Pope Francis: The First Ninety Days

June 17, 2013

Pope-FrancisSo, just how “progressive” is Pope Francis, really? So progressive, apparently, that he has been compared to the ill-fated John Paul I: he of the long forgotten, 33-day papacy in 1978 and the mysterious, did-they-or-didn’t-they-poison-him demise.

“If I was Pope Francis,” wrote one blogger on June 3, “I’d be hiring a food tester right about now.”

That was in reference to the pope’s comment that atheists who do good need not be excluded from the Gates of Heaven. The next day, a Vatican spokesman clarified this comment to the effect that, yes, all atheists still go to hell—leaving the impression with the conspiracy-minded that Pope Francis was straying from the official line and possibly signing his own death warrant by telling the truth.

A few days earlier, while paying tribute to a priest who had been murdered for speaking out against organized crime, Francis , slagged the mafia condemning Cosa Nostra as a bunch of “slavemongers” and exploiters of women and youth. (Holy omerta, has this man not seen “The Godfather”?)

Other signs of Pope Francis’s left-wing leanings include the “unblocking” of the sainthood cause for martyred Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero; his act of addressing the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, as “my brother”; the revelation that, behind the scenes, he had shocked fellow Argentinian bishops in 2010 by proposing that the church support gay civil unions as a compromise to gay marriage (to which his opposition had been widely publicized); and his references to slave labour and the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism in his response to the Bangladesh clothing factory disaster.

What is a slightly jaded and skeptical lapsed Catholic to make of all this? First, let’s not get too excited. Francis, remember, is the same pope who fervently embraces Church policy on gender and bioethics and has publicly stated support for Pope Benedict’s crackdown on U.S. nuns for being too “feminist.” And, just a few days ago, in acknowledging the existence of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, he appeared to draw a distinction between “truly holy” people in the Curia and an underground network of gay clerics. This is tricky territory, to say the least: in tackling the problems of patronage politics and blackmail, Francis must be clear that “the Filth” he plans on dealing with is corruption, not homosexuality. A gay purge of the Vatican, after all, would pretty much empty the place.

After three months as pope, Francis continues to enjoy an extended “honeymoon” period despite having nothing to show for it in terms of initiatives. In some ways, a free pass was inevitable, given the thoroughly unlikeable pope he was replacing. It’s also true that Jorge Bergoglio’s unique pedigree as the first Jesuit and Latin American to occupy the throne of St. Peter (not to mention his symbolic association with St. Francis of Assisi) has raised expectations—perhaps more so than for any other pope since, well, John Paul I. Certainly his activism on behalf of Caritas International, the official humanitarian and development arm of the church in Latin America, has raised hopes among the faithful. As an advocate for the poor, the future pope was a harsh critic of the IMF and World Bank. So there’s hope that he might adopt the same hard-line stance with the Vatican Bank.

But a larger part of the Francis love-in, I think, can be attributed to Bergoglio’s well-honed communication skills. Within minutes of his election as pope, the whole world knew that he cooked his own meals in a small apartment, that he turned down a limousine in favour of public transit, and that as archbishop he had spent a lot of time in the impoverished districts of Buenos Aires, ministering to the poor and washing the feet of people with AIDS. From the moment he appeared on that balcony, he revealed a special gift for telegraphing personal simplicity and humility to the masses: addressing the faithful with folksy, home-spun wisdom and informal anecdotes, then paying his own bill the next day while checking out of his hotel. In style and comportment, he drew a stark contrast with his predecessor: few could imagine Pope Benedict prostrating himself on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica, as Pope Francis did during Good Friday mass. What’s more, the new pope continued to resist moving into the Apostolic Palace, preferring a simple hotel room in Vatican City.

According to the National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen Jr., a veteran observer of all things Vatican, Francis is an “improvisational pope”, a down-to-earth cleric whose spontaneity and lack of pretense can be misleading. Liberals and conservatives alike, he says, often find something in a Francis statement that they believe indicates his loyalty to them. (Media coverage of his May 22 quote about atheists, for example, largely overlooked a homily a month earlier in which Francis said that Jesus is “the only gate” for entering into the Kingdom of God and that “all the other paths are deceptive, they are not true, they are false.”)

Even the early controversy over his alleged inaction during the kidnapping and release of two Jesuit priests by the military junta during Argentina’s “Dirty War” seems to have been largely extinguished. It is now generally accepted that Bergoglio was not a collaborator with the regime but that, perhaps for reasons of self-preservation, he remained publicly silent about its atrocities. For those of us who have never lived under a military dictatorship, it is difficult to argue with moral authority that Bergoglio should be condemned for his unwillingness to be a martyr.

On the day Bergoglio was chosen as pope, I was interviewed by the CBC’s Ian Hanomansingh on what kind of a pope he might turn out to be. Of course, it was far too early to say. And in a way, it still is. The real proof of his politics will come in that first major encyclical.

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