Now that the Roman Catholic Church has crowned Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as their new leader, followers from across the globe hope he can usher in significant and much-needed changes in an institution that has become as corrupt as it is antiquitous. Bergoglio has taken the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, a medieval cleric known for his work with the poor. He’s also considered the Catholic patron saint of animals, which probably endears him to a greater number of people. St. Francis founded the Franciscan Order in the early 13th century; a mission dedicated to helping the impoverished. It’s obvious economic disparities have existed throughout humanity. So, either the world’s political structures haven’t functioned properly for thousands of years, or religious entities aren’t doing something right. If you realize the massive wealth the Roman Catholic Church possesses – how else can you explain their ability to pay out millions in sex abuse settlements? – then it may be a mixture of both.
Many Roman Catholics are excited about Frances, especially here in the Western Hemisphere. But, while some people see change on the horizon, I see just another geriatric virgin (or maybe not) swaddled in silk and velvet; ensconced in a cloistered society, far removed from the real world in which most Catholics (and people of other faiths) reside.
Francis is the first pope outside of Europe. He’s also considered the first Hispanic pope, since he’s from Argentina. But, he’s an Argentinian of Italian ancestry. Thus, in effect, the Church has just put another Italian in the pontiff’s chair; not much different than before Pope John Paul II. Francis is 76, only two years younger than Pope Benedict XVI was when he ascended to the papacy in 2005.
Allegedly, as votes were being counted last week during the papal conclave, Bergoglio told a fellow cardinal, “Remember the poor.” This is an interesting proclamation, noting that the Roman Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest institutions on Earth. No one can put an exact figure on it, primarily because the Church isn’t beholden to tax burdens. But, it’s estimated net wealth is between $400 billion and $750 billion. This includes its vast collection of artwork and other treasures (often made of gold or silver) that sit in its tightly-guarded environs. It costs a great deal of money to maintain the buildings that comprise Vatican City alone, as well as the heavily-armed security guards that surround the pope.
With such massive wealth comes power. The Roman Catholic Church ruled much of Europe for centuries; often dictating who would be crowned king or queen. But, the advent of political democracy – first here in the U.S. and then in Europe – weakened much of that authority. In modern times, the Church has often confronted military and political dictatorships. That’s what makes the selection of Francis a rather curious development. He was around during Argentina’s notorious “dirty war,” when thousands of people either were killed by the country’s military dictatorship, or mysteriously disappeared. Criticism about his activities in those years ambushed him almost as soon as he greeted the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. I suspect it’s something that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Yet, when Francis spoke openly about the poor, I was reminded of Oscar Romero, the late Archbishop of El Salvador, who once said, “When I feed the poor, you call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, you call me a communist.” For his outspoken views, Romero was assassinated while conducting Easter mass in 1980.
I left the Roman Catholic Church years ago, mainly because of its disrespectful attitude towards women who make up more than half of its 1.2 billion adherents. After two millennia of existence, why hasn’t the Church agreed to let women into the priesthood? It’s clearly a patriarchal entity. But, ignoring more than half the human population is an abomination. It’s also just plain rude. I mean, women can do more than have kids, mop floors and cook meals for the menfolk. Any single mom will tell you that! Besides, women would look better in those flowing velvet gowns.
The pedophile priest scandal that has swept across the U.S. these past several years only solidified, in my mind, ineptness and utter irrelevance of the Catholic Church. I know the great majority of priests would never harm a child. But, I just never could understand why the Church shuffled the perverted ones from one diocese to another. I suspect it was a matter of self- preservation – one that backfired.
There is no other institution on Earth quite like the Roman Catholic Church. Lutherans and Methodists, for example, don’t have a supreme leader in quite the same mold. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches come close. Baptists and Pentecostals here in the U.S. certainly have no central commander, which may explain why they hate Catholics so much are always pissed off. Neither Judaism (Christianity’s cantankerous mother) nor Islam (its ugly offspring) have leaders similar to the pope.
Some observers hope that Francis will be a reformer along the same lines as Pope John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 to update Church doctrines in accordance with various scientific discoveries and advancements. But, Francis has already shown displeasure with contemporary issues, such as birth control and homosexuality, which is to be expected. So, unless Francis accepts that some people use birth control, while others are queer, how is he going to be a reformer?
It would have been great if the Church had elected a truly unconventional and imperfect figure to the papacy; say, a 50-something man who perhaps had been married, maybe even has a juvenile criminal record, prefers vodka to wine, loves ultimate fighting and likes to tell bathroom jokes. Somebody who – albeit multi-lingual and well-versed in religious scholarship – could still identify more clearly with the average person. How could anyone who has spent most of their years enmeshed in prayer and meditation understand the complexities of daily life?
I don’t know what the future of the Roman Catholic Church holds under Francis’ leadership and I almost don’t care. I know that too many people adhere to every word that spills from the gilded lips of the Church’s hierarchy, which of course, is their right. But, it’s also their greatest fault. I would only visit Vatican City for one reason: to check out the artwork. Art serves a purpose; blind faith does not.