The first southern pope
Pope Francis inherits a mess but has great opportunities. He will need to act quickly
EVEN non-believers and non-Catholics should care about the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Pope Francis. The church which he will now head matters. Its unique privileges in the secular world (such as statehood and a voice at the UN) open it to secular scrutiny. Its good works (such as orphanages and hospitals) are vital. It matters in diplomacy, especially in behind-the-scenes peacemaking. It helped destroy Soviet communism, a global evil. Its stubborn defence of religious freedom is a headache for China’s rulers.
Outsiders should mind when Francis’s church does harm too. Opposing the use of condoms in Africa may have made sense in theological terms (though even believers often found the stance baffling). But the result was to help HIV to spread, consigning many innocent people to needless pain and death. The church’s cover-up of sexual abuse over past decades in many countries was illegal and compounded the victims’ hurt. The Vatican Bank, another quirky privilege of the Holy See’s special status, has failed to curb money-laundering. And, from sectarian chants at Scottish football matches to the outgoing Pope Benedict’s clumsy criticisms of Islam, tensions with other religions can turn into violent strife.
Yet it is as the world’s largest membership organisation that the church has its biggest role. It makes its 1.2 billion people—rich and poor, of all ages and conditions—feel that they are part of some sort of larger world order; that even in the poorest and most benighted country, their hopes and fears count and that someone in authority is listening to them.
For this last reason alone, Francis is an earthquake (see article). Just as the election of a Pole in 1978 helped presage the fall of the iron curtain and the reunification of Europe, the Argentine’s election heralds the shift in economic—and political—power from north to south. With John Paul II, the papacy stopped looking like a club for Italians; with Francis it is no longer a club for Europeans. The sight of a southerner in the Vatican will be as important, in its way, as the arrival of the first black man in the White House.
All this symbolism will count for little, though, if nothing changes. Despite his age and his closeness to the conservative Benedict, Francis may be a reformer. It is hard to imagine a man who ditched his limousine and palace in Buenos Aires and took the bus to work from a humble flat putting up with nonsense from Vatican smoothies. In Europe religion may be declining; in Latin America Christianity—albeit of many kinds—is still thriving. He is also an outsider in another sense: the first Jesuit to become pope.
What should he do? A secular newspaper has to divide its suggestions into two groups: reforms to church doctrine that many conservative Catholics, including Francis, may disagree with; and managerial ones that all Catholics can support.
In terms of doctrine, the list of rules that the church defends with great cost and mixed success begins, from our perspective at least, with priestly celibacy. Many priests are married—ex-Anglicans, and the Byzantine-rite Catholics of eastern Europe. All the scriptural evidence suggests that the first pope, Peter, had a wife. Allowing other clergy to do likewise would help stem the decline in the priesthood and relieve a great burden of suffering and loneliness. With that taboo gone, others could follow, such as the ban on artificial contraception.
This may be too much for Francis. But there should be no debate about the urgent managerial need to clean up and modernise the Vatican. The church is scandalously badly run. Francis will have only a short time to make urgently needed changes, sorting out the squabbling cliques of clerical civil servants who drove Benedict to distraction. He needs to confront both the sex-abuse scandal and the financial scandals (especially in America). As the first southern pope, he should also surely move more of the church closer to its congregation. Ditching his Italian holiday residence for a southern one, in Latin America, Asia or Africa, would be a start. Rejigging the college of cardinals, a third of whom are Italian, should be a priority. Deal with these, and Francis will have a better chance of getting across his central messages of love and justice.