Pope Francis may do great things, but radical change won't be one of them

Nothing illustrates the chasm between secular and religious society better than the secular media's expectation that the new pope will do away with the old bureaucracy

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  • 40% Proportion of worldwide Catholics in Latin America

Little could illustrate the chasm that exists between secular society and the religious better than the questions asked as the news of the election of the new Argentinian Pope was announced on Wednesday. Church leaders talked of a new head of the Church who was humble, ascetic in his ways, collegiate in his approach. What the journalists wanted to know was what the new man would do with the bureaucracy of the papal curia, the charges of paedophilia that have rocked the Catholic Church around the world, and the dramatic decline of its followers in the West. Some, with the fall of Cardinal Keith O’Brien in mind, even wondered whether Pope Francis might pull back on his vociferous condemnation of gay marriage and his support for celibacy in the clergy.

Radical reformer?

Such a question might seem impertinent to those of the faith who look for, and seem to have found, a new pastor who can lead his flock with a simplicity and devotion to the poor lacking in his immediate predecessors. But it’s a question that matters back in Argentina, where the stance of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio aroused bitter attacks from the radical secularists and was condemned by President Kirchner as “medieval”.

The fact that Cardinal Bergoglio was elected as the first pope in 1,300 years from outside Europe has given rise to a widespread belief, or rather hope, that he will somehow prove a “radical reformer” of the Church. That is to misunderstand his character and his background. Latin America may now make up the largest proportion (40 per cent) of the Church’s 1.2bn followers, but it is not a growing portion. That role belongs to Africa and Asia. Nor, despite some of the comment, does it imply a more fervent and less thinking belief than in Europe.

The accusation that Bergoglio failed to face up directly to the military regime in Argentina, and may indeed have actively cooperated with it, when imprisonment, torture and state murder were rife, matters. The Church in Latin America came to the region through conquest and, just as in Old World Spain, Italy and Portugal, is intimately associated with the authoritarian regimes of the recent past.

In that sense, Francis doesn’t come to the pontifical throne as the leader of an expanding, thrusting arm of the Church ready to sweep out the old and to change the face of a global institution. He comes as a member of a religious order appointed as a bishop and made cardinal by Pope John Paul II, who was deeply authoritarian when it came to matters of religious orthodoxy and hierarchical obedience.

Jesuit first

As a Jesuit, he is committed to a life of simplicity and religious conversion. He may have taken the title Francis for the first time in papal history as much because of St Francis Xavier, a founder of the Society of Jesus, whose canonisation is celebrated on March 12, as St Francis of Assisi. If he is as shrewd as his first appearance on the papal balcony would suggest, he won’t mind the ambivalence, although the two suggest quite different approaches to vocation, the one being dedicated to purity of life and the other to evangelism.

The Jesuit background is important, not just in style but in recent history. The order, suppressed by the popes from 1773 to 1814 after complaints that they were becoming a power in their own right, was brought to heel by both Pope John Paul and Benedict. Its choice of leader was turned down by John Paul in 1981 for being too liberal, while Benedict, who reserved most of his energy for the suppression of theological dissent, used the occasion of the election of a new Superior General in 2008 to enforce a formal declaration of loyalty to the “Successor of Peter” and the orthodoxy of doctrine.

Francis I was not made an Archbishop and a Cardinal to kick against the political or theological pricks. Nor has he done so. Coming from a religious order of men and having been a bishop for 20 years, he knows perfectly well how to adjust to the demands of place and position.

Voice of the Dioceses

The main reason he was elected by the College of Cardinals, and why indeed he apparently was the runner up in the 2005 election of Pope Benedict, is that he represents the voice of the dioceses, the Church in the provinces. After half a century in which the last two Popes concentrated power in the centre, within a relatively small coterie of like-minded people, and with all the scandals that have emerged under the last Pope, there was a general mood for change. What the Cardinals from around the globe wanted was a man who would make the Church more collegiate in its governance.

Global oil and other companies go through the same swings from the centre to the divisions and subsidiaries. Only the Roman Catholic Church is not just a corporation, although it has many of the characteristics of one. It is also an expression of faith. The most important factor for the faithful is not the new Pope’s quality as an institutional leader but – and here the secular minded find it more difficult to understand the intensity of feeling – his character as a spiritual pastor.

For concerned believers in Europe, and elsewhere, these have been difficult years with the scandals and doctrinal interventions of the Vatican. The Church in Rome seemed more and more divorced with the realities of the life around. While the Vatican, and the prelates under its direction, worried away about sexual habits and secular degeneracy, the numbers going to church were falling year by year and the numbers putting themselves forward for ordination went into free fall.

If a genuinely modest Pope can restore some sense of example to the Church at large, that will be radical enough. If he can also make the Church more responsive to the concerns and the management at local level that would be even better. And, if by doing that, he could also cleanse the Vatican of its princely decadence, that would be worth all the prayers that he asked for on the balcony of his new palace. But don’t raise the bar too high for a man of 76 who has been raised to high office within the system. He can’t do it all.

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