Pope Francis, Briefly

"Brothers and Sisters, good evening. You know that the charge of the conclave was to give a bishop of Rome. It would seem that my brothers went to the end of the world to choose him,” --Pope Francis, March 13 2013

In most cases, it takes some time for the things that will define a papacy to become clear. The longer the tenure, the more complicated the legacy. We bring ourselves to the construction of it, as Twain noted when he wrote that history was fluid prejudice. Thus, for instance, the magnificent semi-public display of defiance of death and illness put on by the Blessed John Paul II may in time come to be entwined, as it clearly was in Pope Benedict's mind, with a period of drift which seriously endangered the Church; and, similarly, the resignation of Benedict, which instant pundits wrote was a consequence of Curia corruption and obstructionism combined with a worry about drift, might come to be seen as a staging post on the road to a reunification with the Orthodox. You simply can't tell these things at the time, and sometimes, history changes perceptions fundamentally. As Groucho Marx observed, there was a time before Doris Day was a virgin.

However, the outlines of Francis' first act now seem to be coming into focus. A commission of Cardinals is in place which may revolutionise the papacy, by globalising the management of the Church and leaving the pope as a kind of-pardon the pun--demi ex cathedra rock of Rome who embodies institutional memory and not much else. This in itself would be a reversal of the first, not the second, Vatican Council, but not, therefore, abnormal in the history of Catholicism. A Church run by a committee of patriarchs in which Rome was pre-eminent would not be that much different from the future which would have played out had Justinian achieved a little more fifteen hundred years ago.

Secondly, and not to bang on about Orthodoxy, we are witnessing an historic shift in Catholicism. One great consequence of the rise of the Popes since 1870 or so has been the strengthening of the Roman Curia. The Curia is a Western European institution. Its orientation has been therefore, unsurprisingly, Western European.  This means that it has been cool towards the nation state, in favour of the wider system of balanced Empires, reactive to democracy, and keen to 'win' the largely European competition with the orthodox, whilst more than able to ignore the protestant and non-European sides of Christianity as lost. Its nightmare was, is,and will remain, the French Revolution, and you may as well talk about Java or Tonga as Maryland or Brazil to it. It will be as incomprehending and frankly, uncaring, as it has always been when it comes to such places, which I suspect a large number of the Curia think are fictional anyway.

When Francis was elected, however, he won out over a collection of South American, African, or Asian candidates (as far as I or anyone else can tell). There is no reason why the change of orientation in terms of the future church leadership will not continue. The people in charge, from the pope down, either now do not or soon will not be focussed on European concerns.

That's a big deal. Benedict will have been the last to try to save Europe. especially when the campaigns against gay marriage are defeated. Instead, the principal challenge in the new-old world is protestant Evangelicalism, and therefore European and conservative American Catholics face the prospect of an Evangelical, 'Church of the Poor' style that will last a lot further than Francis. This is being portrayed in the media as a Jesuit, or Bergoglio project, but in fact it represents an orientation towards globalism in the world's most important supranational institution, and the consequences may in themselves be profound. Quite apart from anything else, the wealthier parts of the core of European and American conservatism will find themselves alienated from the faith in ways that may well make some variation of Lefebvrist or sedevacantist heresy attractive.

The third theme in Francis' first act is a deeply saddening and worrying one. It's not saddening that the institutions which need to be cleared out, starting with the one popularly known as the Vatican Bank, are being tackled. It's that the consequences of doing so, along with a hands-on outreach to the public and to groups such as those assembled on Lampedusa whom Francis will meet this month, are potentially so dangerous. Francis is going to have to take risks with his security which could lead him into a position where he is an open target for bad or demented people. I'm not so sure how the catholic world could cope with an assassination.

It's 2013. We still live in the shadow of the killing of Franz Ferdinand 99 years ago, and of John Kennedy, Martin King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy, inter alia, fifty years ago. The one was the spark for the destruction of the European world, and the subsequent horrors of the twentieth century; the others confirmed the course which America and the world have followed since the 1960s. In neither case were the assassinations the single cause or catalyst of what happened, but they come close to being what one might term necessary events.

Francis should not keep putting himself in positions where he could be killed. Yet at the same time, he must demonstrate what political leaders now routinely avoid, which is the capacity to trust in God and fate, and stand up in the back of the car regardless. I pray for him, and hope to God that the forces which any serious attempt to tackle poverty, warmongering and corruption will bring down are somehow stayed. This is an exceptionally dangerous moment, and its made worse because there is probably not anything much that Francis can do about the danger except to just keep on going. In a world where American Presidents now openly drive around in 'The Beast', the pope can't afford to be caged and only on bulletproof display.

I'm not sure that much more can be known than that which I have laid out. Francis is not, even his greatest admirers would admit, a systematic theologian of the sort that Benedict is; nor is he in his person the kind of embodied, superstar message about the Eastern half of Western Europe and the destruction of communism that John Paul was. We can't, therefore, read what he thinks in detail or define him by the reaction of others. He is his own man, who riffs a lot and who happily does not seem to stand on ceremony or terminological exactitude. We'll see over the coming years how things work out. The process of how they unfold will be interesting, but it is not predictable and so much depends on other things that a Catholic concerned with the world would do well, after a few years of introspection, to turn back to the wider horizons.

I'm told that there are bigger skies than those which hang over Rome. I am skeptical, but remain open to persuasion.


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