Prints of Pope Francis are seen in a newspaper kiosk near the Vatican March 15, 2013. Reuters/Max Rossi
Does the election of the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as pope portend significant changes in the Roman Catholic Church? Pope John XXIII’s election in 1958 to succeed the politically cynical and spiritually conventional Pius XII was not expected to bring large changes. But the new pope initiated the Second Vatican Council, opened the church to the world and opposed war and injustice. When he died in 1963, some months before his ally John F. Kennedy, a newspaper noted “A Death in the Family of Mankind.”
The present new pope has taken the name of Francis, in recollection of Saint Francis of Assisi and his mission to the poor. That has occasioned considerable comment on his modest lifestyle, on his frequent pronouncements in favor of the dispossessed. Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit to hold the office, and the Jesuits are often socially engaged and intellectually cosmopolitan—and not afraid of modernity or secularism. In addition, Francis is the first pope in 1,300 years to come from outside Europe, even if he is from the most Europe-like of Latin American nations and the son of northern Italian immigrants.
A Jesuit colleague reminded me, wearily and warily, that Pope Francis is “very conservative.” He is very unlikely to reconsider clerical celibacy, allow women a larger and more independent role in the church, or encourage more autonomy at the base. He has been in fierce political conflict with the present Argentine government over its policies on abortion and same-sex marriage. A previous Argentine president termed him the leader of the opposition to the government now in place, successor to the civilian regimes that, after the military dictatorship of 1976–83, restored democracy and human rights to the nation. The admirals and generals who tortured and murdered thousands (and abducted scores of their children) were ideological siblings of European authoritarian movements like those of Franco and Pétain, which gave the Catholic Church sovereignty in culture and education. They were equally close to the Catholics who served Hitler and Mussolini in a common front against liberalism, secular modernity and “communism.” The pope will be haunted by his relationship, as senior Jesuit in Argentina, with its former dictators. When Bergoglio was appointed archbishop in 1998, he apologized for the failure of the church to oppose the dictatorship.
There is still a dispute as to whether the former cardinal’s sins were more than those of omission. In 2005, Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky published El Silencio, a book containing specific charges against Bergoglio that he, in turn, denied. It is difficult to believe that the matter will rest. Whether it will permanently or profoundly impair the pope’s moral authority is an open question. This aspect of the pope’s past is, decidedly, at least as important as his penchant for cooking for himself, using public transport and abjuring ostentation. We will be hearing more of it in the weeks and months to come.
The pope has never served at the Vatican, which may command the portals to heaven but is situated on earth. It is saturated with corruption, hypocrisy and nepotism, which have recently become so evident that the churchmen situated in Rome have had to confront the criticism, even revulsion, of the faithful. Demands for reform are loud in the church. The cardinals and senior clerics commanding the Vatican’s utterly untransparent collage of commissions, courts, directorates and offices are in effect heirs to a centuries-old tradition of delaying or blunting or negating reform. They are, above all, interested in retaining their privileges and powers—which are inseparable from the papal absolutism the reformers contest. They could not install one of their own as successor to the exhausted octogenarian who has left behind him a church in crisis, so they chose instead a septuagenarian with obvious political skills, a pleasing public persona, one lung—and no obvious passion for transforming the church. It is quite unclear what Francis will do when, in God’s slow time, he succeeds in deciphering the Vatican’s table of organization. It is even more unclear, on the uncertain supposition that he sympathizes with the divided and dispersed party of reform, what he can do. What we have experienced in the first days of his pontificate is baroque street theater. After the play, the characters withdraw, put on their customary garb, and life goes on as before.