14 Mar 2013

Catholics have a new leader: but who is Pope Francis?

Compassionate to single mothers but against gay marriage, open to other faiths but opposed to contraception. Channel 4 News examines the contradictions of the Latin American Pope Francis I.

So far, we have only seen a glimpse of Pope Francis in his new incarnation.

But his appearance after stepping out from behind the papal curtain, with the world’s eyes watching, was revealing in itself.

“He came across as someone who was quite statesman-like, quite comfortable, and he didn’t feel the need to fill those first moments with speech,” Abigail Frymann, online editor of The Tablet, told Channel 4 News.

Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is the first pope to come from Latin America. An astonishing fact, given that the area represents 42 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion-strong Catholic population.

However, the new Pope’s capacity for meditation and quiet probably has more to do with the fact that he is a member of the Society of Jesus – Jesuits tend to favour a meditative, rather than cerebral, approach to spirituality.

But what other hints do we have as to how the new pope will lead the world’s oldest church?

If his time as cardinal of Buenos Aires is anything to go by, Pope Francis will not be easy to pigeonhole.

Read more from Jon Snow: A papal shot in the arm for the political classes?

Political streak?

His capacity for quiet extends to a fairly simple life. He shunned the trimmings of life as a cardinal in favour of an apartment and public transport. His chosen name of “Francis” relates to the saint most well known for his compassion to the poor.

He came across as someone who was quite statesman like, quite comfortable, and he didn’t feel the need to fill those first moments with speech. Abigail Frymann, The Tablet

But at the same time, the cardinal was not afraid to be politically combative. He encouraged Argentine priests to preach against same-sex marriage legislation introduced in 2010, and has argued that gay adoption would discriminate against children – a move that prompted a public rebuke from Argentina‘s President, Cristina Fern├índez de Kirchner. Relations between the two are still wavering, and according to The Clarin newspaper, she refused to interrupt a broadcast tribute to Hugo Chavez for the news of Cardinal Bergoglio’s election as Pope, releasing a statement an hour and a half later.

“He has mediated in almost all social or political conflicts in the city,” says The Catholic Herald. “The newly ordained priests are described as ‘the Bergoglio generation’; and no political or social figure misses requesting a private encounter with him.”

Reaching out

In terms of how he might be perceived by the outside world, the Argentine cardinal was not tainted by poor handling of child abuse allegations or by the Vatileaks scandal. He is open to inter-faith dialogue and has proved himself a good mediator.

The new Pope has previously spoken of the need to avoid “the spiritual sickness of a church that is wrapped up in its world” and instead to “go out on to the street”, and this may have been a big factor in his appointment: pre-conclave discussions focused a lot on how to “re-evangelicalise” the church, and reboot the dwindling numbers of men coming forward to be priests.

The one scandal in Cardinal Bergoglio’s past that has threatened to haunt his future, is the allegation that he withdrew protection of two radical Jesuits whom the military then put in jail. The claim, made in the book The Silence, relates to Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship – and is fiercely denied by the former cardinal and his supporters.

Let’s talk about sex

But it is on “bread and butter” issues, such as sexual ethics, that the Catholic church’s leadership is arguably at its greatest distance from the people. Over 90 per cent of Catholics reportedly use contraception, despite the church’s teaching against it.

Here again, Cardianal Bergoglio’s track record shows a nuanced viewpoint. Last September, he criticised priests who would not baptise the children of single mothers, and he has acknowledged that contraception is permissible to prevent disease.

However he is “unwaveringly orthodox on matters of sexual morality”, writes John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, and he is vehemently opposed to abortion and, as discussed, same-sex marriage.

And while ending celibacy has been discussed outside the church, as a means of resolving the child sex abuse scandals, this has not been discussed at the highest level, and Pope Francis is unlikely to push for a rethink on the Church’s teaching in this area.

The new Pope has been hailed as a progressive. But this is in the context of the very conservative Catholic church, and according to Abigail Frymann, it is still too early to say.

“So far what we’ve seen is a man who’s not throwing his weight around, he is taking a very sensitive line,” she told Channel 4 News.

“He’s not going to pigeonholed very easily – there’s still a lot to be discovered.”


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