By March 2014 Pope Francis, or Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was a year in to his tenure as leader of the planet’s largest religious organisation. Bergoglio, formerly the archbishop of Buenos Aires, had taken charge of a church whose members believe him to be the final authority on all holy matters. But interestingly enough, some in the secular world are beginning to think the same.
We are used to people like the Dalai Lama, who represent a very personal and non-invasive form of religion, being accorded praise from within and without their congregations. In recent years however, the Catholic establishment has been almost exclusively defined by its approach to matters of sexual morality (homosexuality, contraception, etc.), and its incompetent reaction to the child abuse scandal. Pope Benedict’s resignation, the first by a pontiff in over half a millennium, was of course spurred by the PR-storm the Vatican found itself in. And when Catholic laypeople were themselves leaving in droves, any talk of projecting a positive image onto the wider world would have been laughable.
With their immense power, popes have a unique ability to force change, and this is what is crucial in an institution that needs radical quantities of it. With the Catholic Church swimming in accusations of immoral and illegal activity, the worst possible kind to boot, Francis can be held to a demanding standard. The Pope’s ability to affect change is not limited to the Catholic sphere either. When you’re at the helm of a collective embodying 1 out of every 7 people alive, you are responsible for much much more.
Earth’s most influential people have always appeared to hold the Pope in high esteem, but even here there now seems to be a change in the wind. Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the Vatican last week was her first abroad since 2011’s to Australia, and like Obama when he was personally given a copy of Francis’ work Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospels) a week earlier, the Queen and Pope exchanged gifts. The Pope has described Evangelii Gaudium as a statement of his intentions for the Vatican, and Obama said, “I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength.”
One of the central themes of Evangelii Gaudium (arguably as it was in the gospel), is inequality and poverty. Such themes could give the Democrats, particularly the more left-of-centre economic populists, the resolve they need in the upcoming battle with the deeply entrenched plutocratic political class. It is this ability to inspire Davids rather than Goliaths that characterises the ‘Francis factor’.
There are fairly few doctrinal differences pre and post-Francis, but it is the change in focus that counts, as a recent theological conference at Jesuit-run Georgetown University noted. Rather than pick on the already embattled women and sexually oriented minorities of our time, Francis has chosen largely to fight against those who create rather than experience suffering and oppression. By saying “who am I to judge” when asked about homosexuals who want to practice Catholicism, asking the world at Lampedusa to remember “how to cry” for refugees, kissing the feet of female Muslim prisoners, or assuring atheists their good deeds may earn them a place in heaven, Francis truly sets wonderful precedents that the liberals in the church can at last look forward to building on.
Francis’ ability to also pinpoint institutional rather than isolated injustices, like the dog-eat-dog social Darwinism of unfettered capitalism, has earned him the scorn of neoliberalism’s most vociferous defenders. Rush Limbaugh described the Pope as a “Marxist,” and his criticism isn’t entirely misplaced, as one of the Catholic Church’s greatest traditions is the critique of dominant economic systems’ excesses. Unapologetically, the Pope described the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh, and the economies complicit in it, as representing “slave labour.” On a separate occasion Francis described capitalism as idolatry and tyranny.
Francis’ simple attire, which he said like his namesake Francis of Assisi, is in itself a direct challenge to the vanity of the day. Other senior figures in the Church have already started imitating him. On top of it all, the Pope drives a Ford Focus, often cooks his own meals, and immediately chose to avoid living in the luxurious Papal palace. Francis has taken more combative action as well; by firing Germany’s Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, or “Bishop Bling,” he is reminding everybody of the distaste for ostentatious wealth that a life in the developing world can instil.
Francis is far from perfect–he has only just named the people who will sit on the child sex abuse commission and has yet to come even close to supporting women’s ordination (though he did advocate the creation of a ‘women’s theology’). Not to mention that, while the Pope is making advances like reforming its bank, the Vatican still sits on mind-blowing quantities of hoarded wealth. And, Bergoglio entered the Papacy accused of not doing enough to fight Argentina’s fascist regime during the dark days.
Ultimately though, Francis doesn’t have to reach perfection if he is simply capable of being a force for more good than evil in world, or if one can say he is a huge improvement over his predecessor. To one of these things observers can almost certainly say yes, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say both.
When the Pope blesses a statue of a homeless Jesus near St. Peter’s Square, falls to his knees and confesses his sins to an ordinary priest, or the theologian, George Mannion, at Georgetown’s conference describes Evangelii Gaudium as “ecclesiological dynamite” — clearly something is amiss. Mannion continues to say, “there is no sugar-coating” it, the exhortation has “little substantive continuity with the ecclesial agenda” of Francis’ predecessors.
If what Mannion says appears to portray radicalism, add to this the Pope’s words that a true church should be poor and for the poor, or the Vatican’s creation of a Council of 8 Cardinal Advisers (C8) which Francis has filled with other collegial members of the Catholic hierarchy. Professor Alberto Melloni, an ecclesiastical historian, has described the decentralisation of power embodied by the C8 secretariat as the “most important step in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries”. And it’s worth reminding oneself, a millennium ago, the Catholic Church was only a third of the way through its life. If in just a year the 266th, but 9th youngest Pope can transform a thousand years of tradition, imagine what else he may leave behind.
Co-writer: Peter Hardy