Vatican Pope

Pope Francis: A primer for scoring his performance

White smoke billowed out of Vatican chimneys last week, heralding the arrival of a new Pope. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the name given up by seventy-six year old Pope Francis – the first to adopt that papal name. He’s also the first Jesuit Pope, the first pope from the Americas (he was born in Argentina of Italian parents), and was reportedly runner up to Ratzinger when the conclave lasted elected a Pope in 2005.

You probably already know this given the coverage over the past few days. You probably also already know that he maintains a hard line on Catholic doctrine – which is to say that he is against abortion, gay marriage, and gay adoption. Comparing him to the general population isn’t especially instructive – of course he’s going to seem conservative. It’s more helpful to consider him against just the community of religious leaders. If we do that then we find that, according to the National Catholic Reporter, he actually “straddles the divide between… liberals and conservatives in the church.”

For instance, he has spoken out about social injustices, claiming that ”the unjust distribution of goods persists” and that ”poor people … are persecuted for demanding work, and rich people … are applauded for fleeing from justice.” (Those two quotes were highlighted on Quora). Politico also reports that he passed up the chauffeur available to him in his role as archbishop to ride the bus, was also praised for washing and kissing the feet of patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, and spoke out against priests who refused to baptise children born out of wedlock.

In other words, he’s not socially progressive, but he speaks out about certain social justice and inequality. In that sense, he’s much better than some alternatives, and criticisms about his individual stance on gay marriage/adoption aren’t necessarily directed at the correct target.

Consider that a Pope who openly advocates gay marriage will need to have attracted at least 2/3 of the votes to be elected. This means that the election of a progressive Pope will require about 80 votes from other progressive religious figures, who are themselves selected to form the voting conclave of a much larger population of religious figures.

In other words, change within the church isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and it’s probably not going to be top down.

There is already the semblance of a grassroots push for change. Gay marriage and abortion are still up in the air, but ordaining women and allowing priests to marry sit are already at 59% and 67% approval amongst Catholics according to a poll by the New York Times.

Despite this, an American priest just last year was unceremoniously dismissed after ordaining a women – which, it must be said, is swifter and more decisive action than they’ve taken against paedophiles. (One member of this year’s voting conclave, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, was even stood down as Archbishop following allegations he had protected paedophiles).

The election of an international Pope such as Bergoglio might signal a positive move for the church, that it is looking outward; however, it also makes Francis far less likely to be the reformer people want. The breaking of the Vatican bureaucracy and corruption and the implementing of actual reforms against child abuse will be difficult to navigate through the closed and cloistered politics of the Vatican, which puts an outsider at a significant disadvantage.

Voting for priest isn’t done by a broad majority, it’s done by a small selectorate of insiders. To that extent, the voting represents their interests foremost. This isn’t to suggest that reform is hopeless, but to show how hard it’s going to be. It’s going to fall on much more than single individual.

In short, Bergoglio shouldn’t be given a free pass, but criticising the individual when the problem is much broader understates the problem. Worse still, having an individual fall guy can mask the more serious, systemic problems. It seems that some sort of super majority amongst Catholics of the impending collapse of the church in the West will be required to instigate the change that its followers (if not leaders) are after. And that’s before we even get to issues of gay marriage/adoption.

Until then, it seems, we could have worse. That this is about the best we can say is reasonably instructive.