The Unfinished Business Pope, Colltalers
In the end, Jorge Mario Bergoglio can’t complain. But after a fairly good run at the top, the extended honeymoon that greeted and insulated Pope Francis I, the first Latin American pontiff, is officially over. And it’s unlikely that he even cares about it.
Gone are the niceties; in are the heavy guns. Criticism that he’s been too liberal, or overzealous against the conservative right within the Catholic Church, however, won’t get our nod. But dark allegations about his past just might.
One of the stiffest tests of his papacy so far may be what comes out of the U.S. bishops conference, held last week in Baltimore. Despite public assertions that all is fine with Francis’s steerage of the church, there have been plenty of signs to the contrary.
Perhaps weary of those signs, just days before the conference, the pope took the unusual step of demoting a major critic of his policies, American archbishop Raymond Burke. He was summarily knocked out of his cushioned Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of Apostolic Signatura post to a ceremonial role, after characterizing Francis’s charting course as a ‘ship without a rudder.’
Still, as the religious press has been reporting, the pope’s facing an uphill battle with some segments of the church, comparable in its predicament to, say, what a certain Democrat president faces with a majority congressional opposition, or even an entrenched majority of supreme court justices nominated by previous commander-in-chiefs. Not a pretty picture, for sure.
Taken on the surface, Francis’s ascension to the Vatican has been an unlikely revolution, at least to his flock. After two popes bent on keeping a strict and tight lid on any hint of liberalism through the church’s rank and file, and who have all but prioritized the doctrine over social concerns, Bergoglio did bring in a breath of recycled air to the musty millennial institution.
Instead of disavowing the legitimacy of the Theology of Liberation in South America, as John Paul II did, or reinforcing the secrecy of files on priests accused of sexual abuse, as fashioned by Benedict XVI, in little over a year, Francis has managed to stir some of the church’s most sensitive subjects, from gay marriage, to celibacy, to women priesthood, to income inequality.
Nothing too substantive so far, it must be said, but still, even talking about these themes has been enough to conjure both hopes, to those long ostracized by the Catholic hierarchy, and downright disgust by traditionalists. To the latter, he’d do much better sticking with matters concerning pomp and ceremony, or even Vatican finances, which are reportedly ridden with irregularities.
On the other side, applause to the pope’s timid incursions into new territories has come from progressive quarters of the faith, to whom he could venture even further, perhaps turning some of his informal homilies into practical and more enforceable policies.
Both irreconcilable sides, however, are unlike to see fruition in Francis’s tenure, for reasons that go from well established procedures, carefully watched over by the Vatican’s inner circles, to ingrained beliefs still shared by the majority of Catholics around the world, to the more prosaic matter of his own’s political stability at the top of such a large organization.
But, even when taken into context and in their totality, these issues represent only a superficial, housekeeping approach to Bergoglio’s papacy, one that will be eventually settled, if some of them are not already, into a plateau of half-measures and crowd-pleasing compromises. Make no mistake, expect no earthshaking changes under this Jesuit’s skillful watch.
Potential for a real, destabilizing blow to his legacy, however, comes from a theme haunting his trajectory since his priesthood days in Buenos Aires and could shatter way more than his affable public image: his relationship with the brutal military juntas that ruled Argentina for the mid 1970s to 1983, a period roughly coinciding with his Society of Jesus’s Provincial Superior post.
As a high-ranked Jesuit, his critics have pointed to his past as an indictment to his alleged coziness with the militaries. And, an even more serious charge, that he somehow facilitated the adoption of children, whose parents had been killed and persecuted by the regime, by members of the military. He’s repeatedly refuted such claims ever since.
But they arise just often enough to throw a shadow over his sunny public disposition. Continue reading