HONG KONG – Before giving his first Apostolic Blessing, the new pope, Francis, led the vast throng of 100,000 people below him in St. Peter’s Square in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. He asked them to pray for him, and ask for God’s blessing on him before he blessed the crowds. That was a good start: the pope certainly needs the prayers of the people. I pray that he follows up by listening to the people and then communicating with them rather than pontificating, as too many of his predecessors, and his confrere cardinals and bishops have been wont to do.
Francis, bishop of Rome, lately known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, looked stunned when he made his appearance as the first pope from Latin America or from a developing country. He did not wave his arms in triumph as Benedict XVI had done eight years ago, but just said “Good evening”.
He chose the name Francis, in recognition of Francis of Assisi, who gave up his worldly possessions to live a simple life, but it carries echoes of Francis Xavier, the Jesuit who brought Christianity to Asia, including Japan. Francis is the first Jesuit to be pope, from the society whose priests undergo a rigorous 12 years of intellectual and religious training, double that of the normal priest. It is also an excellent sign that as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis lived in a modest apartment rather than the bishop’s palace, cooked for himself, and traveled by bus or metro rather than in a chauffeur-driven car.
Will Pope Francis become a John XXIII, another elderly pope, who threw open the doors and windows of the Catholic Church to new ideas by calling the Second Vatican Council?
The crisis engulfing Catholicism is multifold: for the world at large, the church is increasingly irrelevant; even for the 1.2 billion nominal Catholics, what the pope and bishops say is far remote from their daily experiences, and they have been drifting away in large numbers; Catholic bishops preach a strict sexual morality, including bans on sex outside marriage or use of contraception, not to speak of a strict “No” to abortion, divorce, and gay marriage; but bishops across the world have covered up when their priests have been found guilty of the heinous crime and mortal sin of sexually abusing children.
Inside its Vatican heartland, the church is being torn apart by not one but several unholy scandals. These go far beyond the normal bitchiness and infighting that happens in any bureaucracy. Apart from the connivance at clerical abuse of children, they include questions about the role of the Vatican bank in money laundering and, the alleged existence of a clandestine gay sex ring of priests inside the Vatican and blackmailing of them.
Joanna Moorhead, a former deputy editor of the Catholic Herald, savagely expressed the hurt that ordinary Catholics feel in an article in The Guardian last month. “How could an organization that professes a direct link to Christ — ‘You are Peter,’ Jesus told the first bishop of Rome, ‘and on this rock I will build my church …’ — have gone so far off the rails that it now seems a power-crazed, untrustworthy and corrupt institution, out to save its own skin at any cost,” she wrote.
“The descendants of Peter, the bishops and cardinals of today, seem more intent on smashing the rock to pieces than on building on it. … What has gone wrong with the church is, at heart, about a concentration of power in the hands of one tiny group. A tiny group of ordained, mostly Italian, men, when we are an enormous church of ordained and unordained men and women of all nationalities from right across the globe.”
It is a tough task to expect this man from a land far away, as Francis called himself, to tackle the concentration and abuses of curial power, when Benedict XVI, whose career was right at the stern center of the Curia, failed. One crucial problem is that the new pope and indeed all of his fellow cardinal electors were appointed either by Benedict or by his predecessor John Paul II, who both took a straight and narrow view of adherence to Catholic doctrine.
Francis has to decide whether to enforce the red lines marking obedience to narrow church doctrine, in which case those who stray away will grow, or to try to risk creating a more inclusive church. Benedict was prepared to accept a smaller church with a core of faithful members. But that narrow policy is not working, not least because of the betrayal by highly placed clergy of the strict rules, and the covering up of their sins by other higher placed clergy. The small church also runs away from the instruction given by Jesus Christ to his disciples to go and teach all nations a message of love for everyone.
Leaders of today’s institutional church, including the telegenic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, like to invoke the importance of tradition underpinning the pomp and panoply and rules and male domination and hierarchy. But critics point out that much of the so-called tradition dates back to the rise of the medieval monarchical papacy. Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books says that Peter was not even a bishop or a priest, “offices that did not exist in the first century.”
Historian Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” was a reference to Renaissance popes.
More important, the lifestyle of Jesus Christ is the antithesis of the way many modern princes of the church live. In choosing Peter as his rock, Christ chose someone who was all too weak and human and failed but kept trying. To me, the defining difference between Christianity and Islam is the forgiving God in Christ who loves us and forgives our weakness and failure as long as we keep trying.
Where does Francis fit in? He understands the bleeding of church membership. For all the boasts that Latin America is the future of the church, it is losing members to evangelical Christianity on the one side and secularism, materialism and atheism on the other. His view is different from Benedict’s. As archbishop he said: “We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a church becomes like this, it grows sick. … If I had to choose between a wounded church that goes out on to the streets and a sick, withdrawn church, I would definitely choose the first one.”
On troublesome sexual questions, Francis is orthodox, damning gay marriage and abortion, but he has shown understanding of the plight of wounded people living in a troubled world. As Jesuit provincial, Bergoglio was criticized for being too cozy with Argentina’s former military rulers. He has been prepared to lock horns with recent governments of Nestor Kirchner and his widow Cristina Fernandez, not only against the legalization of gay marriage, but also about their failure to stop the “immoral, illegitimate and unjust” growth of inequality in Argentina. He has also attacked “the demonic effects of the imperialism of money”.
Privately Bergoglio once joked that “They want to stick the whole world inside a condom.” That might be a rebuke to a world preoccupied with sexual matters and not enough with the wholeness and holiness of life; it might also be a rebuke to the church for its own preoccupation with sex and not enough with Christian living.
Kevin Rafferty, editor in chief of PlainWords Media was editor of The Universe, then the world’s best-selling Catholic newspaper in English.