When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope in March, the deeply conservative College of Cardinals imagined that it had chosen a safe pair of hands. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio espoused radical views on some social questions but appeared reliably hard line on key Catholic dogmas and thus unlikely to disturb the legacy of his doctrinally rigid predecessor, Benedict XVI.
How wrong the Cardinals were. Nine months on, the 77-year-old head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has reminded us that age is no bar to youthful thinking. To the dismay of many of his original supporters, Francis has thrown open the Vatican windows and let in fresh air. Gone is the old culture of secrecy, and the dictates from on high by the Vicar of Christ, who, naturally, had the answer to everything. Asked what he thought of gay clergy, Francis responded that he did not know. “Who am I to judge them?” he inquired. That the Pope should even use such a phrase was novel.
Many Catholics, who long ago abandoned all hope of reform of a Church that seemed to be dying on its feet, are wondering if they didn’t succumb to feelings of despair too soon.
It is a sign of how quickly things appear to be changing that a whole range of sexual and gender-related issues that were completely taboo only a year ago are now talked about openly. At the same time, Francis has refused to tone down his sharp criticism of the distorting effects of modern capitalism, and has championed the cause of the poor in a manner that other international leaders could and should learn from. There have been other popes like this, although not many. Angelo Roncalli was a safe pair of hands who decided not to be safe once he was elected Pope John XXIII in 1958. Jettisoning the imperial symbols of authority, such as the papal tiara, he championed the poor and called a reforming council, Vatican II, which not only abandoned the Latin Mass but, more crucially, transformed relations between Catholics and people of other faiths, notably Jews.
Alas, following his sudden death in 1963, most of the reforms were mothballed, which one suspects is what a number of Vatican bureaucrats and conservative Catholics anticipate happening this time, too.
We must hope that Francis is not similarly outmanoeuvred by a combination of ill health and hostile Vatican bureaucrats. Whether we are religious or not, all of us must recognise that the Catholic Church remains a force to be reckoned with. Its vast membership alone guarantees that. Under Benedict, it became regrettably hidebound, the prevalent siege mentality symbolised by the Church’s grotesquely inadequate response to the scandal of child abuse among the clergy.
It will take years, not months, to change that culture and transform the way the Church sees itself in relation to society and interprets its own authority. Whether Pope Francis has the time and energy to surmount the tremendous challenges that lie ahead remains to be seen. But the fact that he has made a start is encouraging, as is his manifest desire for the Church to become what it could yet be: a force for good, not the enemy of change.