Can Pope Francis restore the faith?

High expectations typically accompany the election of a new Pope. But if history tells us anything, it is that such expectations can be quickly turned on their heads.

High expectations typically accompany the election of a new Pope. But if history tells us anything, it is that such expectations can be quickly turned on their heads.

Who, initially, would have expected that Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII), the ailing 77-year-old elected as a stopgap Pope in 1958, would go on to initiate the greatest shake-up of the church in 100 years: the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)? Or who, initially, would have thought that Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years and one who came from a communist dictatorship, would recentralise power in Rome and impose what many now regard as a distinctly anti-Vatican II discipline on the church?

But early reaction to the election of Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has largely ignored this advice and so most commentators were quick to interpret his election as a sign that the princes of the church were sending a powerful message that the future lies in the global south. True, Bergoglio is the first non-European Pope in more than 1200 years. But he is also said to have run a close second to Josef Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) in the 2005 balloting and shares much of his, and John Paul II’s, theological conservatism. That may indicate as much a desire for continuity in his election as anything more.

Much has also been made of the fact that Bergoglio, a frugal man himself, has chosen Francis as his papal name. Most have interpreted this to allude to St Francis of Assisi who identified with the poor and marginalised. But Bergoglio may also be thinking of a fellow Jesuit, Saint Francis Xavier, who is remembered less for his humility than for embarking on an ambitious missionary quest to take the Catholic faith to Asia.

The point is that how Pope Francis is likely to lead the Catholic Church is far less certain than what his leadership is challenged to do. But again, any listing of priorities falls victim to particular points of view.

In the English-speaking world, the clerical sexual abuse scandal, questions about the participation of ordinary laity (and especially women) in the church, and arresting the decline in attendance and other signs of weakening attachment to the church come easily to mind. But from the perspective of Latin America (now home to more than 40 per cent of the world’s Catholics), Africa (15 per cent) and Asia (11 per cent), questions of social justice (development and poverty) and the challenge from other faiths and churches (Islam, Protestant, Evangelicals) are of much greater urgency.

Whatever the new Pope’s own priorities might be, some things are fundamental to the success of a pontificate. First among these is the position of the papacy itself and its relationship to the world’s bishops. For the majority of Catholics today the main example of what a Pope should be was provided by John Paul II.

With his charisma, extensive travels and media savvy, John Paul II inflated the role of the Pope from first among equals to the church’s maximum leader. He also took over a revision of canon law begun by his predecessor and weakened the role of bishops in the management of the church. The Synod of Bishops (a group of bishops from around the world who meet to assist the Pope in discharging his responsibilities) was placed directly under papal authority.

Though never conceived as more than a body for ‘‘consultation and collaboration’’, this codification had the effect of rendering the synod little more than a rubber stamp for decisions already made by the papacy. National conferences of bishops – which had become particularly active in the 1970s and the early 1980s – were similarly undermined.

The result was that a collegial style of church governance was replaced with top-down management that locked out a good deal of creative talent and closed down local initiative.

Following from this is a need to reform the Curia – the extensive bureaucracy in the Vatican that assists in the running of church affairs. Over the years this has become part of the hierarchy of the church rather than a body in service to the hierarchy.

Speaking on this issue, Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell observed recently that ‘‘the governance is done by most of the people around the Pope, and that wasn’t always done brilliantly’’.

The fact that Pope Francis is the kind of Roman outsider he is could strengthen his prospects for bringing the Curia to heel – if that is what he decides to attempt. In this regard, his Jesuit background is more important than his Latin American one.

Known for their intelligence, discipline, and penchant for palace intrigue, the Jesuits have had a prickly relationship with Rome.

The order (founded in 1539) was dissolved temporarily by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 after its energetic missionary work had led to its expulsion from the colonies of France, Spain and Portugal. Even John Paul II suspended the order’s internal regulations in 1980 and intervened in the election of its superior-general (known as the ‘‘Black Pope’’ in recognition of the order’s influence and because Jesuit dress is black) in an attempt to rein in its social activism.

Now, it seems, the tables have turned. With such a formidable army of colleagues behind him, Francis may feel less dependent on the Curia than his predecessors and more comfortable with root-and-branch reform. But let’s remember it was John XXIII who took on the Curia and John Paul II who largely strengthened its hand.

Beyond these internal challenges is the larger issue of the church’s ongoing role and identity. The Second Vatican Council rejected the notion of the church as a kind of perfect society that could stand aloof and dictate to everyone else, in favour of the notion of a ‘‘pilgrim people’’ moving forward with humanity in search of a better world.

Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the rhetoric returned to the conflict between the church and secular society. (John Paul II’s initial response to the clerical sexual abuse scandal was even to lay the blame at the permissiveness of secularism rather than anything peculiar to the church itself.)

For many, even many who still call themselves Catholic, the church now seriously lags behind movements for change coming from the secular realm: things such as human, women’s and gay rights, effective measures to counter the spread of AIDS, population control and environmental awareness.

The Catholic Church is almost unique in that it harbours a well-developed moral theology – a teaching about how to live well. But most of this has been obscured by its attention to a narrowly defined set of instructions on sexual behaviour that are routinely ignored and lampooned.

If Pope Francis is to save the church, he must find for it a language that talks to people about their authentic experience and how faith can enrich and enliven it. Organisational reform alone will not do this: stylistic changes will have even less lasting effect. A 2000-year-old legacy stands ready to explode on the world or implode further on itself.

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