As the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the rejuvenation of the Earth through Christ, they may well be celebrating a rejuvenation in the Papacy. The unprecedented resignation of one pope and the ascension of an extremely qualified Argentinean Jesuit lend new and optimistic possibilities for the future of the struggling church. On Easter, March 31, Pope Francis delivered his first Easter Address as Pope on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Easter Address is traditionally to rejoice the Risen Christ, Christ’s redemption of the world, and make a plea for international understanding and world peace. The new pope hit all of these marks, and also hinted at progressive views on social justice and the environment. These small hints of progress in the body of tradition reflect a greater urge on the part of the Church under a new leader to reassert itself without reinventing itself.
It is important to note that the hints were steeped in the language of Christianity rather than politics. That is, while Pope Francis condemned “greed for easy gain” and expressed sympathy for the poor and those in prison, the progressivism there is well aligned with Christian teachings. That is exactly the point. You might call it progressive, but you must certainly call it Christian. The pope must equate tradition with progress in order to engage both the faithful and the world .
Pope Francis’s statements on the environments, on the other hand, appear to apply Christianity to a mainly progressive idea. In his speech, he condemns the, “iniquitous exploitation of natural resources” and asks Christ to make us, “responsible guardians of creation.” In this case environmental squander is equated with sin, and our scriptural dominion over nature is tempered with a duty to protect it. Importantly, these ideas are not traditionally Christian, but rather adapts the language of Christianity to a progressive issue. The new pope is astutely seeking to equate modern and Christian philosophy to build the legitimacy of the Church.
This policy embracing the modern world and seeking legitimacy within the limits of orthodoxy is not new to the Modern Papacy. Perhaps its most renowned practitioner is John Paul the Great (II), who is now well on his way to sainthood. Pope John Paul II supported the reforms of Vatican II, worked on interfaith dialogue with religious leaders around the world, supported Solidarity in Poland, and vehemently opposed Apartheid. In all of these Pope John Paul II used his influence to engage the modern world in a Catholic context.
Pope Francis has the right mix of symbolic importance and qualifications to continue the process of adapting to the modern world within the bounds of orthodoxy. First, he comes in at the time of a papal resignation that is unique in papal history. Not only was the last time a pope resigned in 1417, a pope has never resigned for the reason of exhaustion. It sets the kind of precedent that if followed will forever alter the course of the Papacy. Increasingly in Papal Conclaves merit is replacing seniority. With this precedent might we be looking at meritocratic temporary popes, and what will become of the office of Roman Pontiff Emeritus, which Benedict XVI inhabits now?
Secondly, Pope Francis is the first Jesuit and the first South American Pope. The significance of both of these facts must not be understated. Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, have long been a powerful and often suppressed order within the Church focused on charity, education, theology, and ecumenical dialogue. A Jesuit pope is symbol of these works and ascetic values.
It is perhaps more important that he is the first South American Pope. South Americans now make up the single largest group of the world’s roughly 1.2 billion Catholics due to centuries of Iberian settlement . The ascension of an Argentinean to the chair of St. Peter reflects and increasingly global and meritocratic ecclesiastical hierarchy, as well as a break from European primacy within the Church.
Third, Pope Francis is the perfect fit for the job at this time. His rise through the church hierarchy can only be described as meteoric. He is a profoundly gifted theologian and in a short time became the leader of the Jesuits in Argentina, a rector of theology at a university, and then the Archbishop of Buenos Aries. As Archbishop he worked as an advocate for the Eastern Orthodox Church to the government to help the Ukrainian immigrant community. He also reconciled clergymen that were defrocked during the military dictatorship in Argentina. His assumed asceticism, humility, and theological achievements lend him credibility as a spiritual leader, which is the pope’s primary function.
Moreover, he excels at symbolic gestures and the moderate policies that an immoveable yet accessible church depends on. In an act of asceticism, he has chosen to reside at the papal guest house, rather than the papal apartment. Granted, this is trading one palace for another, but as a symbol it sets an excellent example for the clergy and gives him credence a spiritual leader in ways that opulence would not. Moreover, his name taken from St. Francis of Assisi, is symbolic of an ascetic who dedicates his life to peace and the poor, and the patron saint of the environment.
The new pope’s career reflects a combination between the active and progress role of John Paul II and Jesuit additions that can only increase the legitimacy of the Church. It would not be unwise to predict his leadership will further charity, interfaith dialogue, peace missions, education, and altogether use traditional outlets to improve the reputation of the Church in the modern world.
Why this middle road where progress is reined in by Orthodoxy? The Catholic Church has extremely deep roots linking it to centuries past. It is from these roots that it takes its prestigious styling as the one true and universal Church. They must also react to other forms of Christianity; Protestants and Anglicans define themselves as apart from the Catholic Church, and the Church has historically done likewise. The Church proclaims seniority and therefore must define itself as being the most traditional. Even Catholic Reformation movements such as Vatican II and the Council of Trent have been aimed at reasserting itself to the world by restating its values. For this reason John Paul II could not support female ordination, and Pope Francis will not likely support same-sex marriage in the face of adaptive Protestant groups. To do so would not be Catholic, and thus the pressure for popes to remain orthodox despite criticism is huge.
The new pope had better be as good I predict, because he inherits the leviathan task of spiritually leading 1.2 billion, and administrating a worldwide bureaucracy racked with banking and sex scandals, the legacy of collaboration with rightist dictators, and an identity increasingly cemented in an ancient sexual morality. However, this symbolically important pope also has the opportunity to utilize the means available to him in the context of this tradition. by emphasizing charity, education, and diplomatic and humanitarian missions, Pope Francis has an opportunity to use the immense power of the Vatican for universal good, which will both redeem the church in the eyes of the world, and reassert its purpose to itself. From the center balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica addresses not only the crowd of faithful, but the entire world.