The politics of Pope Francis

The church has been hit by scandal in recent years, but will a new pope be able to move it on?
The church has been hit by scandal in recent years, but will a new pope be able to move it on?

By Nick Spencer

The universe has been re-balanced, its yin and yang restored. Having lost one election this week, by a margin that would have been suspect in most countries on earth, Argentina has now won another, by fewer votes, but to greater effect.

March 13, 2013 was a day of firsts. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope, and the first Latin American Pope. A contender after John Paul II's death in 2005, many thought he was too told, at 76, to ascend Peter's throne this time round. Bergoglio was not technically an outsider, if only because there were no real insiders, but he is nonetheless a surprising choice.

The 266th pope was born in Buenos Aires. Originally intent on becoming a chemist, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1958, and began studying for the priesthood, to which he was ordained in 1969. Having studied in Germany and in South America, as well as being of Italian descent, he knows and to some extent unites Old and New worlds.


Recognised as having a keen mind, he is better known for his character, humility, pastoral skill, and his simplicit - living in a basic apartment rather than an archepiscopal palace, travelling by public transport rather than chauffeured car and cooking for himself rather than employing domestic servants.

He spent much of the 1970s serving as the Jesuit's Provincial for Argentina during a period of intense political violence and repeated coups d’état. Although not openly hostile to the liberation theology popular among many South American priests at the time, nor was he supportive, insisting on the more traditional Ignatian spirituality that underpins his order and ensuring Jesuits continued to serve in parishes and as chaplains rather than turning to more overt political activism. Accusations concerning his conduct during this period surfaced during the last papal transition in 2005, and some, like Hugh O’Shaughnessy writing in the Guardian in 2011, have singled him out for criticism, decrying that "what one did not hear from any senior member of the Argentine hierarchy was any expression of regret for the church's collaboration and in these crimes".

What the Church does not need is another scandal from the past to emerge and Pope Francis will be acutely conscious of the challenge bequeathed to him from his predecessors - the seemingly interminable tale of abuse and collusion that has come out over the last decade and more. Benedict XVI was determined to clean up this appalling mess and made inroads, but his successor still faces a Church that has badly lost credibility, particularly in those heartlands in which the abuse was apparently most widespread. Reforming a dysfunctional Roman curia which is, by various accounts, sclerotic, lazy, factional, self-serving, secretive or actively corrupt will be high up on the to-do list, but so may a decisive and dramatic public gesture, signalling the church’s sorrow and repentance for its crimes.

One of the tragedies of Benedict's papacy was that it mired such a brilliant mind – as anyone who has read his theology or his masterly papal encyclicals will testify –in such intractable and toxic scandal. Francis may not quite measure up to Benedict's academic record but nonetheless he will not want his time to be swallowed up by internal wrangling, not least as he seems to have a taste and a talent for pastoral and public engagement. As someone who is highly critical of economic inequality, political corruption, ecclesiastical vanity, he has the potential to take the teachings of Jesus Christ to the heart of public debate.

On matters of sexual morality, he is highly unlikely to change the course set by John Paul II and Benedict, opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. His comment that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children earned him a public rebuke from Argentina's President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Within fashionable liberal Western circles, such views will instantly grade him as deplorable. The fact he is also a man of genuine and deep compassion - visiting a hospice to kiss and wash the feet of a dozen Aids patients in 2001, for example - is unlikely to sway them.

What may, however, are his swingeing words on material inequality. "We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most, yet reduced misery the least," he said during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. "The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."

Perhaps most exciting for the future of Christianity, is Bergoglio's interest in evangelism. "We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church," he said recently. "It's true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that's sick because it’s self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former." It is not, of course, that Francis' predecessors have been indifferent to spreading the word; quite the contrary. Rather, it is that this new pope comes from an order renowned not only for its intellectual vigour and independence of mind, but for being perhaps the most successful missionary body in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. In this preference to be 'out there', even if being 'out there' means being vulnerable, he has much in common with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, who has welcomed him as an evangelist.

No-one should labour under illusions here, however. No one individual, however efficient an administrator, brilliant a theologian, sensitive a pastor, or passionate an advocate for the broken, can build or transform a church. Christianity did not spread like that and, when it is being true to its founder's principles, does not work like that. Instead it is nameless individuals, trying their best to imitate Christ, failing, and then trying again, who make the religion what, at its best, it can be. That noted, having a spiritual leader in whom such activity is a vivid, personal concern can make difference. The church, and the world, waits.

Nick Spencer is research director of Theos, the religion and society think tank.

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