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Key Words of Pope Francis by Joshua J. McElwee and Cindy Wooden, editors

29 June 2018

Marcus Walker on Pope Francis interpreted

BOOKS about Pope Francis fall into two categories: adulatory or denunciatory. Key Words of Pope Francis is safely within the first.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You know exactly what you’re getting. Two stalwarts of the liberal Catholic press in Rome have compiled an impressive collection of essays from a broad range of commentators and presented a useful primer on the thought and words of Pope Francis. For anyone wanting to know how this Pope is interpreted by his natural supporters — and therefore, possibly, how Pope Francis himself wants to be interpreted — this book is a must.

The line-up of contributors is impressive. Some might say that they are “the usual suspects”, but the fact that these are “the usual suspects” says a lot about this pontificate. That both the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury are contributors is a tribute to the Pope’s prioritising of ecumenical relations in his five years at the Vatican; that neither has written on “ecumenism” per se, but on specific aspects of Francis’s theology is actually a greater tribute — and reflects the way in which he, more than any comparable Pontiff, has a primacy of honour for Christians well beyond his legal jurisdiction.

Also of note is that 20 of the 50-odd essayists are women. Although this is more than would have been expected from similar collections of essays for any previous pontiff, it now feels inadequate and, perhaps, reflective of an ambiguity at the heart of this papacy’s interaction with the female sex — one of the few hints of criticism in the book.

Similarly, while a good number of the contributors are from the developing world, there is a natural bias towards Europe and America. Although everyone enjoys the outrage triggered by President Trump’s 3 a.m. tweets, I am not convinced that the best migration zone in the world by which to assess Pope Francis’s theology of migration is the Mexican-American border.

The greatest strength of the book is the obvious respect that all the authors have for the systematic theology that they attempt, in various ways, to pull together from the encyclicals, sermons, interviews, and speeches of this very 21st-century Pope. This is, however, also its greatest weakness. The lack of any analysis of any of the traditionalist criticisms of Pope Francis or his theology means that the book feels like an aeroplane flying with only one engine — as, of course, do books from the opposite party.

This book repays study by those intrigued by the direction in which Pope Francis is taking the Roman Catholic Church, and anyone interested in how that Church is facing up to the challenges of the 21st century. Debate and analysis over the quality and wisdom of these positions, however, must wait for another day.

The Revd Marcus Walker is Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield in London.

Key Words of Pope Francis
Joshua J. McElwee and Cindy Wooden, editors
Bloomsbury £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

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