The papacy of Pope Francis certainly made the headlines when he was elected while his predecessor was still alive, but it has remained the subject of much attention for very different reasons
From the moment his papacy was chosen and announced, Pope Francis was destined to make history. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the first Pope in 600 years to assume the role while his predecessor was still alive and the first South American to reach the Vatican top spot. Such accidents of circumstance only played a small part in the new Pope’s rise to notoriety, however. He has sent shock waves reverberating through the status quo since his first day in the role by grounding his papal mission firmly in a theology of social justice and displaying a willingness to ask questions of both established Roman Catholic traditions and his church’s wealthy complacency.
Unsurprising then, is the news that Argentine director, Alejandro Agresti is to make a biopic documenting Pope Francis’ life. Unsurprising also is the Roman Catholic Church’s resurgence in popularity across South America following decades of decline, a resurgence perhaps best evidenced by the three million pilgrims who flooded Brazil’s Copacabana beach at the end of July to hear him speak.
But how does Bergoglio’s papacy appear to those of us who are not of the Roman Catholic faith?
We have certainly been given much ground to criticise the Catholic Church over the last couple of decades as we have heard the expression of backwards views on the topics of women, LGBTQ and sexual health, to name but a few. Add to that the steady stream of child abuse scandals coming to light and the fact that in a time of global economic difficulties the Vatican’s wealth is so vast that it is impossible to calculate and it’s easy to see why people have been left disillusioned by this institution.
Has Pope Francis’ papacy given us much reason to change our attitudes?
His understanding of his role as one of practical reform in addition to religious authority, and his consequent statement of a desire for a “poor church of the poor” is surely welcome. The inequality between the Vatican and the majority of the world’s population is inescapably apparent in an age of global and social media, and Bergoglio has real potential to move his church forwards into the contemporary world by stating his concern over the age old issues it faces.
Symbolic gestures, from his shunning of the Papal Residence in the Apostolic Palace to his washing the feet of young offenders in a small and unassuming chapel on Holy Thursday (a break with the tradition of washing feet in the highly ornate Basilica of John Lateran), have backed up Bergoglio’s words, and cost cutting reforms have been brought to the Vatican over the last few months (when viewed in the context of the Vatican’s colossal wealth these can, however, seem paltry).
But despite the fact Bergoglio has alienated the more conservative members of his Church with his mission, it is still wholly possible to describe him as insufficiently radical. Criticised by some for saying that every homosexual person should be treated with respect and love, he has still also spoken out against what he calls the practice of homosexuality. “Practice” here extends not just to sexual activity but to lobbying for LGBTQ rights, a forbiddance which certainly runs contrary to my view of “respect and love” for all human beings. Bergoglio has also made clear that now will not be the time to change the status of women within the Roman Catholic Church; his view that half of the world’s population should be excluded from leading their community due to the physiology they were born with is something which defies the basic principles by which I, for one, was raised. These are but a few of the views which might make any description of Bergoglio as progressive sit uncomfortably with liberals from outside his own community.
Though there is much to dispute with Bergoglio from my perspective as a feminist and a liberal, I am keen to review his presence at the top of the Roman Catholic Church in a positive light. It would be unreasonable in any case for me to demand total agreement with the leader of a Church I do not belong to.
I strongly believe that evolution is a more sustainable model of progress than revolution in the context of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus welcome the steps that Pope Francis has taken, and the future progression he has paved the way for – a positive change from his predecessors.
Without going into whether or not Bergoglio is a self-proclaimed “liberation theologian”, I would celebrate his critique of capitalism and his focus on action to improve the lives of global citizens which have led many to reach this conclusion.
While social justice remains the driving force of his papal mission, I will support Bergoglio’s influence and relish the growth in interaction of the Christian faith with social and liberation movements that he has encouraged. For all our differences, Pope Francis and I agree on one pretty key belief: the power to change the world lies in addressing our common humanity, not our differences, and on building and healing on the ground, not on judgment and condemnation from afar.
Image from: http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2013_07_19/Pope-sets-up-body-to-overhaul-Vatican-finances-administration-0306/
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