There was a time when biographies of popes were written from the vantage point of a respectable distance. In other words: a safe time elapsed between the death of a Roman Pontiff and his official biography. Well, official is a bit of a stretch. The Vatican produced extravagant narratives that were thinly disguised hagiographies. Biographies, in the real and academic sense of the term, were often the product of plodding labours by ecclesiastical historians. The snap biographies that we have become accustomed to are a recent phenomenon.
John Paul I had some of his literary and spiritual reflections published during his short pontificate; John Paul II was a global industry for biographers (the number of biographies of John Paul II is staggering, most of which are heavily laced with ideological sentiments and advocacy agendas); Benedict XVI ,like his predecessor, took to highly selective autobiographies (usually in the form of book-length interviews); and Pope Francis is already the subject of countless profiles and fully fledged biographies.
In the case of Jorge Bergoglio the public’s interest in the minutiae of his life grows daily. And that, in itself, is good.
But these biographies also betray their respective author’s ecclesiological biases, political leanings and strategic positions. This is especially so in the case of living subjects. Helpful though these various biographical studies and profiles are, they remain deeply provisional, particular and partial.
None of them are definitive. They can’t be: their subject is still very much alive, the records and private correspondences still under the seal, the pope’s ministry and personality still unfolding.