman said it’s “premature” to expect big announcements in February, but at some point they’ll have to move beyond study to making some decisions.

At the moment, many Vatican personnel say they’re going through the motions of daily work but cannot make long-term plans because they don’t know if they’ll still have jobs, if their departments will exist, or who might be in charge, after six months.

For now, most personnel seem to be handling the sense of paralysis stoically, but more and more, the G9 will face pressure to break the logjam.

Finally, a Vatican spokesman said Thursday that when all the cardinals meet, they’ll get a progress report of the G9, but that they’re also likely to discuss the looming Synod of Bishops on the family in October.

Last year, Francis used such an assembly of cardinals to prime the pump for the first synod by inviting Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, a champion of relaxing the ban on Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, to give the opening address.

Some observers claimed that choice amounted to the pope “tipping his hand” in terms of which side he’s on, while others suggested Francis merely wanted Kasper’s case to get a hearing, but didn’t necessarily betray how the pontiff will eventually decide the question.

In that light, however Francis chooses to shape the agenda for this get-together of the Princes of the Church will be closely watched.

Report on nuns

The Vatican is set to issue its long-awaited report on American nuns on Tuesday. There will be a news conference featuring the Vatican’s top two officials for religious orders, along with the leaders of America’s major umbrella groups for women’s congregations.

There are two separate Vatican reviews of American nuns: One launched in 2008 studying all women’s orders in the country and another initiated a year later that focuses specifically on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main umbrella group for the leadership of women’s orders.

The report to be released on Tuesday marks the end of the first process, but has no bearing on the second.

I’ve put together a primer on what to expect here.

On Tuesday, Crux will have full coverage. The news conference is set for 11:30 a.m. Rome time, which is 5:30 a.m. on the East Coast.