Former Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world in February when he announced his resignation from the papacy, citing health issues. Benedict’s tenure was quite polarizing among Catholics. Most had realized it would be hard for a successor to compete against Pope John Paul II’s widespread popularity, but could anyone have imagined how remarkably disappointing the eight-year stint would prove to be?
After nearly a decade of disappointment, expectations for Benedict’s successor were high. Thus far, Pope Francis’ actions have hinted at progress, but Vatican politics could potentially spoil his efforts to advance the church into the modern era.
Former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was announced last month as Benedict’s successor. Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is the first non-European-born pope in a millennium, and the first from the Americas. Though Francis certainly seems qualified, his election is deeply wrapped up in church politics.
Europe – excluding Poland and some other Eastern European countries – has generally seen its Catholic population decline over time as the whole continent becomes increasingly secular. Latin America’s own Catholic population has been on the decline as well, but it does constitute a far larger portion of Catholics worldwide at 41 percent.
The first day of Francis’ papacy made headlines as he continually reaffirmed his humble beginnings and commitment to personal austerity – the very name taken up by the new papal authority is in reference to Saint Francis of Assisi who committed himself to a life of poverty. His sense of fashion proved, for better or worse, far less honed than Benedict’s as he refused to don the beloved red shoes or the golden mitre. His departure from his predecessor manifested itself further as he rode with cardinals through the Vatican rather than take the helm of the famous “popemobile.”
Francis was full of good impressions his first two weeks, making trips to prisons and detention centers, washing the feet of women and men alike. President Barack Obama was among the first heads of state to congratulate Francis, commending him for his humble beginnings and devotion to the poor and disenfranchised. The Argentine pope’s devotion to the people certainly seems genuine, but several critics brought up Francis’ more conservative leanings.
For one, the new pope opposes same-sex marriage, calling it a perversion of the holy sacrament. Francis has, however, proven to be more flexible in his view of same-sex civil unions. In 2010 when Argentina was on the verge of legalizing same-sex marriage, Francis, then a Cardinal, raised the notion of the church endorsing civil unions for same-sex couples. While there was little chance of a fully pro-same-sex marriage pope emerging, there is an issue Francis has yet to take a clear stance on which could affect the lives of millions – the use of contraception in Africa.
The new pope’s position on contraception is still ambiguous, some reporting his opinions to be orthodox and others saying he might have a more liberal approach. Ratzinger in his last two years was toying with the idea of condoms being used to prevent HIV but not pregnancy, saying it’s a possibility one may be in the moral right to use protection in the former case.
Francis has inherited a global pandemic with 33 million people living with AIDS. With the prominence of some Catholic humanitarian organizations in Africa, the pope’s endorsement could do wonders in halting the pandemic’s spread. If Francis is to be a pope for the disenfranchised, he must not be afraid to break from traditional church policy.
Vatican politics can be hard to navigate, but a break from the existing dogma is more necessary than ever.