New pope has to confront Vatican's lingering troubles

Francis, the first pope from South America, faces an array of challenges left by his predecessor
Last Updated 14 March 2013, 17:13 IST

By choosing the first pope from the New World, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church sent a strong message of change: that the future of the church lies in the global south, and that a scholar with a common touch may be its best choice to inspire the faithful.

But it was not yet clear whether that mandate will extend to the Vatican, whether Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis on Wednesday, will display the mettle to tackle the organisational dysfunction and corruption that plagued the eight-year papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Bergoglio never spent time here dealing with the bureaucracy, the Curia, and after he finished second to Benedict in the 2005 voting, he expressed relief at not having to face that prospect.

“In the Curia I would die,” he said in a later interview with the Italian news media. “My life is in Buenos Aires. Without the people of my diocese, without their problems, I feel something lacking every day.”

In many ways, Cardinal Bergoglio — the first to take the name Francis, after the beloved saint who took a vow of poverty — seems to be the anti-Benedict. He is a warm, pastoral figure known as a good communicator, one who might have more success reversing the church’s sagging fortunes than did Benedict, even without a major change in church doctrine. It seemed almost as if the cardinals were trying again.

“The reign of the doctors is over, and this is the kingdom of pastors, a move away from theologian pope,” said Alberto Melloni, the author of many books on the Vatican and the Second Vatican Council. “The fact is that he was a minority candidate in the 2005 election, and it was like saying, ‘Last time we went wrong, so let’s pick it up before it’s too late.’ ”

Ahead of the conclave, many Vatican experts said the contest was between a pope who would clean up the way the Vatican does business or an insider who would protect the interests of the Curia. Those who favoured a housecleaning were said to back Cardinal Angelo Scola, an Italian who they believed had the experience and strength to curtail the privileges and hidebound ways of the bureaucracy.

The traditionalists were thought to favour another South American, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, who they thought would bring the same symbolic change as Francis but who was thought to be close to the Roman hierarchy that controls day-to-day operations at the Vatican.

Where Francis fits on that spectrum is unclear. To some, he was seen as a safe pick: the near winner in the last conclave, a humble and popular prelate who could encourage a grass-roots evangelisation of the faith without immediately threatening the Vatican bureaucracy or insisting on changes in response to the scandals both sexual and administrative.

If the excitement that his election generated in Latin America is any indication, he is capable of making immense strides in spreading the faith, compared with Benedict. His brief appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, when he asked his new flock to pray for him, reinforced the point.

But Cardinal Bergoglio is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues — leading to heated clashes with Argentina’s left-leaning president.

Dirty war

He was less energetic, however, when it came to standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them while as many as 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.

Despite the criticism, many here praise Cardinal Bergoglio — who likes the more humble title of Father Jorge — as a passionate defender of the poor and disenfranchised.

No matter what his leaning, Francis faces an immense array of challenges left by his predecessor: a shortage of priests, rising secularism in a West that increasingly sees the church as out of touch, growing competition from evangelical churches in the Southern Hemisphere and the sexual abuse crisis that has undermined the church’s moral authority.

The new pope will also inherit power struggles over the management of the Vatican bank, which must continue a process of meeting international transparency standards or risk being shut out of the mainstream international banking system. In one of his final acts as pope, Benedict appointed a German aristocrat, Ernst von Freyberg, as the bank’s new president.

Some experts say Francis’ outsider status may be an asset, allowing him to approach the institution with a fresh eye, rather than placing him at a competitive disadvantage.
Francis is “a man who knows how to govern. With firmness and against the tide,” Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert for l’Espresso magazine, wrote in his blog on Wednesday. “He has always carefully kept his distance from the Roman Curia. It is certain that he will want it to be lean, clean and loyal.”

John Thavis, the author of “The Vatican Diaries” and a veteran Vatican analyst, said that during the week of General Congregations leading up to the conclave, Francis had impressed his fellow cardinals with his ideas on how the church — and the Vatican — could improve.

“I think in a way he’s the ultimate outsider to the Roman Curia,” Thavis said. “And I think he probably made it clear to the cardinals that he would do things differently at the Vatican.”

Cardinal Bergoglio was elected after five rounds of voting over two days. He is the 266th pope and the first Jesuit to be elected, a rare accolade for a religious order that is based on service and whose culture is one that often shies away from the church hierarchy.

“I was surprised at how quickly it happened,” Thavis said. “That tells me he wasn’t the second choice for many of the cardinals, but the first choice.”  Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., said that governance was not the main focus for the cardinals, but that he believed Francis knew what he was up against.  “I don’t think we would be choosing a pope whose focus is solely that,” he said, referring to governance. “If there are institutional issues, I suspect he’ll deal with them. What his past ministry demonstrated is that he does make sure the institution itself lives up to

(Published 14 March 2013, 16:34 IST)

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