Sunday, March 17, 2013

I Have Opinions On The Pope? - A Followup Guest Post from a Reader

Of course it was a quick conclave. Here I was in the midst of a very busy week, assuming that the new Pope would be chosen after approximately 267 ballots on a nice quiet weekend day. But nooooo...they had to be quick. So I haven't had a ton of time to give it the full weight of thought that the matter deserves. 

In order for this post to be worth reading, I will dispense with the mass media cliches now: South America, Pope cooks his own meals and rides the bus, Francis of Asissi, Jesuit, surprise choice, blah blah blah. All are fine points to mention, but they have been beaten to death in short order. Here are my thoughts so far on Pope Francis based on the points I made shortly after Benedict XVI's retirement announcement:

1) Did true self-examination through a collective exercise of the Sacrament of Reconciliation take place? In some ways we will never know. The conclave is the ultimate executive session. In some ways it appears as though the Church wanted the appearance of a change, which at least shows more savvy PR skills than they have displayed since John Paul II was riding high. The pre-selection reports indicated that the Curia's choice was a Brazilian (change!) while the primary Italian contender was the reformers' pick (more change!), and this report indicates that the Italian, Angelo Scola, sent his votes to Cardinal Bergoglio to send the Argentinian to a quick victory. 

If this choice is indeed nothing but a PR move, it is movement, because it indicates that enough of the Cardinals (all of whom appointed by either Benedict or John Paul II) recognized that change was needed, in particular a change to make the leity feel closer to the Vatican. Francis has a great narrative of a humble priest who tends to the poor and forgoes the trappings of power, with a holy name that symbolizes humility and reform. But much remains to be seen in terms of how much change he will actually create.

2) Sexual Abuse: The Greatest Crisis the Church FacesBased on what I have read, Pope Francis does not have much of a record in this regard. Much like many others, victims advocates are slightly optimistic because of the symbolism this selection is sending - hope and change and whatnot. But plenty of social justice-oriented clerics have failed this vital test. Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras is one of the more left-leaning Cardinals there is, but in 2002 he claimed that attention paid to sex abuse was caused by Jews influencing the media to gin up outrage. Yikes. Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium (now retired) was the great hope of liberals during the past conclave, and in 2010 he was revealed to have concealed the exposure of a Bishop's guilt in sexual abuse from public view. And most recently, Cardinal Roger Mahony was seen as more moderate, and advocated on behalf of liberal causes like immigration reform. But he also was exposed for having covered up abuse from priests and for that cover-up resulting in ongoing abuse - in other words, as bad as Bernard Law. And now his conservative Opus Dei successor is trying to clean up the mess. 

So the divisions on this matter do not fall according to traditional ideologies. It just came out that Francis was meeting with Cardinal Law (now holding a cushy gig in the Roman Curia). This is his first test on the issue. If he is sincere about addressing abuse head-on, he will strip Law of any power he currently has. And from there, he must subject all inquiries about abuse to civil authorities, with whom priests and any employees of the Church must cooperate with fully. He must declare - as Jesus did on the subject of taxes to Rome - that clergy and lay Catholics are all bound by civil law, and that zero tolerance will be the official policy from here on. 

He is a conservative, so I do not expect him to address the deeper foundations of abuse, such as sexual subjugation and the asinine vow of celibacy. But he can at least stand for the rule of law. 

3) The Benedict PrincipleIn some ways, the biggest hope we can hold out is that he will adhere to the precedent set by Benedict XVI, the radical admission of papal fallibility that led to resignation. Francis is 76, and by all indications is in good health. But if in 10 years he is 86 and in poor control of his mental and physical wherewithal, will he have the courage of character to step aside? If he does, in the spirit of Francis of Asissi, then he will leave behind a more humble Church. 

And that is progress. 

P.S. As an addendum, two points of view from prominent Catholic writers:

First, an optimistic take from Andrew Sullivan. 

Second, a pessimistic take from Garry Wills. 

Both are well worth reading and ring true in their own way.

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