Andrew Brown tells us with confident prognostication that the choice of Bergoglio as the new pope shows a decisive shift from Europe, and, laying it on a little more thickly, suggests that the election of “Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to take office as Pope Francis is an extraordinary leap away from the conservative and cautious nature of the last two papacies.” Not to allow that piece of non-information to stand by itself in lonely ignominy, the goes on to say that
[t]he election of a Latin American Jesuit would also have been unthinkable 30 years ago.
Electing a non-Italian was almost unthinkable little more than forty years ago, so this doesn’t add much of substance to the opening piece of padding. Others are a little more awake to the realities of the world. Some have called the 78-year-old a caretaker pope. What more can a 78-year-old man be expected to be? And in the Globe and Mail (which has done its best over the last while to mimic the most downmarket of local newspapers) Margaret Wente shows that she is at least alive to some of the problems facing the church, problems from which, from all accounts, the new pope won’t save it:
The Church embraces an ancient set of values that the modern world rejects. It’s hierarchical, rigid, top-down, secretive, centralized and authoritarian. It demands obedience at a time when more and more Catholics demand self-determination. It has largely been unable to appeal to a rising, urban, educated middle class.
The press, predictably, seems to have gone all gaga over the fanfare, the sumptuous vestments, the ritual, the colour, and the pretence of piety — falling hard for the holiness illusion — but seem not to have any idea at all about the reality behind the benign face of the new pope, or what his election really portends.
Conrad Black (yes, that one — the jailbird, whose chirpings are to be heard regularly from the branches of the sacrificed trees of the National Post in the early morning) differs from Wente:
The vast crowd in St. Peter’s Square and down the Via della Conciliazione should afflict the credibility of those who claim the whole process is a medieval trumpery of no relevance to anything.
I take seriously, however, Hans Küng’s words about such enthusiastic demonstrations of piety:
One shouldn’t be misled by the media hype of grandly staged papal mass events or by the wild applause of conservative Catholic youth groups. Behind the façade, the whole house is crumbling.
It’s so easy to fall for the holiness illusion. Margaret Wente ends her op-ed with these telling words:
“I can’t help but feel the Holy Spirit right now,” gushed a CNN reporter in St. Peter’s Square. We were solemnly assured that we were witnessing an important moment in history. Everybody’s a sucker for spectacle, I guess – especially if it features men in fancy hats.
I’ve been in gatherings before when I have been tempted to say something similar to that said by the CNN reporter duped by tradition and pageantry. He’ll be embarrassed now, I shouldn’t wonder. By and large it’s just the emotional rush that church’s are good at producing. They live on such feelings, because people come back to find the reality they thought they experienced at the heart of it. Perhaps the poor reporter has now been launched onto a lifetimes hunting of the Snark. I know people who have spent a lifetime trying to recapture that one moment when, it seemed to them, they had come face to face with God. Perhaps they did, but give me leave to doubt. Besides being rational beings, as Aristotle said, we are also emotional all the way down, and we often see and feel what we want to. Trouble with me is that I could never keep up the illusion.
Faithful Roman Catholics, of course, their faces eager with new revelation, will manage the rote obeisance, the pious faces of undaunted hope; they will manage to bow low before the mirage of holiness, but the reality of the church, the hierarchy, the divisions, the failed hopes, the bitter rivalries, the continuing confidence in the higher truth of its doctrines, the holiness of its moral demands: all these will remain just the same. Someone let it slip that the new pontiff has more sympathy for single unwed mothers than might be expected, and even may approve of condoms to prevent infection, but at the same time we are told that Bergoglio believes that allowing gays to adopt children is discrimination against children, and his anti-abortion stand is as strong as the last two members of the Vatican death cult, and his pious idiocy doesn’t even begin to face the fact that world population has already grown out of control. I don’t think we need to wonder about his position on assisted dying. This may be a non-European pope, but he trained in Germany, which in itself may be significant in the context of a country that provided a haven for many fleeing Nazis. The new pope’s relations with the regime of the generals in Argentina is not fully known, but it does not seem to be unblemished.
Of course, only the future will show whether the promise that Andrew Brown so trustingly hopes for will be fulfilled. At least he recognises that it is a matter of change or die. But can a gang of ancient men in flowing robes and fancy hats actually preside over a period of dramatic change and the decentralisation that Brown desiderates? If so, Bergoglio is more remarkable than he has shown any sign of being. His modesty of life aside, will the opulence and the power of the papacy not bring about their own transformation? St. Francis, after whom he has taken his papal name, was the founder of a movement noted for its poverty, at least at the beginning. Indeed, Francis challenged popes themselves for their profligacy, yet he was never understood. Peter de Rosa claims that, even when he canonised Francis in 1228 (with reservations), Pope Gregory IX (Ugolino di Conti) still did not understand him (Vicars of Christ, 92). (Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the Francis that Bergoglio probably had in mind was the founder of his order, the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, Francis Xavier, and not the humble son of Assisi, a very different model indeed.) Lord Acton said, regarding the doctrine of infallibility that was being decided at Vatican I, a doctrine of which he disapproved, that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Phil Zimbardo has demonstrated that this is so. Is it likely that the man who has now assumed the supposed throne of St. Peter (there is absolutely no evidence that Peter, supposing him to have existed and to have been the leader of the apostles, was ever bishop of Rome) will not be corrupted by the power that has been so presumptuously arrogated to — and by successive recursion, concentrated in – the person of successors of the first bishop of Rome, whoever he was? Given that, for something over forty years popes have emptied the episcopacy of the Roman Catholic Church of every progressive mind or voice that they could get their hands on, is it very likely that they missed one, and that that one should have been elected pope?
Added later, after visiting Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, who points out that the man who is hailed as someone of great humility, was an also-ran in the last papal election, and won this one. As Jason says, with remarkable restraint:
Let us recall that with his new position comes the ability to speak infallibly, at least some of the time. It is part of the job description that he is closer to God than the rest of us, and has unique authority to hold forth on the will of God. It is the teaching of his Church that they, and they alone, are qualified to interpret scripture. You place your eternal soul in jeopardy by rejecting their moral teachings. I could go on.
Humble people do not accept such positions. Quite the contrary, in fact. It is only the most arrogant of men who speak with the Church’s level of certainty. The new Pope may be many things, but humble definitely is not one of them.
For even more troubling considerations, read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s “Why Pope Francis May Be a Catholic Nightmare.” According to him and to Andrew Sullivan over at The Dish, Bergoglio’s triumph is ambiguous, to say the least, likely, however, to be reasonably be thought of as the triumph of Ratzinger’s opponents in the curia, who, since Bergoglio was not known for speaking truth to power during the reign of the generals in Argentina, will not likely oppose the machinations of Vatican politics, of which he is largely ignorant. Of course, Dougherty is a conservative Catholic, who dreams of the Tridentine mass being restored, and laments the partial reforms that have already taken place. One of the things that people, who oppose the new translations of the liturgy, simply can’t face up to is the fact that, translate the “elevated” Latin phrases into simple English, and they no longer hide what is really being said. The supernaturalism (along with its implausibility) is simply laid bare. The desire to go back is the desire to reimpose the illusion, to pretend again that the world has not changed. The likelihood that the church can change substantially in such a way as to let even a little light shine in is very small, and a “modest”, “humble” man, who did nothing to mitigate the horrors of the military rule of Argentina, is not likely to be able to stand up to the powerful old men of the Vatican, their intrigues, and the political forces, and moneyed forces that drive them.
Added — still later. The Jewish magazine The Tablet has some further worrying news about the new pope:
The Pope Francis Human Rights Question
Rather predictably, Christine Odone snarls at the Guardian for raising questions about the new pope’s role during Argentina’s military dictatorship (see “The Guardian sticks the knife into the new pope“). The more important question is: Could the cardinals not find a candidate who was less tarnished than this one? What does this say about the state of the Roman Catholic Church?