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Last week I discussed the first reason you can read my dissertation on this site, and said that this week I would talk about the second reason. But I’m going to put that off until next week, to speak this week of a current event.

Pope FrancisI refer, of course, to the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. The selection of a pope is a philosophically significant event, for a pope is in some respects among the modern age’s closest equivalents to a philosopher-king: a man trusted by millions or even billions of people to decide the truth about ultimate reality and what is good. And the selection of this pope in particular seems to me an excellent one, a man much better suited for this role than I expected him to be.

Those hoping for liberal positions on contraception or homosexuality, let alone abortion, are going to be disappointed with this pope. A quick browse of his Wikipedia entry should be sufficient to indicate that. But it could hardly have been otherwise, given that the vast majority of cardinals making the decision (including Bergoglio himself) were appointed by the very conservative John Paul II, who chose many of them on those grounds. Disappointment on that sort of hope was inevitable.

This pope, however, brings a different sort of hope. It has been the case for decades that the majority of the world’s Catholics live in the poor countries of the “Third World” or “global South” – Africa, Asia and especially Latin America. It is they who make Catholicism the largest denomination in the world – larger than all of Buddhism or Islam. Yet before Francis, the last pope to come from outside of Europe was Gregory III in 731. (Not 1731.)

In a certain sense these two points go together, for it’s the poor countries that energize theological conservatism. This issue has been splitting the Anglican or Episcopal Church for years now, as its North American branches move towards full acceptance of homosexuality and the African churches resist. Some of the bishops’ motivation in appointing Bergoglio may have been to leverage the Global South’s support for social conservatism.

But that social conservatism is only half the story – and given the circumstances, the less interesting and important half. For what Jorge Bergoglio was most known for, before becoming cardinal and pope, was a commitment to social justice and the poor – a concern at least as important to him (and propbably much more so) as the doctrinal orthodoxy that made Joseph Ratzinger famous before his papacy. Karol Wojtyła was known above all for his opposition to communism – to a system that, while destructive and inhumane, legitimated itself in the name of the poor. But Bergoglio? Note this profile of him from 2005, when he was the runner-up to Ratzinger:

Cardinal Bergoglio regularly travels to the furthest ends of his three million-strong diocese to visit the poor. He wants [his priests] in the neediest barrios, in the hospitals accompanying Aids sufferers, in the popular kitchens for children…. Bergoglio is admired as being far from the powers of this world, indifferent to his media image, preoccupied by 

the future of society, and a man looking always for new forms of social solidarity and justice in a country where 15 per cent are unemployed and thousands rummage through the bins at night looking for something to eat…. In the economic crisis of 2001-2002, when Argentina defaulted on its debt, people came out on to the streets and supermarkets were looted, Bergoglio was quick to denounce the neo-liberal banking system which had left Argentina with an unpayable debt.

Accompanying this interest in the poor is a notable asceticism, a willingness to live similarly to them: he was known for always taking the bus even when he could have a limousine, living in a simple apartment instead of a mansion. The combination of voluntary poverty and of advocacy for the involuntary poor calls to my mind Gandhi – a man who had his own deeply problematic views, but nevertheless managed to bring about great change for good.

I have frequently been critical of Engaged Buddhism because I think it distorts the valuable (implicit and explicit) anti-political lessons that the Buddha and his followers taught. But I cannot say the same about what one might call Engaged Christianity. The recorded sayings of Jesus explicitly stress the importance of giving to the hungry, the needy, even the imprisoned – a very different kind of giving from Buddhist dāna. Chapter 25 of the book of Matthew even says that it is whole cultures or even nations (Greek ethnos) that will be judged for how they treat the poor, not individuals – thus implying that it is the responsibility of those nations’ rulers to do so.
Jesus himself, it’s worth noting, is not recorded as saying anything explicit about homosexuality, contraception or even abortion. The Hebrew Bible and the letters of Paul are another story, as are the millennia of Catholic tradition that follow them, and these do all matter. But for a church that explicitly claims to derive its authority from a lineage to Jesus of Nazareth, I don’t see how it makes sense to emphasize the political issues that Jesus didn’t talk about over the ones that he did. And this pope may well bring the church’s politics closer to Jesus’s.

More subtly, the new pope’s choice of name is a surprise, even a startle. The first thing a pope does after accepting the job is choose a new name, and it’s always expected to be full of symbolism. The last pope whose name did not follow a previous pope’s was Marinus I, in 882 – almost as far back as the last non-European. The only pope to be “the first” since that time was John Paul I, who explicitly chose the name to honour the two previous popes (John XXIII and Paul VI) simultaneously. And whatever else you may think of the popes, they know their church history; Bergoglio knew that to do something with no precedent in the past 1100 years was to symbolize a break with the past. So too is the choice of the name Francis, presumably after Francis of Assisi (it could perhaps be his fellow Jesuit Francis Xavier, but those who are named after the latter usually include the Xavier in their name as well.) Francis not only lived in voluntary poverty and worked with the poor and destitute, he also worked to rebuild what he knew to be a church organization in ruins. No less than Benedict XVI himself said this of Francis of Assisi:

Three times Christ on the Cross came to life, and told him: “Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins”. This simple occurrence of the word of God heard in the Church of St Damian contains a profound symbolism. At that moment St Francis was called to repair the small church, but the ruinous state of the building was a symbol of the dramatic and disquieting situation of the Church herself. At that time the Church had a superficial faith which did not shape or transform life, a scarcely zealous clergy, and a chilling of love. It was an interior destruction of the Church which also brought a decomposition of unity, with the birth of heretical movements. Yet, there at the centre of the Church in ruins was the Crucified Lord, and he spoke: he called for renewal…

Such a choice of name gives me significant hope for Francis’s church. No, it’s not going to mean liberalization on sexual teachings. If you expected that, you weren’t paying attention. But it does suggest that things under this pope are not going to be business as usual. There may well be reason to hope that the church will finally take steps to atone for its most grievous sin of the past few decades: its coverup and silencing of child sexual abuse. One hardly needs to be a doctrinal liberal to recognize that something is deeply, deeply wrong with an institution in which the rape of children runs rampant and unchecked. A pope who teaches it’s okay for men to have sex with men is too much to hope for, at least right now. A pope who begins a serious, binding investigation to root out sexual abuse at all levels of the church is not.

Pope Francis brings new hope to an organization that needs it. As ever, hope opens the door to disappointment. But some hopes can actually be fulfilled.