After two conservative popes, the latest cardinal to ascend to the throne of St Peter appears to be cast from a rather different mould to that of his predecessors. Pope Francis has gone before the public only once so far – directly after his appointment on Wednesday night – and yet that appearance was freighted with symbolic hints that change may, finally, be in the Vatican air.
The appointment of a Pope from Argentina chalks up a number of firsts for a Church which measures itself against a timeline of more than 2,000 years. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not only the first pontiff from the New World, he is also the first Jesuit. And he is the first non-European to hold the office for more than a millennium. More striking, however, is the simplicity, directness and humility of the man who has chosen to be known by the world as Francis – the name of a barefoot friar who gave away all his belongings to live with the poor.
The gesture is no mere rhetoric. This is a man who, as archbishop and cardinal, swapped his bishop’s palace for a modest apartment and his chauffeur-driven car for a bus pass. Indeed, even after his elevation this week he turned away a papal limousine and boarded a coach along with his fellow cardinals.
For all that, he was elected by a conclave of cardinals who were, without exception, appointed by Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II – who were both deeply conservative. It is little surprise, then, that Francis holds to a blinkered, altogether traditional line on issues from contraception to stem cell research to abortion. He has also condemned gay marriage as “an attempt to destroy God’s plan”.
That said, politics within the Catholic Church does not hold to the simple left/right paradigm which governs the secular world. If traditionalists like Francis’s conventional view of sexual morality, those on the left applaud his excoriating critiques of global capitalism.
His conduct as Archbishop of Buenos Aires is a case in point. Rather than concentrating on rigid doctrinal preaching, instead his focus was to find ways to embrace those who, at first glance, seem far from the Church’s ideals. As Cardinal Bergoglio, he criticised priests who refuse to baptise babies born to single mothers and he washed the feet of people suffering from Aids. He has also said that condoms “can be permissible”, where the intention is to prevent infection rather than avoid pregnancy. To the secular world such steps may seem small. Within the slow-moving Church, they are significant shifts.
No less important is Pope Francis’s long rejection of posts within the Roman Curia. With no long personal history in the Vatican, he will bring an outsider’s eye to the scandals dogging the Catholic Church – to the episcopal cover-ups over paedophile priests, to the attempts by the Vatican Bank to dodge anti-money-laundering regulations, and to what Benedict XVI called “the culture of bitter infighting” exposed by the Vatileaks scandal.
Francis is not only a new broom. He also brings the experience of administering one of the biggest dioceses in the Catholic world. What he must now do is ruthlessly clear out the power-hungry careerists at the top of the Vatican, and replace them with those of a less self-serving bent.
The task is a formidable one. But a Pope whose first public act was to bow his head and ask for the prayers of the people of Rome has a better chance of achieving it than any of his recent predecessors.