Opinionista Richard Poplak 15 March 2013

Frank’s feet of Catholic clay

The white smoke went forth toward the heavens, and out popped Pope Francis. Despite the array of “firsts” attributed to his ascension, the man who now guides the prayers of over a billion Catholics has the usual CV – collaboration with mass murderers, vicious opponent of change, fondness for the medieval. As the Jews would say: Oy vey.

There’s a wonderful picture that dates back to the 1970s – not a particularly cheerful time in the history of Argentina – of rotund Father Jorge Maria Bergoglio walking alongside lean, dapper, mass murdering General Jorge Rafael Videla. The stroll itself is hardly proof of collusion – it merely confirms the fact that the Catholic Church and the Argentinian military regime were, occasionally, on strolling terms. But when one pairs the image with journalist Horacio Verbitsky’s devastating takedown, El Silencio, which is proof of collusion, we are able to understand the make of the man who now inhabits the Vatican.

El Silencio is an island in the River Plate, on which the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires kept a holiday home—never a more perfectly named location for a member of the Catholic gerontocracy, for whom silence is the ultimate calling. Therein did the good archbishop assist the Argentinian navy in hiding political prisoners from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

There are all sorts of excuses for this behaviour, and the new pope has intoned them all in his husky, man-of-the-people Argentinian Spanish. The Church did what it could to protect the flock, and lo, did the regime not kill the bishop Enrique Angelelli, a great friend of Argentina’s poor, by running his car off the road? Ah, but Angelelli was exactly the sort of man who gets his car run off the road. He was not the sort of man to stroll with murderers. Or end up on the throne.

“The most shaming thing for the church,” wrote Hugh O’ Shaughnessy back in January 2011, “is that in such circumstances Bergoglio’s name was allowed to go forward in the ballot to choose the successor of John Paul II. What scandal would have ensued if the first pope ever to be elected from the continent of America has been revealed as an accessory to murder and false imprisonment.”

One of the big excuses Church apologists regularly trump when confronted with the horrific child molestation accusations that have smeared the Catholic faith with all manner of ignominy is this: look at the numbers from any other institution, like the school system in Britain or the military, and they’ll be the same, or worse. And those apologists would be correct. Except for one towering fact: the Catholic Church exists on its own, vast island of El Silencio, where no wrongdoing is admitted, and everything exists in a shroud of silence – raping children, abetting mass murderers in Nazi Germany or Videla’s Argentina, and other such acts of ignominy.

So, Pope Francis. Son of an Italian immigrant, 76 years old, ordained at the late age of 33. A first in several respects, but very much of the cloth, as it were. The first pope from the American continent, all set to shepherd fields of new Latin American sheep into the flock. The first from the Jesuit order, a man so modest that he exchanged the cardinal’s palace for humble digs, regularly eschewed his limo for public transportation, and went by decidedly ungrand Father Jorge. This is a man who walked into a hospital and washed the feet of Aids patients, kissed their piggy-wiggies, and reminded us that, “society forgets the sick and the poor”. And certainly not a Vatican insider. This pope is a pastor, not a member of the Curia, and certainly not a theologian à la the last fellow.

What might we expect from the former Father Jorge, who prostrates himself before both the poor and the mighty? On the face of it, all of these “firsts” suggest a reformer, a man of the people, for the people. A vicar who will nudge the Catholic Church into the 21st century.

Try the 11th century.

While Father Jorge broke bread with the Videla regime, playing footsy beneath the table with generals and killers and professional kidnappers of children, he has felt no such compulsion to do so with successive democratically elected Argentinian governments. Here, Father Jorge has suddenly found his tongue, and it’s a tongue that wags in much the same direction as those of his notoriously doctrinaire predecessors. “Bergoglio’s position is medieval,” said President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, after Father Jorge insisted that gay marriage and adoption of children by gay couples were “a war against God” and a “manoeuvre by the devil”.

His sudden interest in protecting children from the manifest evils of homosexual parents – Abba records on constant replay, etcetera – does not extend to making bold statements on the behalf of the tens of thousands of sexual abuse victims the church has left scattered across the globe. As far as the inordination of women is concerned, or anything remotely left leaning, forget about it. This is a pope of the old school.

He is an interesting choice in other respects. Because he’s been busily washing the feet of his flock in Buenos Aires, he is not a Vatican insider, per se, and will leave the clean up of the church’s bank scandals and bureaucratic missteps to the same bankers and bureaucrats who caused them in the first place. The actual administration of Vatican City is in its worst crisis in decades, if not centuries, and the financial soundness of church is teetering. Pope Francis has been chosen in no small measure to get out of the way and wave his hands around at Mass, while the clean up operation commences in the background.

He is a depressing choice for both Catholics and non-Catholics alike, mostly because he reminds us that cultural change is an agonisingly slow process. Pope Francis, who now wears the robes that his namesake so often forswore, reminds us that we can expect little from the massive institutions that influence global decision makers. He will keep one billion people locked in a mindset that belongs to another era, and is tarnished with the sins and the blood of the 20th century, atrocities we desperately need to address and file away in their proper historical context. The cardinals have shamed themselves, once again.

One thing, however, is certain. Pope Francis has washed and kissed his last foot. By all accounts, he was very good at it. No small, ahem, feat. DM


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