Soon after the white smoke rose from the roof of the Sistine Chapel, a Vatican official announced to the huge crowd gathered outside that “Habemus Papam!”—“We have a Pope!” Then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, came out as well on the famous balcony and spoke to the crowd in fluent Italian (his parents were immigrants to Argentina from Italy). He is now Pope Francis. Catholics have a Pope. Should the rest of us care? I think the answer is yes.
To say that one should care in no way means that one admires the pomp and circumstance of the Conclave, or that one is convinced by the theological rationale on which the institution of the Papacy is based. As for myself, my reaction on both counts is prototypically Lutheran: Despite a certain appeal of an ancient ceremony being performed in the twenty-first century, defiantly in the face of an arrogant secularity (how does one say chutzpah in Latin?), the pomp is essentially off-putting. Then there is the so-called Petrine Commission (Matthew 16), in which Jesus is supposed to have appointed the Apostle Peter as his Vicar on Earth and in succession all subsequent bishops of Rome: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” What I know of New Testament scholarship suggests that Jesus ever having spoken these words is thunderously improbable. (Of course there is a fantasy provoked by the Conclave in the mind of any American citizen at this time of Washington gridlock—Gail Collins, among others, mentioned it in her column in the New York Times: Would it not be great if we could lock up President Obama and the leaders of the two parties, and not let them out without their having produced the fiscal “grand bargain”? No such luck.)
There is the obvious reason to care: the enormous size and global expanse of the Roman Catholic Church. It matters what happens in the headquarters of this, the first multinational corporation (although it is clear that the control of Rome over its global subsidiaries is less than total). It is obviously significant that Francis is the first Latin American Pope and the first Jesuit one. The first fact shows a recognition that the demographic center of Christianity has shifted from Europe and North America to the developing societies of the Global South. Though in this case one may point out that Argentina (along with Chile and Uruguay) is part of the Southern Cone, which is the most European region of Latin America—there were few African slaves in those countries, and the Indians were mostly massacred. I’m less clear about the significance of the Jesuit connection. The Jesuits started out as the intellectual shock troops of the Counter-Reformation, but in recent years the order produced quite a few progressive dissidents. This is why Rome preferred relying on more reliably conservative organizations like Opus Dei. Is this a mark of reconciliation between Rome and the Jesuits, or a ratification of the control by the former over the latter?
Both progressive and conservative commentators thus far agree that Francis is unlikely to effect large changes in the Church. He is seventy-six years old, hardly an age of revolutionary reformers. One may speculate that the cardinals who elected him wanted a steady hand on the steering wheel, no daring experiments, perhaps a tighter grip on the machinery of the Curia (his administrative experience has been limited to Argentina, and it cannot be predicted as of now how he will be able to find his way among the arcane intrigues and conspiracies of the Vatican). Certainly none of the changes desired by progressive Catholics are in the offing. Francis is known as a theological and moral conservative. He also has the reputation of a humble man (constantly mentioned is his use of public transportation), and as someone with a great concern for the poor and marginalized (at one point he ceremonially washed and kissed the feet of HIV-infected individuals). His choice of Papal name is clearly meant to evoke the memory of Francis of Assisi, who embraced lepers and shunned the splendors of Rome.
If one looks at the Roman Catholic Church from the outside, there are many things to admire. This is, I think, the only Christian community which has created a distinctive culture extending across many national borders—in art, music, literature, philosophy. There are other Christian centers that had cultural as well as religious effusions—Constantinople, Moscow, Canterbury, maybe Geneva or the Lutheran centers of learning in Germany—but none to be compared with Rome. In other words, Roman Catholicism is not only a religion but a civilization, one closely related to the history of the West. There is also a distinctive Catholic piety, which has by and large resisted the rejection of the supernatural that has eviscerated much of mainline Protestantism. One does not have to be a Christian believer to understand that the heart of the Gospel (whether true or not) is the belief that God’s coming into the world in Jesus Christ has inaugurated a tectonic shift in the reality of the cosmos. In other words, the heart of the Gospel is not a new moral code, a therapeutic spirituality, or any political agenda. Such secularizing projects have turned up within Catholicism, but they were kept within bounds (not least because Rome would make sure of this). Catholicism retained a robust supernaturalism that resisted the translation of the Gospel into tepid moralism, psychotherapy or politics. Some years ago I had a conversation with a colleague, who could presumably be described as a liberal Catholic. I went through a long list of Catholic beliefs and moral principles, from Papal infallibility to contraception, asking her whether she agreed with them. She kept saying no. I then asked her why she was still a Catholic. She thought for a moment—this was not a pat response—then said, “Because there is still mystery there.” Yes, exactly.
It seems to me that the much-vaunted Catholic social teaching is more ambiguous. There is indeed an impressive list of Papal encyclicals dealing with issues of modern societies—Rerum novarum by Leo XIII (1891), Quadrogesimo anno by Pius XI (1931), Centesimus annus by John Paul II (1991). They contain some useful ideas, such as solidarity and subsidiarity, respectively proposing that society should recognize the interests of all classes, and that government should stay as close as possible to ordinary people’s lives. One becomes a little less enthusiastic about these documents when one recalls that the first two were used to legitimate the “corporate state” of authoritarian Fascism in the 1930s and Christian Democracy in the 1950s. The third encyclical made an important contribution by accepting the “market economy”, but then distinguished it from “capitalism”—“market economy”/good, “capitalism”/not good. This is a spurious distinction, not helpful in thinking about economic policies. But there is one very important fact that is not ambiguous at all: Since the Second Vatican Council the Roman Catholic Church has steadfastly advocated human rights and democracy, providing both with a decidedly theological legitimation. As the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington (not a Catholic) pointed out, this has made the Church an important factor in the “third wave of democracy”, in Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Philippines. I would add to this list of moral achievements the (rather late) opposition to the death penalty—in my view, a crucial test for any civilized society.
When Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, I was asked what I thought of this. I replied (not really facetiously) that I was pleased: Given his history, Benedict would be busy giving a hard time to progressives within the Church (which was bad news for Catholic progressives, but of no real interests to outsiders), and thus would have little time to do mischief to the larger society (such as supporting populist policies that would inhibit economic growth and be bad for the poor). Benedict’s agenda turned out to be more theological and pastoral (the “new evangelism”), but he did not falsify my political prediction. Pope Francis, by the early accounts, seems less theologically punitive than his predecessor, but is equally conservative on basic issues of faith and morals—such as Papal infallibility, ordination of women, priestly celibacy, homosexuality, even contraception. He has said some negative things about “capitalism”, but has shown no sympathy for so-called Liberation Theology.
I would say that the most important question will be what Pope Francis will say or do about the “preferential option for the poor”. This phrase was first used by Pedro Arupe, the then head of the Society of Jesus, in a 1968 letter to Latin American Jesuits. It was proclaimed in the same year as a fundamental Catholic principle by the conference of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia. Its core meaning is quite simple and hardly controversial for a Christian social ethic: That a central moral test for any society is how it treats its poor and marginal members. The question of course then becomes: just what is good for the poor? The “preferential option for the poor” became the battle cry of the Catholic Left, in Latin America and beyond. Gustavo Gutierrez —A Theology of Liberation (1971)—placed the concept within a neo-Marxist analysis of modern society: Poverty is the result of capitalism, and the answer is class struggle leading to socialism. This analysis and the ensuing revolutionary agenda became the core message of Liberation Theology. It had wide influence, especially in Latin America. Rome did not like it from the beginning. Rome reaffirmed the basic moral imperative implied by the phrase, but it rejected the method of class struggle and generally the reduction of the Gospel to a political agenda.
There are two ways of understanding the “preferential option for the poor”—one linked to the neo-Marxist analysis, one not so linked. Thus far Rome has followed the latter understanding. I have no doubt how one must come out if the fate of the poor is one’s major concern: There are all kinds of welfare-state measures that are possible to mitigate the effects of poverty, but economic growth is the precondition of any promising policy of moving people out of poverty into a decent level of material life. Equally important: Populist redistribution, let alone socialism, will not lift people out of poverty—indeed, in arresting economic growth, populism and socialism are the preconditions for making poverty permanent. Put simply, the “preferential option for the poor” results in a preference for a capitalist economy focused on growth, since only this type of economy has shown a capacity to lead to dramatic improvements in the condition of the poor. Obviously there are broad areas of disagreement on the relative importance of the state and of market forces in making the transition out of poverty as humane as possible. But the “preferential option for capitalism” must be the basic guide for policy. Rome has spoken quite intelligently on these matters before. However, Rome sometimes changes its mind. The financial crisis in Europe and the US has given Leftist ideas and movements a new appeal. This has been particularly the case in Latin America, where “neo-liberalism”, a synonym for capitalism, is still a dirty word in much political discourse (not least in Argentina).
How, if at all, will Pope Francis deal with this problem? Catholics and non-Catholics have an interest in this issue.