New Pope, old Church

04/04/2013

The unexpected and unusual resignation of Pope Benedict XVI last February shook the solid and stagnant foundations of the Catholic Church, the only contemporary institution with medieval roots. The Church has a vertical power system that excludes women and the faithful, whom it sees as sheep that must be led, and functions as a state, its headquarters in Vatican City. The Pope is the head of that state and the Bishop of Rome, leading 1.2 billion Catholics who see him as the representative of God on earth.

The College of Cardinals, in a conclave (by definition, secret), chooses the Pope, who rules for life. The last resignation was 600 years ago. Benedict, 85, gave age and lack of energy as his reasons for leaving, having written before he resigned that Popes should have that option. It took a few weeks to assemble the Cardinals, many of whom had been appointed by Benedict or his predecessor, John Paul II, and for them then to elect the new Pope. Benedict was named Pope Emeritus and for the first time there will be two Popes, one active and one retired.

Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected in just five voting rounds. He was not the favorite. There was speculation that the new Pope would be Latin American, possibly from Brazil, as 40 percent of the world’s Catholics are Latin American and the majority of them live in Brazil. The initial surprise was that the new Pope would not be from Europe, but other surprises followed. He is the first Jesuit, an order distinguished for its resistance to the power and bureaucracy of the Vatican (the Curia), as well as its intellectuality and liberal, progressive outlook.

Bergoglio appears to be a frugal and simple man: as Archbishop he used public transport and lived in a small apartment. He chose the name Francis, for the Saint of Assisi, a symbol of humility and the poor. He is, however, considered a conservative.

The news has been filled with editorials and opinion pieces in favor of and against the Church, the resignation of Benedict and the enthronement of Francis. It has been said that Benedict resigned due to the furor surrounding the numerous cases of pederasty and sexual abuse by priests, the deliberate concealment of this by Church leaders and the “Vati-leaks,” which told of corruption and financial scandal. Commentary against Francis cited his possible involvement in the “dirty war” of the Argentine military junta and assertions that he is a Jesuit sui generis who allegedly likes power and is virtually European. Francis is of Italian descent, as are many Argentines. In any event, there has been much discussion of a Catholic Church in crisis, whose strictures run counter to the current reality faced by its faithful.

However, many of the faithful don’t care. Some may take pride in being Latin American or Argentine, but they still live in poverty, are poorly educated, read little and swear by their local priest, whether he is celibate or not. The religion they practice is a mixture of beliefs, customs, superstition and magic, and not always in accord with the Church’s teachings. They worship the images of Christ, saints and virgins that fill their homes and serve as protective amulets that help them endure their lives and achieve the impossible as well as, eventually, eternal
salvation.

A smaller, more fortunate, informed and educated group tends to ignore many of the Catholic precepts and obligations and follow a religion of convenience more in agreement with their modern worldview than with the rules of an out-of-date and conservative Church. They believe in Christ, but only go to Mass on occasion. They would prefer a democratic Church with greater female participation and acceptance of today’s realities, such as family planning, birth control and abortion; a Church that accepts different sexual preferences and religions and the openness of today’s world; that fights against the excesses and abuses of the rich and powerful and against labor and sexual exploitation; which recognizes ethnic and social differences and battles for the poor. Obviously, there are others whose beliefs, practices and attitudes lie somewhere between these two positions.

Experts agree that Francis, at age 76, will not make many changes, but will have to cope with the strong wind of criticism confronting an outdated though materially wealthy institution that is devalued ethically and morally and on the defensive. Current legislation in many countries, along with modern media and technology, makes it more likely that priests will be caught and prosecuted for violating (primarily sexually) the basic rules of the Church and the law. This costs the Church a great deal of money, credibility and parishioners of every social level, many of whom prefer Protestant sects or charismatic cults that offer more immediate relief and closer involvement, or who move away, feeling that the Church and its leaders no longer respond to their material or spiritual needs.