Friday, March 15, 2013

Reforms or Continuity? Pope Francis says Amen to both!

Roman Catholic Church on the crossroads of Continuity and Reform:

 With the announcement of the new head of the catholic church, now is the time to reflect on what are the signals the Vatican is giving to its followers and observers through the new appointment, and what are the policies that will be enacted in order to seal a new chapter in the long turbulent history of the 1.2 billion adepts strong borderless empire.

The start of a new page in the life of the Catholic Church cannot be discussed without a quick review of the period preceding it, namely the numerous scandals that rocked the very foundations of the Vatican. From the sex scandals involving priests and cardinals, to the financial fraudulent transactions undertaken by the “Bank of God”, to the shady disclosures of the relationship between the Vatican and Mussolini, the Catholic Church has had its share of downturns that didn’t go without impacting its credibility and reputation. It is thus understandable that a radical change was a critical necessity to re-brand the Church, and that the best way to go about such venture is to ultimately change the very icon of it: the pope. This reminds the casual observer of a similar undertaking in the US, where the election of a new African American president with an appealing charisma to the minorities, the Muslims and the East in general helped reconcile the US with the international community, and allowed it to regain its attractiveness on the world stage.

The difference between the US presidential election and the papal appointment is that, unlike in the US, the pope indeed exercises vast power and command over the policies of the Roman Catholic church, with not much constraints posed by the complex of cardinals and priests scattered inside the Holy See or throughout the globe. It is thus uncontestable that the election of a new head of church is not an aesthetic change but a true shift in the direction of the Christian Institution, a shift that will ultimately reflect the hopes, fears, beliefs and ideological biases of the new pope Francis.

A quick look at the background of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio already sends a wave of disappointment among the advocates of a 21st century liberal Church. The Argentinian cardinal’s position on same sex marriage for example leaves the growing numbers of Christian reformists with a bitter taste for the future of their God appointed government. In a letter dated June 2010, the cardinal doesn’t hide his resentment for the changing legal meaning of marriage, extended to include homosexual marriage, and makes it clear to his network of churches and priests in Argentina that fighting the popularization of the LGBT rights ought to be a divine quest.
The New York Times correctly pointed out the conservative nature of the Pope Francis in a recent article:
“A doctrinal conservative, Francis has opposed liberation theology, abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women, standing with his predecessor in holding largely traditional views.”[1]
 The background check, led by various journalists, does unveil more about the convictions and deeds of Pope Francis. Not only isn’t the new pope a great fan of homosexuals, but he isn’t either a fan of human rights delegation if we believe the rumors and the article Hugh O'Shaughnessy wrote in the Guardian in 2011. Pope Francis, according to the author, allegedly participated in hiding political prisoners victims of the “Dirty War” from a visiting commission of human rights.

Although Pope Francis’s past might convey a gloomy picture, it is nonetheless irresponsible to make precipitated judgments on the likelihood of the path the new pope will drive the church into. The papacy will ultimately affect the stances of the new pope given the enormous responsibility it imposes on its leader, and given the growing liberal aspirations of the Church followers without whom the Holy See would be pointless, and note, go bankrupt.

The decision of the conclave to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio is indeed a reflection of the new image the Vatican is trying to paint to the world, and what better way to do that than to appoint the first non European, Latino pope in the history of the Roman Catholic church?

Prior to the decision, the very resignation of the pope Benedict was a clear sign of the new currents unraveling in the Vatican, and his emphasis on “so many rapid changes” and “shaken” in his resignation speech streamlines the life crisis the Catholic Church is going through:

“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”[2]

It is thus unmistakable that the reformative prophecy Pope Benedict envisioned for his institution had to be enacted in order to preserve the “relevance” of the Vatican in today’s world. This relevance was sustained through the election of a Latin American cardinal, sending a strong message that the Church values its adepts in the South, which accounts for a great deal of the Christendom. This point didn’t go unnoticed, and even Obama made sure to reiterate its relevance and importance in a congratulatory note to the pope:

“As the first pope from the Americas, his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day.”[3]

The internationalism of the Roman Catholic Church reverberates a strong belief that the Vatican is now stretching its appeal beyond the European fortress, and is indeed enlarging its reach in a geographical spot where loyalty to the Catholic Institution was challenged by various evangelical churches. This not only boosts the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, but also attends to its financial crisis that pushed its bank along Banco Ambrosiano to fall prey to the appeal of fraudulent activities linking it to money laundering and early financial entanglement with the Italian Fascist leader Mussolini.

Another signal the pope Francis sends to the world is the cutting with financial elitism inside the walls of the Vatican. The speculated wealth of the Holy See, its banking activities, its corruption scandals and the excessive luxury and overspending charges against its personnel didn’t fail to create an outrage against the Catholic Church, an outrage that the Humble and modest Francis will surely silence given his background, and surely his name significance.

All in all, the conservative approach of the pope Francis to sensitive matters, along with the grand reformative, if not strategic vision that his election bears to the outside observer sets the Roman Catholic Church in an interesting path of Continuity and reforms. Amen.

Mohamed Amine Belarbi



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