The signs are hopeful, but the challenges are herculean.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a good, simple man. As Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires he used to cook his own meals and catch the bus to work with the other workers. These are good signs. His feet are on the ground, his toes in the dirt and his mind in the street. We can expect him to turn his back on Renaissance dress and Byzantine ceremonial, to take off the red shoes and cast aside the ermine and feathers, and return to the values of the Gospel – to simplicity, a marked preference for the poor and downtrodden, to justice for all, to healing and to a loving freedom from the harshness of the law. Francis I may even prove a force hostile to Wall Street, to the extravagances of greed and extreme capitalism, to corruption inside and outside the Vatican, and a champion of the fair-go for all.
But the challenges are serious and the forces lined up against him are strong and entrenched. He will need to take an axe to the Vatican bureaucracy. The Curia will dig in as they did against Pope John XXIII and against the visionary programme the bishops of the world initiated at the Second Vatican Council. He should not underestimate the power of passive resistance and of the fiefdoms in Rome hidden under the cloak of clerical service to the Church.
This new Pope will have to seek to restore the tainted credibility of a Church which has long resisted the values and processes of the modern world – accountability, openness, freedom, individual conscience, democracy and the breath-taking contribution of the sciences. This Church’s mind has been twisted out of shape over the years, particularly on issues of human sexuality, by some forms of pagan philosophy, by Gnostic teachings which have gained a foot-hold at various stages of her development, by the pessimism of Augustine as his teaching gained purchase down the centuries. The leaders of the Church have systematically railed against the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, preferring to support the ancient regimes, reactionary monarchs, dictators and repressive regimes. Once he has settled into the fisherman’s chair, Francis I will have to kick-start this huge institution. He will have to listen carefully to the world, step down into the marketplace and communicate with modern men and women in a common language.
Many consider that the pedophilia scandal among the clergy will be the principal problem facing the new Pope. It is undeniably of major and immediate concern, a leprous disease eating into the flesh of the institution. Tough decisions will have to be made, but this is only one of many critical problems Francis will have to confront.
Perhaps the most radical challenge to face the modern Church is to devise some way of involving women in its life and making them visible among the ranks of the hierarchical structure. Women have been treated disgracefully for centuries, both by the secular society and by the Church. While the world has changed and is changing, the Church has remained frozen in the past, and now this is a matter of justice. Women are not inferior to men. Their appearance on the earth was not a tragic mistake. They are not less intelligent than men, or more prone to sin, of less worthy, or the source of evil in the world. Church leaders, men as well known as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Tertullian, John Chrysostom and some Popes have spoken ill of women over the centuries and treated them with disdain. This has to stop. For the survival of the institution and in the name of justice, women have to become visible and powerful in the Church, whatever the cost to privilege and private power structures.
While gathering the courage to involve women in the sacramental processes of forgiveness or marriage or anointing, in the full celebration of the Eucharistic mysteries, there are steps which can be taken without delay. The community and the Vatican can appoint women to positions of real authority in the Roman congregations, in diocesan, international and national bodies. There is no reason why cardinals have to be ordained as priests or consecrated as bishops. At least half the College of Cardinals should be women (and some young women), and available to advise the Pope and to elect the next one. Rome has to develop and announce as quickly as possible a radical policy of the position of women in its super-clerical and excluding masculine world.
There is much to be done. The man chosen carries a heavy burden. The result of the conclave could have been considerably worse and, given the limited field of candidates, could hardly have been better. We wish him well.