As the 266th Pope, the former Argentinian Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio, who has taken the papal name of Francis, he has joined his predecessors, Tuesday in Rome, at his installation, as one of the world’s most well-known, and historically controversial head of the 2,000 year old Roman Catholic Church, and its approximately 1.3 billion members worldwide.
While Catholics see the position as biblically ordained, that claim is controversial with many Christians, the eastern orthodox churches, in particular, who while acknowledging the historical role that the Bishop of Rome has taken over the centuries, do not agree with its origins.
Catholics believe that when Jesus told Peter (Matthew 16: 17-19) that “upon this rock I will build my church” that the reference was to Peter himself; but this literal interpretation has given to controversies over the centuries, whether the meaning is to be attributable to Peter himself, or Peter’s faith – a bedrock, or one to be recognized as a foundation of faith; the matter, when looking at the original Greek does show, however a feminine demonstrative pronoun.
The historical controversy managed to push to the sidelines the historical patriarchs of the east Antioch, and Constantinople, and the Roman pontiff has assumed a worldwide prominence for Catholics and non-Catholics alike; and, he, as Karen Armstrong, the British public intellectual has noted, is the world’s last autocrat.
Add the doctrine of papal infallibility, which is the dogmatic belief that the Pope cannot speak without error on matters of faith and morals, to the mix; and the role itself, historically developed, or divinely ordained through scripture, creates even more controversy, and even confusion, for some who mistakenly understand that every utterance, or document form the pope is infallible.
Francis I, as Bergoglio, is now known, faces even more controversies as he faces a church divided on the role of women, same-sex marriage, the role of the laity, shrinking vocations to the religious life, investigations of American nuns, the girl scouts, and the ongoing pedophilia scandal that has shown no sign of abatement, now becoming almost a pandemic as it sweeps across traditionally Catholic countries such as Ireland, who recalled its ambassador citing economics, but who many believe was a protest against the sexual abuse in Ireland of boys and young men by priests.
American nuns are still stung by the recent Vatican criticism, after a lengthy investigation, that they paid too much attention to social injustice and poverty and too little to the twinned-evils, as the Vatican terms them, of same-sex marriage and abortion.
But as Swiss theologian Hans Kung said in a recent interview with the National Catholic Reporter the nuns are often better educated and more compassionate than the men in power in Rome.
Marriage equality, or same-sex marriage, as it is frequently termed, has become a cause celebre for many, but has also gained increasing support by many worldwide, and even in the United States where nine states, plus the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage, and a recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News shows that 58% of Americans believe that “it should be legal for gay couples to get married.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the legality of California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, which was legalized under President Bill Clinton, and who recently wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post regretting his signing the bill into law.
Attitudes have changed considerably towards homosexuality, but the Catholic Church still claims that they are “intrinsically disordered” a stance that puts them at odds with the rest of the developing world, where they are getting married, serving openly in the military, and adopting, and raising children.
This orthodox, some would say fundamentalist attitude, has put the church at odds with many, including former Republic of Ireland president, Mary McAlesse who noted had destructive repercussions for gay youth.
Yet, Joe Murray, executive director of Chicago’s Rainbow Sash Movement, a group that wants formal acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church, notes that local parishes, especially on the Near North Side are “welcoming to LGBT Catholics.”
According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll 54 percent of all Catholic voters support same sex marriage, thus creating a disconnect between what is preached, and what is believed.
Even the question of women priests, anathema to the Vatican, is still on the back burner with the systematic aging of priests, and a shortage, despite an initial surge of the so-called John Paul II priests.
The pedophilia scandal is still present when last year it was revealed that there were hundreds of credible cases in Philadelphia of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, long after the “zero tolerance” policy promulgated by the then head of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.
Francis I faces a formidable challenge, and while his reputation for personal modesty has endeared him to many, the heavy mantle of the Petrine legacy lays heavy on his shoulders, and the agenda is full.
One of his hallmarks seems to be pastorally centered statements around humility, in fact, the new pontiff noted “We may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes all of this, but we are not disciples of the Lord (if we don’t follow Jesus).”
Ralph Keen, Professor of History and the Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation Chair in Catholic Studies, at the University of Chicago at Illinois, told me, “The world is charmed by a humble man, a man of the people, someone whose whole ministry has plainly been in solidarity with the poor. But Pope Francis's mandate, if we can speak in such terms, is to repair damage in the dioceses and at the Curia, and that task demands the energy of a strong leader.”
Expanding on this, Keen further noted, “When Sr. Simone Campbell was here last month she expressed the desire for a "pastoral" pontiff, and she used the same word on Wednesday after Bergoglio's election. The term should be understood in its precise sense, that of a shepherd guarding a flock: and, in the case of the present-day Church, caring for members who've been injured and alienated for various reasons. A faithful shepherd or pastor in the present situation is one who will swiftly tend to the needs of those under his care. “
This is a tall order, and the ensuing months will show the world, not only the man, but the message.
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