By Patrick Johnson
For an institution as old and traditional as the Catholic Church, the last three weeks have been quite the media storm. In a move unseen in over 600 years, a living pope retired. Eighty-five-year-old Pope Benedict decided he was no longer physically capable of leading the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and stepped down on March 1st. To many the move was equal parts surprising and confounding—but one can hardly fault Pope Benedict for wanting to wash his hands of the job. Leading a 21st Century Church has become an impossibly difficult job; headline-grabbing child abuse scandals have sent Vatican public image officials scrambling while criticism over issues spanning from divorce to contraception have brought previously taboo subjects into the doctrinal discussion. What’s more, it appears it has become ever more difficult to keep together the Flock: at least in the United States, only half of all Catholics report regularly attending mass. 1.2 billion followers might be a bit of an exaggeration.
Thus the largest question surrounding Pope Benedict’s (or Pope Emeritus as he’s now called) retirement was whom the cardinals would choose as his successor. How would they begin to tackle the formidable issues the modern Church faces? Some believed the cardinals would cling more tightly to the core tenants of the Church and weather the storm through staunch conservatism; others believed the time was ripe for a shift in leadership and for a 21st century pope to emerge and reorient the Church to the modern world.
The answer, it appears, was neither of the above. Or, more precisely, both of the above.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, has been elected pope. In many ways, he is the unprecedented break that many were hoping for. He is the first pope from the Americas, the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European pope in 1,272 years. These demographic changes signal an outreach to the millions of Catholics living outside of Europe, especially in the dominantly Catholic Latin American countries. One Argentinean present at the Vatican, Martin Watson, made the colorful connection: “The news, for us, was almost like winning the World Cup in soccer”. Although Church leadership remains disproportionately European, roughly three-quarters of all Catholics reside outside of Europe. Thus, although Pope Francis’s election marks a decided break from the past, Catholic demographics suggest this is a move that should have occurred long ago. As Pope Francis said: “It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find [a new pope] from the end of the earth, but here we are.”
In many ways the most important ‘first’ brought by this new pope is the title of first Jesuit pope. The Jesuit order has many particular features that distinguish it from the rest of the Church: Jesuits are renowned for their evangelization efforts, educational institutions and emphasis on administering to the needs of the poor. Indeed Pope Francis embodies many of these characteristics: he holds a Master’s degree in chemistry, has worked extensively combating AIDS in Latin America and, since taking the papacy, has loudly voiced that the new direction of the Church will be for the poor.
His adoption of the name “Francis” exemplifies this point. It is homage to St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, who dedicated his life to poverty by living without income or wealth and commanded his followers to do the same. Indeed, Pope Francis has famously rejected much of the material wealth that surrounds the Church: he rides public transportation, cooks for himself and urged followers to give the money they would have spent flying to Rome to see him to the poor. It may seem paradoxical to be so enthusiastic about a pope that actually cares for the poor, but this trait has been glaringly absent from prior popes. The conspicuous amount of wealth controlled by the Vatican has been a major source of criticism from those that believe the Church is not doing enough to combat poverty. With Pope Francis, many Church leaders hope to change that public image.
In sum, there is a lot to be enthusiastic about with this new pope. However, anyone expecting radical doctrinal change—a new 21st century Church that addresses its own archaic views on homosexuality, women, contraception, and divorce—will be sorely disappointed. As much as Pope Francis is a demographic break from the past, he is equally a resounding consecration of conservative Church doctrine. In 2010, he famously and overtly fought Argentinean politicians on the issue of same-sex marriage. He lost that political battle, but resoundingly established himself as a conservative within the Church.
It is these archaic views that deter the next generation of Catholics from supporting the Church as an institution. Who among us can identify with a Church leadership that doesn’t acknowledge divorce, or contraception, or women’s rights? Pope Francis is not the progressive leader many within the Church were looking for. But that shouldn’t be cause to despair. The fact remains that for an institution as famously archaic as the Catholic Church this is a significant and laudable step towards reform. We should be enthused that the cardinals have chosen a leader with the public image dexterity of Pope Francis who can legitimately reorient the mission of the Church towards its core raison d’etre: to help the poor across the world. Nobody should have expected a liberal Pope, but take this signal as a promise for future change. This is the first move by the Church to enter the 21st Century. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.
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Image by Catholic Church (England and Wales)