New Pope, New Hope?

9 Dec

I’m an atheist (and a reluctant Buddhist), but that doesn’t mean I don’t take an interest in religion –  I’m keenly interested  in human psychology especially as it relates to political and social movements. I like to kid that I was raised lapsed (Catholic), because my family went to Church twice a year, but they were very disappointed when, at age fifteen, I refused to take Confirmation. Mainly because of what the neighbours might think.

I am also a great believer in the teachings ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament gospels, and do my best to live by them. They are hard. I don’t call myself a Christian, however, because I don’t believe that Jesus, if there was such a historical person, was any more divine than you or I (take that as you will). I also don’t call myself a Christian because I have only met two or three people who identify as such who actually live in accordance with these teachings – love thine enemy, turn the other cheek, camel and needle’s eye, the sermon on the mount, and so forth.

But I still sometimes dip my fingers in the holy water and cross myself when I enter a cathedral.

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So I am really fascinated by the early days of the papacy of Francis I. He made a good start in my eyes by taking the name of my favourite Catholic Saint, and showed further that he might break with tradition when he became the first pope in 1100 years not to choose a name already chosen by a previous pope (the previous was Pope Lando in 913, who of course named himself after a character from Star Wars).

In less than a year since his election, Francis has made some extraordinary statements and undertaken strong symbolic actions which set him aside from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. However, many critics argue that thus far, he has offered many words but not done much if anything to change the church. I would like to present the view here, gleaned largely through recent discussions with leftist atheist Italian thinkers and artists, that these critics may be mistaken – in their understanding of how both the church the papacy work.

First of all, the Pope is not an absolute ruler, able to change the structures of the church by fiat. Even if he has this power in theory, in practice things are more complex. He has to rule along with the curia, which doesn’t change overnight. And furthermore he has to get himself elected by the college of cardinals in the first place. What’s perhaps surprising is that Francis did get himself elected, which suggests a mood of change among the political leadership of the church. Then it’s also worth noting that there’s a difference between the clerical leadership and the administrative leadership, as in any other government, between the representatives and the public servants.

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Not unshackled: the chains which (allegedly) bound St Peter, the first pope, in Jerusalem and Rome

According to most Vatican observers, the main power of the pope is persuasive rather than legislative, which is precisely why it is his words that matter. Those who criticise Francis for being all talk no action are, I think, being slightly disingenuous. After all, when they criticised previous popes for their conservativeness, it was their words that drew criticism. Benedict XVI was a conservative pope, reactionary even, because of what he said. Therefore can Francis not be a progressive, even radical, pope, by dint of his words? Furthermore, these critics are missing something that was explained to me by my Italian colleagues, namely that the pope’s words are his actions. Whenever the pope publishes an official document, be it a bull or an apostolic exhortation (such as the recent one denouncing the ‘tyranny of capitalism’), it is seen as a major event by Catholics. That was the word used by my friends, ‘event’. So for the pope to so much as say that God loves all people, regardless of race, creed or sexuality, and ask who we mortals (himself included) are to judge gay people, that is seen as action, and a call to action, by his followers.

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Beyond this, I think it’s fair to say that even small actions on the part of the pope can have large ramifications, and Francis has gone beyond mere words. Let’s take a look at this (incomplete) list of actions he has performed that set him apart from his predecessors:

• Walking among the people and shaking their hands

• Personally telephoning the faithful who write to him in despair (“Ciao, sono Francesco” – “Hi, it’s Francis”)

• Embracing a disfigured man and touching his face (the man’s disease was not communicable, but how was Francis to know that?)

• Living in the Vatican hotel with other staff and eating in the communal dining hall, rather than in the papal apartments

• Driving his own 1984 Renault instead of taking the armoured popemobile

• Refusing to wear the sumptuous ermine robe and “Dorothy” shoes of his predecessors

• Washing the feet of inmates at a juvenile prison on Holy Thursday, instead of washing the feet of priests

These are small actions, but they are actions nonetheless, and for a population that has grown accustomed to papal opulence, ceremony, and distance, it demonstrates a desire to take on tradition, which may signal a willingness to take on the curia. Yes, it remains to be seen how this will play out, and what he will seek to change within the church and what he will succeed in doing. But Francis is no fool, he’s politically astute, he’s not about to go charging at the hierarchy of the church like a (papal) bull at a gate. After all, he wouldn’t be the first reformer in modern times to mysteriously die prematurely.

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Boards believed to be from the manger of the Nativity, S Maria Maggiore, Rome

My next question to my Italian colleagues was why the traditionally conservative church would elect such a pope in the first place. This is where I got some real insight into the source of the church’s power. It’s not the vast treasury under the Vatican, but the people who subscribe to Catholicism, all over the world, but perhaps particularly within Italy. What the church wants, more than anything else, they say, is support and a degree of consensus. They want a pope that people can rally behind. In the 1960s and 1970s, under the papacy of Paul VI, a moderate reformer, Italians did not necessarily adhere to the dictates of the church, nor did they idolise the pope. This may have still been a remnant of the suspicion towards the hierarchy of Rome fostered during the Second World War, where many people saw the papacy, as distinct from local clergymen, as siding with oppressive regimes. In the 1970s, Italians voted in favour of both divorce and abortion in referenda, despite the Church’s official opposition to both. Yet Italians by and large considered themselves Catholics.

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The pope is also the Bishop of Rome, this is his seat at St John in Lateran Cathedral

It may well have been part of the Vatican’s plan all along to create a populist pope so as to win back the Italian people. John Paul I, the smiling pope, may have been intended as such, but of course he died suddenly after only a month in office (another story). If this was the plan, a Polish pope seems a strange choice, but for whatever reason, during the 1980s, Italians started caring a lot more about what the Pope said than they had done for several decades. John Paul II, despite being conservative, was charismatic and very popular. He travelled more than any other pope before (or since). Apparently he was unpopular at first in Italy because he was not Italian, but that soon changed because of his charisma and populist approach. He was, however, hard-line with respect to church doctrine.

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Benedict XVI, on the other hand, was extremely unpopular, and during his term people left the church in droves. Hotels in and around the Vatican were empty. It was partly his lack of personal charisma, partly perhaps that he was German, but also his dogmatic reactionary stance, more conservative than his predecessor. The church realised it would have to move a little, and needed a pope who could reflect the changing attitudes of real Catholics, who have always (in modern times) been more progressive than the church itself, if they were to keep their support base. Francis was a clever choice in terms of this need – immediately popular, he was from South America, where the Catholic church is huge, but of Italian extraction, and extremely charismatic. I’m not certain that the church was fully aware of his politics, but I am sure they have pretty good sources.

Since his appointment, the faithful have begun to flock back to the church. I was in St Peter’s Square last week, and the lines to get in the basilica were longer than I have ever seen them in forty years of visiting Italy – and this was on a Monday afternoon. On Wednesdays, when papal audiences are held, Romans know not to attempt to drive anywhere near the Vatican City.

Will he approve of same-sex marriage? Will he approve of contraception? I think these are possible but they’re not going to happen with the current curia, and not in a hurry. Will he approve abortion? Will he allow women to become priests? I think probably not, but he’s surprised the crap out of me so far!

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Messiah says “Arrivederci!”

Photographs by the author except for:

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_21838593_italy–circa-2013-a-stamp-printed-in-italy-shows-pope-francis-i-circa-2013.html’>neftali77 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_21794214_brazil–circa-2013-a-stamp-printed-in-brazil-commemorative-of-pope-francis-i-visit-to-the-world-yout.html’>neftali77 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_23929915_argentina–circa-2013-a-stamp-printed-in-argentina-shows-pope-francis-i-circa-2013.html’>neftali77 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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2 Responses to “New Pope, New Hope?”

  1. Kate Foy December 9, 2013 at 7:58 am #

    Good to hear what the word on the street in Rome is about Francis. I have some hope that his words- as-action approach will at least nudge the curia long and give the green light to progressive Catholicism world-wide.

  2. Anca Mosoiu December 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Thanks for writing this Rob. I’m pretty surprised about what the Pope is doing these days. It seem controversial, yet it’s what Catholicism is supposed to be about. Wow.

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