Reflections on the Election of Pope Francis

There is an old Confucian proverb about a farmer.  One day,  the farmer’s best horse got loose and ran away.  The neighbors came to offer their sympathies for his loss: “such bad luck” they said.  “Maybe” he replied.  The next day the horse returned, bringing with him two wild horses.  The neighbors celebrated the fortunate turn: “such good luck” the exclaimed!  “Maybe” the farmer replied.  On the third day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses, but he was thrown off and broke his leg.  The neighbors (being the nosy bunch that they were) again offered sympathies: “such bad luck!”  “Maybe,” he replied yet again.   On the fourth day,  military officials came to the town to draft young men into the military.  They passed the farmer’s son by because of his leg.  “Such good luck,” the neighbors replied. “Maybe” said the farmer…

Photo: Este papa es el mas bueno de todos los tiempos.  Un hombre humildeThis pope is the kindest of all time.  A humble manQuesto papa è il più gentile di tutti i tempi.  Un uomo umile

The Catholic social media universe was buzzing following yesterday’s news.  Since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was largely an unknown quantity to us here in the United States, most people were trying to piece together an image of the new head of our Church.  First came the wave of obvious “firsts” – he’s the first Latin American Pope, the First Pope from outside Europe in over 1000 years, the first Jesuit Pope, and finally, the first Pope to choose the name Francis after Francis of Assisi.    Next came his first public address, which he opened by asking the faithful to pray for him rather than by offering his blessing on the faithful.  Then came the news that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had made a point to live in a small apartment, take the bus to work, and to cook his own meals.

For most of my more liberal Catholic friends, this was a day to celebrate.  From a conclave that consisted entirely of cardinals named by the past two, highly conservative Popes, the expectation was that another highly conservative Pope would emerge.  So when this bus-riding, self-cooking, poor-loving, humble, non-European, non-Vatican-insider emerged, the liberal half of Catholicism rejoiced.

“Maybe,” said the Farmer.

Of course, there is plenty for my conservative Catholic friends to love as well.  As Archbishop, Pope Francis has been staunchly anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and anti-contraception often clashing with the Argentinean government over these issues.

“Maybe,” said the Farmer.

And anyone who is paying attention realizes that there are two big issues that will require the Pontiff’s immediate attention if the Church is to retain even a modicum of moral authority.  First, the hierarchy needs to publicly address and systematically deal with the Clergy sex abuse scandal.  Secondly, he will need to reform the Roman Curia.  It needs to be noted that some have said Francis is the wrong man for these jobs because he was involved in corruption and worse when the military regime ran Argentina in the 80s.  That only needs to be said because it has been declared patently false by none other than Amnesty International.

Still, others are suggesting instead that Pope Francis doesn’t have the backbone for either of these tasks.   Of course, if I recall correctly, similar things were said about Pope John XXIII before he called for the Second Vatican Council.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.   

In 2005, when Benedict XVI was elected, the Catholic world was similarly abuzz.  That time, however, the buzz was about what we did know rather than what we did not know.  We knew that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had spent the previous 24 years serving as Pope John Paul II’s “watchdog,” charged with promoting and safeguarding Catholic doctrine and morals, and so those same liberal Catholic friends that are cheering for Francis, bemoaned the selection of Benedict XIV.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

I was cautiously optimistic in 2005.  In my eyes, Benedict XVI made a logical choice for the task at hand.  Pope John Paul II had left such big shoes to fill, that it would have been far too much for any one individual to both fill John Paul’s shoes and be the first African or Latin American Pope as well.  No, what was needed to close the long story of John Paul II’s papacy was an epilogue.  And who better to write the epilogue to John Paul than the man who was most closely associated with him?  Ratzinger was the yin to John Paul’s Yang, the bad cop to JPII’s good cop.   And he was already seventy-six years old when he took office.  Benedict’s papacy was going to be marked in terms of years, not decades.  And once the epilogue was written, then we could start our next book with the next Pope.

The other thing that I was hoping for in 2005 was that we would come to discover that Ratzinger was not so much of a hard liner as a good lieutenant.  He took the heat so that John Paul could be so well-loved.  There was evidence, from before his time in the Vatican, that the good Cardinal had a liberal academic streak, and many were hoping that side of him would resurface once he emerged from John Paul’s shadow.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

In hindsight, Benedict’s papacy was something of a mixed bag.  Under his watch, the American nuns came under severe scrutiny, Fr. Roy Bourgeois was canonically dismissed, and the Latin Mass was resurrected.  Also, Benedict spoke sharply against both women and married priests but said very little about the sexual abuse scandal.  Maybe I am naïve, but I am not convinced that this was all Benedict’s doing – the Vatican is an unwieldy but conservative beast.  Much of what went on in the past 8 years may reflect more what Benedict couldn’t stop than what he actively did.   If so that gives us more reason to be cautious about Francis’s papacy…

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

Still,  the intellectual Ratzinger did resurface.  Benedict’s three encyclicals were all well received and are cited often by both liberal and conservative theologians.  And then there was the time he opened the door to artificial contraception (if only just a hair) by suggesting that male prostitutes could justifiably use condoms “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”  I still believe that he was trying to spark a new conversation within the confines of his role as head of an inherently conservative and slow-moving Church.

Sure, Benedict didn’t return to his liberal youth, but he was a thoughtful leader right down to his final act, which may well become his most lasting legacy.  The choice to step down from the papacy rather than continue to try to run a worldwide Church at the age of 85 was downright radical and a fitting exclamation mark at the end of the 8-year epilogue.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

So now, we begin our new volume in the history of the Church.  It is important that we have the first non-European in the papacy.  It is exciting for those of us who run in Jesuit circles that we have the first Jesuit pontiff.  And it is heartening to know that the Spirit of St. Francis of Assisi is alive and well at the top of our Church.  These facts are notable to be sure (largely because they are firsts), but they are not defining.

I am, once again, cautiously optimistic.  I do not think this Pope and I would see eye to eye on every issue facing the Church, but I do hope that the act of closing one volume and opening another allows us, finally, to make peace with the sins of our past.  I also hope that under the shepherding of a decidedly pro-poor AND anti-abortion Pope, we can overcome our internal differences as liberal and conservative Catholics and embrace, as a unified Church, the entirety of a Consistent Ethic of Life.

God called St. Francis to do more than serve the poor.  God called him to “Rebuild my church.”  I am hoping and praying that his namesake can live up to that call.

But I also remember the words of that farmer…


[Matthew Gaudet is an adjunct professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco and a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union.  For more of Matt’s posts on this blog, please click here]

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