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Don Robinson: A new pope’s staggering challenges

Pope Francis speaks with the media at the Vatican on March 16.

AP Pope Francis speaks with the media at the Vatican on March 16. Purchase photo reprints »

Such was the news that greeted the announcement that Cardinal Bergoglio would ascend the throne of St. Peter as Pope Francis. We also learned that he is a big soccer fan. In Buenos Aires, he took the bus to work and cooked his own meals. He prefers simple attire, rather than the ermine-lined garments and red slippers of his predecessor. In Rome after his election, he boarded a bus (not the pope-mobile) and paid his own hotel bill. One could not help liking this humble, earthy man.

More substantively, the choice of Pope Francis — the first non-European ever, and the first Jesuit — was followed by heartening gestures. At a meeting with leaders of other denominations and faiths, he pledged cooperation with Eastern Orthodox bishops and mentioned the “very special” bond between Catholics and Jews. His homilies were simple, direct and loving, stressing his special concern for the poor.

These signals are important. They were clearly deliberate. This man was nearly chosen last time. He has had a lot of time to think about how he would conduct the papacy.

Not everything we learned about him in these first few days was reassuring. His role during the “Dirty War” in Argentina has been scrutinized. No evidence exists that he colluded with the murderous junta that terrorized Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Nevertheless, charges persist that, as archbishop, he did not do enough to protect the victims, particularly two young priests who became targets of the regime while working with the poor.

What then can we expect? As a 76-year-old man (the same age as Pope John XXIII when he was chosen), his tenure may not be long. What priorities will he set?

The challenges he faces can be grouped under three headings: how will he conduct the Vatican’s foreign policy; can he take control of the Vatican bureaucracy and reform it; and how will he express and embody Catholic doctrine? First, foreign policy. How many legions does the pope have, as Stalin famously asked. The Polish people and their charismatic pastor who became John Paul II gave a pretty emphatic answer to that cynical question. Pope Francis may have a good deal of influence, in Latin America between Cuba, Venezuela and the democracies, in Africa between Muslims and Christians, and between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East. And how will he act to protect those who are practicing Christianity in China?

Reforming the Vatican bureaucracy will be another matter. Scandals inside the Vatican were instrumental in driving Benedict XVI to resign. Reports from Rome indicate that this concern topped the agenda for those who made him Pope Francis. He will have his work cut out dealing with those slick rascals in the Curia.

Another administrative problem is how to deal with clerical pedophilia. Paul’s First Letter to the church at Corinth, Chapter 6, presents the Biblical argument for dealing with such behavior internally, rather than submitting it to civil jurisdiction. The church tried that approach for two decades, with disastrous results. As a former leader of Jesuits, the pope will have had experience exercising discipline. He needs to deal brusquely with this problem.

The doctrinal issues he confronts are the most critical, at least in the eyes of many American Roman Catholics.

Let’s start with issues internal to the church. American nuns have called the church to task for adhering to an all-male, celibate priesthood, and they have been firmly reprimanded for it by the Curia. Will Francis choose to tackle this one?

Other issues involve the church’s witness on political issues. We Americans live in a culture that values individual liberty above all else. We see abortion as a decision for a pregnant woman to make, without state interference. We think two people who love one another should be able to get married and adopt children if they choose. And if two married people (or one married person, for that matter) wish to terminate a marriage, why not?

Catholic doctrine has traditionally had a more complex, more organic view of communal relations and responsibilities. It sees more than one person involved in the decision to abort a fetus. It sees procreation as an essential aspect of marriage. And it regards the marital vow as sacred and permanent, until death parts us.

Many Christian denominations have “evolved” on these issues as the secular culture has shifted. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has so far refused to adapt. For them, the measure of religious doctrine is not whether it is as nimble as contemporary public opinion, but whether it comports with the church’s fundamental teachings. This firm, principled conservatism rankles many Americans, even some among those who have stuck with the church. As one whose teachings will be regarded as infallible when he speaks formally on matters of doctrine, the pope will move carefully as he seeks to express Catholic doctrine in the modern world.

Despite his age and the rather frothy atmosphere that greeted his election, Pope Francis may turn out to be a truly consequential figure for his church and for the world.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at drobinso@smith.edu.

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