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Pope Francis: The First Five Years. A confounding choice?

In this first part of a three-part series, Anthony Egan SJ looks at the first five years of Pope Francis’ pontificate. He recalls the events of 13 March 2013 and looks at how Pope Francis came to be elected. He considers why it was that the cardinals elected a Pope from the ‘end of the earth’, and examines the change of style that Pope Francis ushered into the Church. He notes that Francis’ style of leadership has won friends, and made enemies.

To attempt an analysis of a leader still in office is difficult. Analysing a public figure who seems to attract both adoration and loathing is even more challenging, because personal bias comes into play. Whatever my sympathies are for Pope Francis – and I must lay cards down firmly here: I have strong sympathy for him and share much of his vision for the Church – I must try to see multiple perspectives on his pontificate, both from within and outside the Church drawing on a variety of disciplines (notably theology, church history, political studies) and based as much on conversations I’ve had with religious and non-religious people, as well as articles, books and blogs I’ve read. Much as I am aware that terms like ‘radical’, ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ are inadequate descriptions of positions within religion in general and Catholicism in particular, for the sake of brevity I am going to use them.  Given the drift of my analysis, I hope readers will see why I do.

My argument is that Francis’ pontificate so far has dramatically changed the way the Catholic Church has come to be seen (by insiders and outsiders) over the last four decades. Francis’ style of leadership has won friends, and made enemies. The reforms he has made to the Church are significant, though on closer analysis more cautious than some imagine. They have generated greater expectations from some, while to others they seem to have gone too far.

But to understand this pontificate we need to start on 13 March 2013, the day of his election.

A geographical shift?

Very few Vatican watchers predicted the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When the cardinals went into conclave there were in fact no obvious ‘frontrunners’. His election however makes perfect sense in retrospect.

The centre of gravity of Catholicism has been shifting away from the Global North – Europe and North America – to the Global South. The Catholic Church in Europe has been in rapid decline: growing secularism, indifference to religious institutions and widespread opposition to the Church’s teachings on sexuality, abortion, euthanasia and gender issues has led to smaller and smaller congregations. Even bulwarks of the faith in Eastern Europe, where Catholicism was for decades the alternative to Communism, have started to decline now that Communism has fallen. In North America the ‘culture wars’ between liberal and conservative Catholics – over much the same issues as in Europe – has led to a substantial drop in the Catholic population. This is clearly suggested by a survey published a few years ago that in the United States the third largest ‘denomination’ – after Catholicism and Baptists – is ‘ex-Catholic’.

Faced with this, it seems hardly surprising that the conclave decided to elect someone from the Global South. But why Argentina?

Argentina – and Buenos Aires in particular – is, with Chile perhaps, the most European country in Latin America. It is heavily Italian in cultural make-up, particularly Buenos Aires. It is a complex mix of deep faith and secularity, piety and psychoanalysis. (Buenos Aires is believed to have the highest number per capita of psychoanalysts in the world). Within Bergoglio’s former diocese there are areas that resemble the most fashionable parts of Paris – and hideous slums. A pastor from a place that straddles North and South is an obvious choice for a global church.

No doubt, too, many cardinals were aware of Bergoglio’s accomplishments. Apart from being a contender in the previous conclave, his reputation – for humility, simplicity of life, commitment to the poor, theological orthodoxy and a firm but diplomatic style in dealing with politicians – must have influenced their choice.

A change in style

From 13 March 2013 onward, Pope Francis maintained the style of leadership he forged in Buenos Aires. From greeting his cardinals after the election standing face to face as opposed to his being seated – a sign of his belief in collegiality, one can only assume – through the simplicity of his dress (his old silver pectoral cross, a silver piscatory ring, refusing the mozzetta cape) and his warm, unassuming greeting of the crowd – culminating in asking them to pray for a moment for him before he blessed them – we saw something radically new. His decision to move out of the papal apartments to the Vatican guesthouse reemphasised his desire for personal simplicity and perhaps closer contact with people.

The latter has been apparent in his frequent walks around St Peter’s Square to greet visitors and his attendance at World Youth Day in Brazil. Much to the worry of his security guards, he does not seem too concerned for his personal safety – certainly not at the expense of encountering the faithful.

He is also remarkably informal and seems unafraid to speak his mind. He has readily spoken frankly with journalists. This makes him popular with the press, who in turn seem to treat him with respect. Compared to past decades, where the Church featured more often than not only in scandals, secular news coverage of him has been fair and frequently positive. More remarkably, the liberal press has warmed to him – particularly for his genuine concern for human rights, refugees, and criticism of right-wing politicians. This is despite his reaffirmation of traditional Catholic positions on sexuality and gender issues.

Beyond personality, Francis’ pontifical style is marked by a commitment to collegiality with his bishops and the prioritisation of the pastoral over the dogmatic. This extends as we shall see to his emphasis on conscience in moral matters.

These features have won Pope Francis many friends. He regularly tops public figure popularity polls, is widely respected by Christian leaders outside Roman Catholicism, and is appreciated by many politicians, leaders of other faiths and by scientists for his openness and willingness to dialogue over key issues. Many scientists I’ve met are particularly impressed with his environmental concern – while agreeing to disagree on his refusal to countenance artificial birth control to limit population growth.

But how has all this translated into Pope Francis’ pontificate thus far? I shall examine this in a forthcoming article.

This is a revised edition of an article first published in the February/March 2018 issue of Worldwide magazine. We thank the editors for their permission.

Image credit: The Catholic Church in England and Wales

Read the second feature in this three-part series. 

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.