Firstly, I should give this article some context. I am an anti-theist; that is I think our scientific advances have got us to the point where we can say with reasonable certainty that there is no God, rather than an atheist, who believes there is no God. I consider the Papal institution the longest unbroken line of tyranny and despotism in mankind’s history, responsible for the deaths and intellectual enslavement of millions. However, as they never tire of informing us, there are a billion Catholics in the flock and the whole sorry institution doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so we have to make do with the best we can get, from an extremely limited selection of ancient, bigoted megalomaniacs.
Jorge Bergoglio, the underdog candidate (despite coming second in the previous two Conclaves if reports are to be believed), is groundbreaking in many ways. The first Pope from South America represents a shift in the Catholic Church’s centre of gravity to its most ardent continent, and perhaps also a tacit admittance that the battle in the increasingly irreligious Europe is lost. He’s picked a whole new name. Which is nice, and the media informs me, brave. Hopefully the man who gets the bus to work and, heavens above, cooks his own meals, will continue to follow the example of Francis of Assisi; on the environment, on the role of women in the Church, and on living a simple life, though that may be difficult in the riches of the Vatican (insert red Prada shoe quip here). However, a cautionary note, while he appears to be a champion of the poor, his social activism basically boils down to a belief and knowledge of Christian theology will enable people to live in a frugal fashion, and the poor to bear their cross. Not exactly the New Deal.
There are more worrying noises coming from Argentina. He’s been accused of various things dating from the time of Argentina’s brutal dictatorship, ranging from being part of a wider complicit silence on the part of the Catholic Church, to accusations by journalist Horacio Verbitsky, in his book on the church called "El Silencio" ("The Silence"), that, as head of the Jesuit Church, he was implicit in the holding of two Jesuit priests in inhumane conditions. He denies the allegations, calling them “slander” and counters he was heavily involved in the priests avoiding execution, and hiding other threatened priests. He twice refused to testify in court. When he eventually appeared in front of a judge in 2010, he was accused by lawyers of being evasive. It should perhaps be mentioned the accusations against Bergoglio came to light in the build up to the Papal Conclave in 2005, which in the light of Angelo Scola having his house raided by police just as the Conclave doors were closing this time around, in investigation of somewhat tenuous Mafia links, should make us somewhat suspicious. God works in mysterious ways indeed.
While this cloud follows him across the Atlantic, perhaps more importantly for the Conclave Cardinals is that he has clear skies on the child rape scandals that have ruined the image of the Church. And this is where I get to the crux of my point, that Francis I is a much preferable Pope to his predecessor. Ratzinger came into the Papacy having served as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern equivalent of the Inquisition, and if that doesn’t terrify you initially, just Google the witchcraft trials that swept Europe, which can best be summed up in the words of Pope Innocent III; "Anyone who attempts to construe a personal view of God which conflicts with Church dogma must be burned without pity." This role meant that Ratzinger was in charge of all Church led investigations into paedophilia by its clergy, and thus, by extension, all failures in this regard eventually lead back to him. Worse, it is fairly clear that he acted to protect priests from the rule of law in these situations, while ignoring, or smearing the victims. It is instructive indeed that he has “chosen” to spend his last days in the immunity of the Vatican, safe from the summons of the courts. Let us hope, free from the web Ratzinger was ensnared in, Francis I can go some way to addressing these heinous crimes.
Equally important is his assertion that contraception can be used to prevent the spread of disease, a break from the traditional Catholic line. This message could save millions of lives, especially in the extremely Catholic areas of Africa. There is a story that Bergoglio washed and kissed the feet of AIDs victims, let us hope that he acts in the best interests of AIDs sufferers across the world, and begins reversing the damage that the dogma of supposedly celibate old men and their terror of human sexuality has wrought across countless families, generations and lives.
Unfortunately his view on homosexuality as “an attempt to destroy God’s plan” is par for the course for the Papacy. Worse is his view that homosexual couples represent child abuse, a view that, given the scandals he has been brought in to combat, he would be wise to keep to himself.
The Church is in dire need of reform. It is centuries behind modern views and modern society, and worse, much of its flock are now more enlightened than its leaders. It has grown bloated, reactionary and, in many areas, a laughing stock. Francis I represents, hopefully, a new start and a breath of fresh air into the cobweb covered cloisters. Already he is making the right noises, turning down limousines, simplifying ceremonies and paying for hotel bills. Of course I would prefer that there would be no one on Earth claiming to be infallible, but as there is, and there’s a billion people listening to him, I will have to settle for the hope that this Pope will use his power to modernise his Church, repeal the murderous doctrines of his predecessors, and change the priorities from useless theology and overblown ceremony to the real world concerns of his sheep.
So yes, I prefer this Pope, but all things are relative. And it’s early yet. Let’s hope his lung holds up.