By RUPERT SHORTT
Pope Francis I has many strengths, including a humble streak, a degree in chemistry, and a burning commitment to fighting poverty. He moved from the archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires into a small flat, and used public transport instead of a limousine.
As a pastoral bishop from outside Europe rather than a Vatican insider, he will know more than the other-wordly Benedict XVI about the lives of grassroots Catholics. Like his predecessor, though, the new Pope is intensely conservative on sexual morality, and has prompted complaints from politicians in the past for condemning gay marriage so fiercely.
He takes over a Church in crisis, and it will be a while before we can judge whether the conclave has elected a man equal to the challenges ahead.
Consider the following damning statements. “The Catholic Church is 200 years behind the times”. The scandal of paedophile priests should lead to a “transformation” in the way the organization is run. More broadly, the Church should “admit its errors” and introduce radical change, “starting with the Pope”.
These words come not from one of the usual suspects, but from Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who died last year and would himself have made a great reforming Pope.
Martini understood the crying need for greater transparency in the way the Catholic Church is run.
The world’s largest association is in so many ways a massive force for good. It is the biggest single supplier of healthcare and education on the planet. Visit the poorest places on earth, and you’re likely to find lay Catholics, nuns or priests supporting the most vulnerable. Their fellow believers champion the common good in a host of other situations.
But the contrast between heroism on the ground and the Vatican, which even Pope Benedict admitted to be riven by cliques and careerists, is glaring.
Fifty years ago, the Catholic Church reformed itself during and after the Second Vatican Council. Having previously turned its back on the world, condemning scientific developments, democracy and women’s rights, the Church began a grown-up conversation with modern society. The principle of “collegiality” – a technical term for teamwork – was championed.
Tragically, however, the revolution was stopped in its tracks – and then reversed – by Pope John Paul II. Strict central controls were reaffirmed, and with them the unaccountable power structures that had long blighted the Church’s reputation.
The joint architect of this regression was none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI. On becoming Pope himself eight years ago, he allowed a bad situation to fester. The absolute ban on artificial birth control was reaffirmed, as were the celibacy rule, the denial of Communion to remarried divorcees, and other teachings judged to be pastorally insensitive or incoherent by many. Catholics were banned from even discussing matters such as the ordination of women.
There is a link between such authoritarianism and the perverse management style that allowed paedophilia – along with other scandals, financial as well as sexual – to develop unchecked. So in addition to cleaning up the mess on his doorstep, Pope Francis would do well to introduce a more inclusive style of leadership overall. I hope that’s why the cardinals elected him.