Benedict is gone...they have a new pope.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike seem fascinated by the Vatican in papal transition. With extended papacies like that of John Paul II there is a long lag between the conclaves. Not this time. So once again we all watch from afar as a group of red clad aging men, none elected to their positions of immense power, anoint one of their own to rule the Church. The process is totally opaque with each voting member sworn to silence and secrecy. Once white smoke appears atop St. Peters, a single now white hat emerges, no longer an equal among equals but the absolute and infallible Holy Father.
Considering that neither the Church nor the man will have even the slightest impact on most of our lives, what interests us so? For one thing, passing the Catholic torch with all of its colorful costumes, ritual and pomp — yes theatrics — makes for great television. Then, too, there is the mystery of it all, complete with the aura of assumed and unseen intrigue. Real life imitating fiction, or is it the other way around? While we may rail against the lack of transparency in most of our institutions, here the lack of transparency only adds to the drama. It provides a perfect and riskless setting for prognosticators. Unlike political pundits and pollsters, they will never be scored on predictive accuracy. After all, who knew?
If you're a Catholic woman seeking control over your reproductive rights, a gay man looking for full acceptance and marriage equality or someone in the pew hoping for an end of celibacy and the ordination, finally, of women don't expect the newly enthroned Pope Francis to be on your side. Perhaps the choice of this particular Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, came as a surprise. That he would be in the doctrinal conservative mode of his two predecessors — the men who qualified him and his electors — was and is expected. There were no reformers, as many of us would understand and define that word, in the voter/candidate pool assembled in the Sistine.
In the first hours and days after a pontifical elevation, one tends to focus on what this or that gesture might tell us about new pope's persona or foretell his rule. We look for similar signs from anyone who ascends to power including our newly elected presidents. Of course, with a long and largely transparent campaign, we know so much more about them. The election of a pope is the polar opposite of transparent. Its opacity is underscored when the winner has not been seen as a pre-conclave front-runner. Despite his reputed strong showing in 2005 and being well known at home, Francis has arisen out of effectual obscurity. Cardinal "who?" we say upon hearing of the Argentinian will lead more than a billion people around the globe.
So, having little else, atmospherics are likely to all we have to go on in near future — style more than substance. That said, with no radical departure from doctrine expected to be in play, style might actually have more substance than is often the case. By now anyone who reads or watches the news knows that Francis eschewed palace life in Argentina, opting instead for a modest apartment and self-cooked meals. He passed up a limo in favor of a public transportation and indeed got on the Vatican bus with his Cardinal colleagues right after the election. He picked up his bags the next day and paid his own hotel bill. We also have been told of his interest in and devotion to the poor, of washing AIDS patients' feet. He moved many by humbly asking the assembled crowd's blessing before bestowing any of his own on them. These early acts and personal history suggest to some that he may well be more in the John XXIII mold than in that of either Benedict or John Paul. Perhaps.
Francis assumes leadership of an often dispirited clergy and flock. The shame of child abuse and decades long cover-up, the reputed Curia and bank corruption, and the Church's tin-ear in facing the realities of our time. It all adds up to a most challenging papacy. Perhaps Francis was able to discard some of the opulent trappings of a cardinal — good luck with doing that as pope. All of his power notwithstanding, the new pontiff will quickly be reminded by those around him that no pope is his own man. Everything he does has a ripple effect and the bishops upon whom he must rely in his far flung empire like their perks and are unlikely to easily let them go, if at all.
As head of the world's largest religious denomination, Pope Francis will get a lot of press attention. Leaders and individuals will pay him lip service, but the Church has lost much of its moral authority. What popes say or do these days is of much more parochial than secular consequence. I am hard pressed to think of anything that Benedict did or said in his eight years that had any measurable impact on the world at large or that even meaningfully drove the conversation. Even among Catholics, and most certainly among Europeans and North Americans, the pope's views and pronouncements are largely ignored. When it comes to their personal life, the "sin threat" rings hollow, even to the otherwise faithful. That's hardly new and hardly something Francis will be able to reverse.
Reflecting the many challenges facing the Church, a cloud of sorts hung over the proceedings in Rome. Many of the better-known cardinals had presided over dioceses where pedophile priests had been sheltered, where large settlements had been paid out and where substantial questions remain unanswered. Even the jolly Dolan of New York is seen, albeit tangentially, as somewhat tainted. And this is not new. Pope Benedict had to justify and overcome his past as a Hitler Youth member. It is a mark of the Church's current state that its leaders' past deeds or either omission or co-mission stand as elephants in the room. Francis, despite his humility, has his own demons — actions taken or not during Argentina's Dirty War. True to form the Vatican is already building a sharp pushback defense, accusing the accusers. Some things don't change.
Benedict saw his mission as bringing Catholics into doctrinal line. Some say, he would rather have a smaller church than a wayward one. Francis may agree. The fact is that, while the Church is experiencing some growth in Latin America and more in Africa, it is steadily losing ground elsewhere. A large number of us no longer identify with a religion. Onetime Catholics are well represented among those whom researchers call nones and I call transcenders. Francis, like all religious leaders, must face that reality. He must also understand that employing FaceBook and Twitter is not like issuing encyclicals from on high. Social media are constructed for conversation and immediate feedback, including substantive challenges. Today's interconnected world requires as much listening as talking. That's something popes haven't been required (or chosen) to do. If the most recent papacies are any barometer that may not change.
The new pope is yet to be formally inaugurated and perhaps some of us will be watching, mostly (if we are honest) for the ceremony's entertainment value. But twenty-first century folk have a very short attention span, even when it comes to things that affect them directly. When the headlines subside and the vast majority of red hats return home, Catholics will be on their own with their new leader. Francis may impact on the larger world but if and how so remains to be seen. Most of us will focus our attention on other things, on our own lives and beliefs. All we can do is to wish him and most importantly his followers, our fellow human beings, well.
My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is now available in print and as an eBook. Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.