An assertion that the Roman Catholic Church has had a chequered past would have a fair claim to being the greatest understatement of modern history. Even leaving aside old sins – from the Spanish inquisition to Nazi appeasement – the situation is bleak. Corruption still dogs the Church, and, far more seriously, the appalling revelations of abuse have brought grave doubts on any claims to a voice on morality. Torn between doctrine and changing attitudes in the developed world, its leadership appears increasingly out of touch to Western populations. The damage to its reputation caused by the suffering that opposition to contraception brings in AIDS ravaged regions is hardly offset by its arguments that the polygamous relationships that spread the disease are also in conflict with Catholic doctrine. Even without these troubles, the Church must cope with an increasingly secular West, where the rise of militant atheism is fuelled as much by Islamist bombings as paedophilic scandals, and where the population is increasingly wary and weary of institutions of all stripes.
In the face of such problems, the temptation to retreat into a mix of attempted cover-ups and dogmatic, defensive conservatism could have proved overwhelming. At times this appeared to be the case under Benedict XVI, whose papacy seems destined to be remembered chiefly as a bookish stopgap. Yet recent events have shattered this image.
The resignation of Benedict was shock enough. In an organisation whose higher echelons are run exclusively by the elderly, infirmity has never before been a barrier to advancement. This one action will secure him his place in history: at a stroke the perceived wisdom of a thousand years has vanished – is it too soon to hope that he takes the tyranny of tradition that has crippled the Church with him?
If Benedict’s resignation were the only earthquake, the answer would doubtless be yes. But the choice of successor is, if possible, even more extraordinary. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit Argentinean, was an inspired, courageous choice by the College of Cardinals. Regardless of what he achieves during his tenure, the precedents set by his election alone are ground-breaking, and long overdue. The Jesuits – for all the suspicion they arouse in certain quarters – may be respected or feared, but are rarely scorned. A tradition of intellectual rigour and evangelizing zeal is a far cry from the expected Vatican insider, safe and uncontroversial. More important, however, is the election of the first non-European Pope since Gelasius I in 492 (who hardly counts). Catholicism is in sharp decline in Europe, but flourishing in Africa and the South Americas. The appointment of a Pope from these regions is the clearest indicator yet that the Church has noticed that its world is changing. A Pope representing those who are Catholicism’s future is long overdue.
Despite this, the election of Francis is an event that should be of concern throughout the developed world also, and not only by Catholics. People of all faiths – including atheists – must recognise that the Roman Catholic Church remains an institution of enormous influence, and potential. It speaks for 1.2 billion followers, and – regardless of its faults, which are indeed numerous – is immense force for good through its charitable works, which include hospitals and orphanages in some of the most deprived parts of the globe. Francis faces challenges of a magnitude unprecedented since the Reformation, but in facing them, he has a unique chance to make the Church relevant to the modern world.
So far, the rhetoric emanating from the Vatican has boded well: the very choice of Papal name indicates a desire to emphasise humility, and the Church’s role as the servant of the poor. Francis’ hands-on style may be a nightmare for the Swiss Guard, but it is an inspiring example to a world used to a church elite swathed in pampered luxury. It is easy to dismiss washing the feet of a female prisoner as a stunt, but the symbolism is clear, and important. He has promised to decisively tackle the issues of abuse and corruption: we can only hope he is strong enough to prevail in the face of the opposition he is sure to encounter. For all that Francis is not the liberal leader Europeans might have hoped for, at last there is the prospect of action on the Church’s greatest weaknesses. Great leaders are often marked by the precedents they set: by any standard, Francis is off to a flying start.