international analysis and commentary

Pope Francis: social Catholicism is back


At the fifth ballot of the 2013 conclave, the Catholic Church chose the road not taken in 2005, selecting Joseph Ratzinger’s runner-up. In an ecclesial environment apparently dominated by the polemics of “Roman Curia vs. the rest of the world”, the conclave took a different approach, in a way that makes the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio difficult to label as a clear victory for one party over the other.

After eight very difficult years, marked by many internal and international incidents, with a pope who was unable to distance himself from his reputation of watchdog of Catholic orthodoxy, the Catholic Church received a new pope who shares Benedict’s doctrine on issues of public morality (life issues, gay rights), but who has a more pastoral touch, and who is more or less the same age as Benedict XVI was when elected (76 years old). It remains to be seen what kind of role the “Bishop Emeritus of Rome” will play in the pontificate of his successor – it is a theological tradition in the making, under our eyes, day by day, in its liturgical and cultural aspects.

Pope Francis will have to deal with a backlog of unsolved issues in the Church, both in terms of governance of global Catholicism and in terms of solutions to the pastoral problems (marriage and divorce; role of women in the Church) that Church leadership has ignored over the past few years. Benedict XVI inherited issues from John Paul II and added new issues of his own making (the openings to traditionalists in the Church and outside the Church). Pope Francis will have to moderate the ideological tone given by the enthusiasts of Benedict XVI to the teaching of the Catholic Church. The clerical abuse crisis was important to this conclave and Catholics hope that the time of closure and healing will start soon – for the victims first, and then for the credibility of the Church.

The fact that Pope Francis brings with him many “firsts” is an advantage for him. As the first non-European pope since the origins of the institution of the Roman papacy, his coming from Latin America will push the Church to adjust the geopolitics of Catholicism and reorient it towards the “global south”; it is not unimportant that Argentina is the most “European” of the Latin American countries. As the first Jesuit pope, a taboo has been broken and the Catholic Church more fully welcomes the contribution of the Society of Jesus. As the first pope named Francis, this pontificate placed a bet on the possibility of the papacy to be faithful to the message of the Gospel as it was radically witnessed by Francis of Assisi. And finally, as a pope who is the son of immigrants (Italians, in his case), this pope is truly a “sign of the times”, when millions seek work in other countries.

Francis comes from Latin America, where “liberation theology” was defeated by the doctrinal policy of Wojtyla and Ratzinger in the 1980s – but not forgotten. Liberation theologians who are still in the Church have received the news of Bergoglio’s election, though he is not one of them, with enthusiasm. Latin American Catholicism is simply unimaginable without the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the enculturation of its message that took the form of liberation theology. Trained as a theologian in Germany (among other places), Bergoglio is not an academic theologian; he is an intellectual (all Jesuits are), but not a “cultural warrior”; he is socially conservative, but not a neo-conservative in the American way. The Gospel has a consistent message about life and human dignity and it is impossible to disconnect abortion and euthanasia from the care for the poor and for social and economic justice. In this sense, Francis is a pope of Catholic social doctrine – which many bishops and theologians have forgotten or underestimated.

Accusations about his complacency towards the dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s have surfaced and will probably continue to be brought up periodically. For now, it is worth remembering that they are somewhat typical for the clergy who tried to deal with an oppressive regime, not a modus vivendi, but simply a modus non moriendi. In a way, this is a victory of the old “diplomatic school” of the Vatican, the one particularly humiliated by the mismanagement of the Roman Curia under the officials appointed by Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church’s experiences with Ostpolitik involving the Soviet Union and the Communist Eastern European countries in the 1960s-1980s are still a useful lesson for the Church in understanding its past, the complications of living in history, and the future challenges with new political entities that present the Church with problems (China, the Arab countries).

In the Church the sympathies of Bergoglio went to the new Catholic movement “Communion and Liberation”, a conservative movement founded in the 1950s by an Italian priest, Luigi Giussani (admired by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI). But while Communion and Liberation in Italy is a rather coherent and cohesive organization, in other countries it is a Catholic movement comprising a variety of theological and political cultures. Communion and Liberation mostly supported Cardinal Scola of Milan: they may now be disappointed, together with those Italian Catholics who were trying to reclaim the papacy. But the Church is now looking at a much broader horizon than Italy, or Europe for that matter.