Friday, February 6, 2015

Pope Francis: The Would Be Reformer

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope by a papal conclave in 2013, my first reaction was to ask who was this man who had just ascended to the throne of St. Peter? In order to find out, I started reading about the new Pope Francis to learn as much as I could about him. While the new pope’s credentials as a Catholic spiritual leader were impressive, I was disturbed by one particular story that came out of Francis’s home country of Argentina.

It was the story of then Cardinal Bergoglio’s alleged culpability during Argentina’s so-called “dirty war” (ranging from 1974 to 1983) in which the country’s military dictatorship is said to have kidnapped and murdered anywhere from 7,000 to 30,000 people who were considered politically-dangerous to the regime. Bergoglio for a time—along with the rest of the Catholic Church in Argentina—had to defend himself against charges of “complicit silence and worse” as the dirty war swirled all around Argentinian society. Bergoglio’s purported accountability in the military dictatorship’s bloody human rights record remains up for debate. For me, given my loathing for the worst of Vatican hypocrisy and entitlement, it was easy to believe that the man who would be pope could be guilty of turning the other cheek in the face of tyranny and repression aimed at his own people.

However, the allegations have since faded and Pope Francis has established himself as a leader seemingly committed to detaching the Roman Catholic Church from its wayward attitudes and behavior. For a pope who has been a fixture in the Vatican hierarchy, Francis’s balancing act between upholding the spiritual legitimacy of the Church and his surprisingly unconventional statements on homosexuality, non-Christians, religion, morality, climate change, and on the Church’s financial management, has created the idea that he is not your typical pope; that he will not dogmatically toe the line of encrusted Vatican orthodoxy on certain issues. It is refreshing to hear a papal leader go against the grain of some of his institution’s archaic traditions.

It was permanently lodged in my mind that any realistic chance of the Vatican evolving towards greater transparency and reform had been silenced long ago. Pope Benedict XVI gave more lip service than anything else in confronting the corruption within the Vatican, while Pope John Paul II before him did not do much more in dealing with those same problems. What I find encouraging about Pope Francis is that he not only punctuates the plight of the downtrodden on earth but also pontificates on both the excesses of capitalism and on the sins of his own Vatican brethren.

In his official 2014 Christmas gathering with the Vatican hierarchy, Pope Francis forcefully let it be known his highly-critical view of what he called the “15 ailments of the Curia.” From self-serving actions to moral hypocrisy and to selling out their spiritual identity for individual gain, Francis fired a warning shot at the stunned Curia audience as he reiterated his commitment to structural reform in the Church and called on the attendees to do some soul-searching into how they have conducted themselves as men of god. It was a marvel to see and hear, and I believe that Francis will do his utmost in fulfilling his lofty goals.

With weary resignation though, I don’t expect Francis to be able to turn his reformist plans into concrete results anytime soon. The pope will have to handle any reform effort with care what with the sure resistance of the Vatican curia awaiting him. Perhaps it is little surprise then that Pope Francis could be treading dangerous waters the further he goes into reforming the Church. It’s just an unproven conspiracy theory, but it is rumored that Pope John Paul I (the predecessor of the more well-known John Paul II) suddenly died in 1978 after only 33 days in office (officially due to a heart attack) because he was covertly poisoned to prevent his reputed plans to implement reforms in the corruption-ridden Vatican Bank from coming to fruition.

Pope Francis is talking about the doing the same thing Pope John Paul I was thinking of doing. Just pray that Francis’s health doesn’t abruptly take a turn for the worst any time soon—members of the Vatican curia are capable of doing anything to retain their wealth and power.


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