Clerical show doesn’t change the fact that Pope Francis is no moderniser keen to clean up the church, writes Joyce McMillan
WHEN it comes to high drama, it is difficult to imagine an event more straightforwardly appealing, more gripping and more telegenic, than the election of a new Pope. Over a period of days or weeks, the cardinal-electors travel to Rome from every corner of the earth, each one with his unique set of hopes, ambitions and apprehensions. There are only 115 of them, presiding over more than a billion Catholics, worldwide.
Once in Rome, they have a few days to prepare and then – with a final mass and a slam of the door – they are locked in “con clave” (with a key) in the momentous setting of the Sistine Chapel. Their task, through round after round of prayer and balloting, is to elect from among themselves the next Pope. And when they finally succeed, the tradition is that the chapel chimney is made to puff out white smoke, sending a visible sign to the waiting world, and to the seething crowds in St Peter’s Square, that a new Pope has been chosen, and that “we have a Pope” – habemus Papam.
The sheer theatre of all this, in the best sense of the word, is obvious to any experienced observer, and the Vatican must be well pleased, this week, by the extent to which the world’s media have been drawn into the narrative.
For the modern media, after all, this is one of those stories that, like the funeral of Princess Diana, has almost everything - spectacle, strong images, a simple-to-grasp personal story, a touch of celebrity culture, and a small but detectable edge of real political significance; and by Wednesday evening, the BBC’s reporters on the ground were describing the new Pope in the kind of fatuous, doting language usually reserved for new members of the royal family.
In truth, though, there is something more than disturbing about the extent to which such a piece of clerical spectacle, well staged, seems to have persuaded many news organisations simply to suspend all critical intelligence.
Four hundred years ago in northern Europe there was a widespread popular rebellion against the Catholic Church, which was in part inspired by a feeling that this kind of spectacle had had its day; that in the new age of mass literacy a better-educated people would no longer be seduced by the visual glory of church ritual, and would read the Bible for themselves, in order to forge their own relationship with God.
Now, though, it seems that four centuries-worth of Protestant thinkers and theologians might as well never have lived. For, with a flash of the flat-screen television and a few clicks of the computer mouse, we seem to have left that age of literacy behind and to have reverted to the kind of visual culture where a picture of a vivid puff of smoke emerging from the Vatican chimney is worth thousands of words of thoughtful moral argument from less spectacular and more liberal branches of the church.
Which is a pity, because, four centuries on, the former Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires faces a task which suggests that the Catholic church has never really dealt with the issues that drove so many restless and questioning minds away from it, at the end of the Middle Ages. The new Pope, we are told, is a strong advocate for the poor and for social justice; he lives simply himself, and has chosen the name of St Francis, famous for his humility and simple life.
Yet, in common with his church, he seems to have a track-record of willing the end of greater justice for the poor, while refusing to will the political means, in the shape of centre-left policies.
In fact, the Catholic hierarchy in South America has far too often shown a preference for the kind of right-wing authoritarian governments whose record on human rights and social justice is simply indefensible; and there are unanswered questions about the new Pope’s conduct, and failure to oppose the regime, during Argentina’s dreadful period of rule by General Galtieri’s military junta, between 1972 and 1983.
And then there is the new Pope’s undoubted social conservatism, which has brought him into conflict with Argentina’s president, Cristina Kirchner, over the matter of gay marriage. The question of whether gay marriages should be permitted in the Catholic church is of course one for the church alone.
Like too many Catholic prelates, though, the new Pope has spoken out on this issue in extreme and deeply insulting language, seeking to ban the idea altogether and like too many of his brother cardinals, he seems not to realise that such fierce and hurtful denunciations of other people’s sexual lives come very badly, now, from a church so tainted by its own tolerance of covert sexual misconduct by generations of priests, including outright child abuse.
So in both of these areas – the real struggle for social justice, and the need to get to grips with the ingrained clerical culture of sexual shame and dysfunction which lies at the root of the abuse scandal – there is precious little sign that any radicalism can be expected of the new Pope. Indeed, at 76, he belongs to the generation of Catholic prelates whose careers have been formed by these contradictions and failures in the life of the church, and who have had – at best – to make their own prayerful compromises with them.
I remain enough of a believer to accept that God moves in mysterious ways, and that we must always be ready to be surprised. Yet the kind of shallow, gushing celebrity adulation with which Pope Francis has been greeted over the last 48 hours has nothing to do with the tough, lonely and fiercely controversial task that faces him, and everything to do with the 21st century media’s dangerous yearning for a facile narrative of instant change, driven by a single leader.
And for the moment, we have no way of knowing whether, from his position inside the church, the new Pope has even been able to glimpse the scale of his task, or to feel the extent of the church’s moral crisis, for which the papacy of Francis I must now begin to make amends.