Good reporters are always intrigued by paradoxes, and my friend Giacomo Galeazzi of Italy’s La Stampa newspaper is unquestionably a talented reporter. Thus it’s no surprise that his new book, Il Concilio di Papa Francesco: La Nuova Primavera della Chiesa, pivots on a paradox.
(In English, the title is, “The Council of Pope Francis: The New Spring of the Church.”)
The paradox is this: Francis is the first pope since St. John XXIII who had no role whatsoever in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), yet Vatican II arguably is the foundation of his entire papacy. As Galeazzi puts it, “Francis’ program is the council … the realization and actualization of the conciliar spring.”
To explain that seeming conundrum, Galeazzi argues that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pope, came of age as a leader in the Catholic Church in the period immediately following the council. He served as a Jesuit superior in Argentina from 1973 to 1979, when implementing the council’s directives was every religious order’s top priority.
He also moved in the world of CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Conference, at a time when that body was working out its own continental vision about what Vatican II meant, and how it should reshape the life and mission of the Church.
According to Galeazzi, Francis took away two convictions from that experience: That Vatican II was absolutely fundamental for the future, and that, to a great extent, its vision today remains not fully implemented and lived.
As Luigi La Spina has observed in his own review of the book, by framing things this way Galeazzi overcomes the facile tendency in much commentary on Francis to assess things in terms of “rupture” v. “continuity.”
Yes, Francis is a pope of continuity, but it’s continuity with a council that itself represented a significant departure – a radical return to the sources of Christianity, which, Galeazzi says, Francis believes is still to be achieved.
To be sure, as Galeazzi thoroughly documents, Francis’ vision of Vatican II is a distinctly Latin American one.
For many European and North American Catholics, the primary “cash value” of Vatican II was in the liturgy, especially the use of vernacular languages and the transition to the priest facing the people in the Mass. That’s why to this day, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about liturgical practice in the West that doesn’t immediately get swept up into charged debates over “turning back the clock” on the council.
Culturally, Vatican II intersected with the Western sexual revolution of the late 1960s, which made the primary lens for evaluating the impact of the council the extent to which it would prompt revisions in Catholic teaching on sexual ethics and women’s emancipation – a narrative that still dominates Western media coverage.
In Latin America, however, the most significant wave unleashed by Vatican II was the “option for the poor,” which flowered in various forms of liberation theology, and more basically, in a decision by many Catholics to upend the Church’s traditional dependence on social elites and instead to embrace the broad mass of ordinary people, especially the marginalized.
As Galeazzi shows, this had nothing to do with Marxism – for Jorge Mario Bergoglio and his like-minded Latin American pastors, it was a practical strategy of evangelization, taking account of the sobering reality that a tight union between throne and altar in Latin America over the centuries had distanced the Church from the people.
In that sense, Galeazzi’s book helps American readers make sense of another seeming paradox about Francis: He claims to be a man of Vatican II, yet he’s not adopted the ecclesiastical reform agenda that many Americans associate with the council, such as women priests or changes in teaching on birth control, abortion or homosexuality.
In part, it’s because that wasn’t the Vatican II Bergoglio experienced in Latin America. The key insight here is not that he hasn’t upended Church teaching, which was always unrealistic, but that these aren’t even the issues he naturally connects to “the spirit of Vatican II.”
The Council of Pope Francis carries forewords by Bishop Nunzio Galantino, Francis’ hand-picked secretary of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference (CEI), and by Galeazzi’s colleague at La Stampa, the eminent Vatican writer Andrea Tornielli.
The book will be presented on Thursday in Turin, where La Stampa is based. At the moment there are no plans for an English translation, but let’s hope a publisher steps in soon, because The Council of Pope Francis offers perspectives that American readers in particular could benefit from considering.