Since the Second Vatican Council, of the early nineteen-sixties, some of Catholicism’s ancient rituals—Masses said exclusively in Latin, priests facing away from the congregation, meatless Fridays—have been revised. Others, such as how a new Pope is chosen, remain true to traditions that emerged in the Middle Ages. Last Wednesday in Rome, shortly after 7 p.m., white smoke rose from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, indicating that the hundred and fifteen cardinals within had picked a successor to Benedict XVI. An hour and a quarter later, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the seventy-six-year-old longtime Archbishop of Buenos Aires, stepped out onto a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to address the assembled throng as Pope Francis. It was a quick choice, made after just five rounds of voting, and it wasn’t wholly unexpected—at the 2005 papal conclave, Bergoglio was the runner-up to Joseph Ratzinger. Still, for the more than a billion Catholics around the world, it was a momentous occasion: for the first time, a priest from the Americas had succeeded St. Peter. “It seems that my brother cardinals have gone nearly to the ends of the earth” to find a bishop for Rome, Francis said. “But here we are.”
Compared with some Christian denominations, such as Anglicanism, the Catholic faith remains in robust shape. But with church attendance falling in many countries, and with the ramifications of the sex-abuse scandal still being felt from Los Angeles to Rome, the key issue for many Catholics (and lapsed Catholics) is whether Francis will move the Church in a more progressive direction than his conservative predecessors Benedict and John Paul II. In the past twenty-five years, Catholicism has been through a counter-revolution, which halted and in some cases reversed the tentative moves toward modernity that the Second Vatican Council ushered in. On issue after issue, the last two Popes reaffirmed the Church’s absolutist position and quashed any efforts to question it. Will Francis prove any different?
Given his nationality, the fact that he has never held high office in the Vatican, and his decision to adopt the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, whose members renounce material possessions and try to live their lives as Jesus lived his, there will be great hope invested in him. He himself has led a simple life: he lived in a modest apartment in downtown Buenos Aires, cooked his own meals, and rode the bus to work. He reads Dostoyevsky and Borges. He has a history of speaking up for the downtrodden—during a debt crisis a decade ago, he criticized austerity measures that hurt the poor.
But in other matters relating to Catholic theology he is conservative. A recent profile in the National Catholic Reporter noted, “Bergoglio is seen as unwaveringly orthodox on matters of sexual morality, staunchly opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception.” He has asserted that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children, which earned a public rebuke from Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. During the nineteen-seventies, as the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he opposed the rise of liberation theology, which many conservatives dismissed as a Marxist version of Christianity. Some critics even accuse him of being complicit with the military junta that kidnapped and killed progressive priests during the Dirty War, a charge that he denies. (In an authorized biography, published in 2010, he said that he sheltered many people targeted by the regime.)
Another strike against the notion of Francis as a reformer is the manner in which he was chosen. Every one of the cardinals who took part in his election was appointed by either John Paul II or Benedict. There was never any real prospect of such a carefully screened electorate picking somebody who could lead the “Vatican Spring” that Hans Küng, the dissident Swiss theologian, recently called for in the Times. In picking Bergoglio, the cardinals went for someone who epitomized the increasingly global nature of the Church but who could also be relied on to uphold traditionalist views.
Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that the cardinals were wrong and Francis will turn out to be more forward-looking in office than expected—a sort of Catholic version of Earl Warren, whom Dwight D. Eisenhower picked as Supreme Court Justice, in 1953. Eisenhower believed that he was appointing a moderate conservative, but under Warren’s leadership the Court issued a series of landmark decisions, expanding civil rights in areas such as education, voting, and criminal justice. If Pope Francis were to strike out in a new direction, he would theoretically have plenty of leeway. Whereas a Supreme Court Justice has to persuade a majority of his colleagues to go along with his views, the doctrine of papal infallibility allows the Pope to declare his interpretations of dogma beyond challenge. In practice, however, a Pope is less unencumbered.To get anything done, he has to bring along the Curia, the powerful and entrenched Vatican bureaucracy. After losing out to Ratzinger in 2005, Bergoglio expressed relief, telling an Italian reporter, “In the Curia I would die.” At seventy-six, does he now have the will and the strength to confront the forces of stasis?
There is a precedent for an elderly new Pope’s surprising his electors. In 1958, when John XXIII was chosen, at the age of seventy-six, to succeed Pius XII, the long-serving Pontiff who had incited controversy by failing to confront the Fascist powers during the Second World War, most observers thought that he would be a mere placeholder. But, just three months into his office, it was John who announced that, after a gap of almost a hundred years, he was convening a second Vatican Council to reconsider the Church’s doctrines and practices. He didn’t live to see the results; he died in 1963, and the Council didn’t conclude until 1965. But he started the process that culminated in a series of reforms that invited lay people and the congregation as a whole to play a more participatory role in the Church.
If Francis can find it in himself to follow John’s example, there will be plenty for him to do, beginning with being more open about the sex-abuse scandal and taking more concrete action to rectify it. It is probably too much to hope that Francis will change the Vatican’s stance on issues like gay rights, the ordination of women, and celibacy in the priesthood. Yet, in turning the Church to the teachings of St. Francis, in demonstrating that it is more interested in alleviating poverty and helping the afflicted than in staking out doctrinaire positions on things like contraception, he would at least be shifting it in the right direction.♦