The election of a Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio as Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church has, inevitably, led to numerous requests for an assessment of what the election means for the future of the Church and for the Church’s broader impact on the human civilizational project. These were, initially, difficult questions to answer, for the simple reason that while the new pope was been quite clear from the beginning that he intends a break of some significance from the papacy of his predecessor, the evidence regarding just who he is and what he represents was limited and contradictory in character. Gradually, however, over the course of the past six months the new pontiff has given some fairly well defined, if not always fully transparent, indications of just where he stands and where he wants to take the Church. By setting this evidence in the larger context what the Catholic Church is and of its current situation we can read it more accurately and provide a framework for interpreting what is to come.
The Catholic Ideal
It must be understood that the papacy is, first and foremost, a civilizational office, not a spiritual one in the narrower sense of that term. The pope has little or no authority in the internal forum and election as pope is not a recognition of outstanding holiness. The pope is not a reincarnated tulku or the Sufi qutb or the Ismaili Imam of the time. His task, rather, is to advance the Catholic ideal –an ideal which is certainly spiritual as well as civilizational in character—in the external forum, by positioning the church strategically to carry out its threefold leadership task: teaching, sanctifying, and governing. Francis himself recognized this in his statement to the Vatican diplomatic corps regarding the qualifications for the office of Bishop. “If he is holy, let him pray for us. If he is learned, let him teach us. If he is prudent let him govern us.” Francis’ claim, and that of the papacy, is to the last of these three virtues.
The starting point of any strategic analysis must, therefore, be a clear definition of the Catholic ideal. This is a difficult task because catholicity by its very nature an attempt to encompass many related ideals within a single institution. It is also difficult because the ideal itself is a product of syncretism: first between Judaism and Hellenism and then between the resulting syncretism and the countless other cultures which Christianity has engaged as it has spread around the planet.
We have written extensively on the nature of the Catholic ideal elsewhere. Here it will suffice to summarize. First, from Hellenism Catholicism takes the conviction that we can rise rationally to a first principle in terms of which the universe can be explained and human action ordered. On this basis we seek to create a just society –a society which promotes the full development of human capacities—but also recognize that our human nature points us towards an end which transcends our natural capacities: knowing and loving God in essence, something of which human nature alone is incapable. Second, from Judaism, Catholicism takes the conviction that we encounter God first and foremost in the struggle for a just society. Because the Jewish heritage passed to us through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a messianic pretender crucified by the Romans, we tend to believe that the struggle for justice, while it may yield authentic worldly progress, ends ultimately on the cross. But we do not take this as a sign of defeat. Rather, we see the struggle for justice as stretching us beyond the merely human toward connaturality with the divine –what Judaism calls da’ath elohim. It is in this connaturality with the divine that we find our ultimate calling and our ultimate realization. In order to accommodate this possibility, which neither Hellenism nor Judaism fully envisioned, the Catholic Church teaches a participatory understanding of the divine nature –the doctrine of the Trinity—in which a single divine nature (Being as Such) is shared by many persons and the doctrine of the Incarnation which teaches that human beings can become –accidently though not essentially—divine.
The Catholic Civilizational Ideal is to create a social order in which human beings can realize their natural capacities as the condition and first step in achieving their final end, which transcends those natural capacities, and which we realize only in and through God.
Catholic Civilizational Strategy
This broad ideal leaves significant room for individual and culturally specific variations. And, like all civilizational ideals, it has been carried by human institutions with a definite social basis. The Catholic Church came to maturity in the context of an expanding civilization based on new agrarian and craft technologies (the three field system, tranhument pastoralism, expanded use of animal and water power) and organized by a complex mixture of feudal, guild, and petty commodity relationships. It was the organizing ideal of this civilization. Contradictions within this system which led to the emergence of generalized commodity production and first the absolutist and then the democratic state undercut the Church’s hegemony and made it a competitor with new civilizational ideals: the Protestant ideal of divine sovereignty, the technicist secular ideal of transcending finitude by means of scientific and technological progress, and the humanistic secular ideal of transcending contingency by creating a collective political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny.
The Church initially responded to these challenges by mimicking what looked at the time to be the most successful political strategy on the map: that of absolute monarchy. This strategy underwent a number of mutations: a baroque, neoscholastic variant which attempted to subject other monarchies to that of the Pope as guardian of natural law, Enlightenment and Traditionalist variants which, albeit in somewhat different ways abandoned the historic Catholic metaphysics of Esse and natural law ethics for a univocal metaphysics of power, and, with the First Vatican Council, a modified absolutism which claimed infallibility for the pope in matters of faith and morals while abandoning the ancien regime in favor of an alliance with the working class, peasantry, and petty bourgeoisie based on increasingly vigorous efforts to act on traditional teachings on social justice. This strategy failed decisively at what was arguably the most critical point in the history of Christendom – the struggle with fascism, as tepid support for Christian Democratic parties alternated with accommodation to fascism. With the defeat of fascism the Church embraced Social Catholicism more enthusiastically and found itself a more important political force in Europe in 1960 than anyone in 1870 would have imagined possible, with Christian Democratic parties in power or serving as principal opposition throughout the continent, but with rapidly declining spiritual authority. The situation in North America was somewhat better as immigrants from historically anticlerical backgrounds embraced the Church as a guarantor of cultural identity as well as an advocate for social justice. But it was clear that the strategy wasn’t really working.
The Second Vatican Council was, from the vantage point of the institution, an attempt to regain effective spiritual leadership and to come to terms with why Social Catholicism had not protected Europe and the Church from fascism. The council opened the Church to a range of new theologies, turned away from reliance on clerically sponsored parties towards a broad engagement with modern culture, situating the secularism in both its humanistic and scientific technological variants in the context of humanity’s broader, transhistorical participation in the life of God. In some regions this strategy was quite successful. By the end of the 1960s the Church was moving towards broad identification with the Third World and the Non-Aligned movement, if not precisely with the Kremlin, and was regarded by the peoples of Asia, African, and Latin America as an ally in their struggles for national liberation and social justice. The council’s failure to address the Church’s misogyny, however, and its broader expression in a repressive sexual morality, limited the Council’s effectiveness in Europe and North America.
The role of the Church as a leader in the national liberation movements, and, from the vantage point of global Capital as a de facto ally of the Soviet Union led key operatives of Global Capital to mobilize in order to break the liberationist trend. Conservative elements in the hierarchy and their allies in the still very powerful European aristocracy, furthermore, argued that Europe’s problem was not too little, but too much sexual liberation, a view which gained force as Europe’s demographic crisis unfolded. While the conclave which convened after the death of Paul IV elected a strong progressive committed to continuing and extending the work of the Council (Papa Luciani, or John Paul I) he was quickly dispatched by the ascendant right and replaced with a charismatic, if not especially sophisticated operative of the Communio trend, Karol Woytila, who moved to break the liberationists and leverage the moral authority of the church to support those working to bring down the Soviet Union. His Prefect for the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and ultimate successor, Joseph Ratzinger, carried this strategy further, working to reconfigure the Church as the vanguard of a revitalized Christian Europe, supporting strong antifeminist, pronatalist policies and purging those who so much as tolerated alternative pastoral strategies.
The result of this strategy, coupled with a sexual abuse scandal which can only be interpreted as demonstrating the integral character pedophile practices to Catholic clerical culture for at least a very extended period, has been to send the Church into rapid decline in most regions of the world. Europe, North America, Asia, and Latin America and Asia have all seen losses to Evangelicalism, Secularism (which Ratzinger’s strategy was designed to combat) and the New Age. Only Africa, where the Church competes for market share with Islamic fundamentalism, has been fertile ground for sexually repressive, antifeminist pronatalism.
Given these developments, neither the resignation of Joseph Ratzinger nor the election of Jorge Maria Bergolio should come as a great surprise. Ratzinger’s resignation was at once last ditch effort to control the selection of his successor and a de fact admission of the defeat of his strategy. The election of Bergoglio represents the desire of broad sectors, even of a very conservative hierarchy largely appointed by Wotyila and Ratzinger, to step back and reassess. As one analyst on the left wing of the liberationist trend put it, the conclave chose “the best and least conservative of a group of almost exclusively conservative Cardinals.”
The question at this point, however, is who they actually got and what his election means. It is important first of all, to take seriously the new pontiff’s identity. If the formative moments in Wotytila’s development were his decision NOT to be part of the resistance to the NAZI occupation of his homeland, and his later experience of the Church as a voice for openness and accountability in socialist Poland, and the formative moment in Ratzinger’s development his rage at the challenge presented by the student movement of 1968, then Bergoglio’s identity must be seen as defined by the fact that he is Latin American and specifically Italo-Argentine, a member of a religious order, a Jesuit, and a “pastoral” rather than a curial bishop.
The first element of this identity positions Bergoglio in an unusual way with respect to the Church’s internal debate between Ratzinger’s “European” strategy and the Latin American and Third Worldist strategy of the liberationists. On the one hand, he clearly sees the future of the Church as a future in Latin America and the Third World, and in solidarity with the poorest of the poor (albeit without understanding this in a specifically liberationist way). On the other hand, as an Italo-Argentine he is likely to find the European Right’s fear that traditional European civilization is being marginalized and overrun by immigration and demographic collapse as exaggerated at best. An Italo-Argentine most likely believes that there are plenty of Europeans. It is just that most of them are now also Americans and thus part of a new and higher synthesis.
Second, Bergoglio is a religious priest (specifically a clerk regular) and a Jesuit. He will share the natural suspicion of religious generally regarding the spiritual seriousness of the secular clergy and, as we will see below, has already shown signs of regarding commitment to consecrated life as in some sense “trumping” hierarchical authority. As a Jesuit he is part of an order committed to ensuring the survival of the Church in the modern world both by helping elites, Catholic and other wise, reinterpret the modern project in a way which situates it within the larger Catholic ideal of participation in the life of God, something which it has pursued through its network of colleges and universities, and by building a base among the disposed which it not only organizes and catechizes but draws into the larger framework of both modern and Catholic culture. While many liberationists and a few Communio reactionaries have been drawn from the ranks of the Society of Jesus, the overall Jesuit vision, mission, and strategy is quite different from predominantly Augustinian and Franciscan ethos which has informed both the left and the right within the Church in recent years.
Third, Bergoglio was a pastoral rather than a curial bishop. Woytila was also a pastoral bishop, but incorrectly generalized his experience in Poland, where a strong stand against secularism and the Communist Party built popular support for the Church. Bergoglio brings experience in a more complex situation where both left leaning and right leaning approaches have produced “results” in the most basic sense of increased popular support, and both have also created tensions and problems. As we will see, he places a premium on the pastoral prudence which allows bishops to lead in a complex and contradictory situation and rejects the idea that the church can be reduced to a vanguard for either the left or the right. His vanguard is the Society of Jesus, but he recognizes the value of there being others. And his job is not to lead the vanguard but to lead the whole Church.
This is what we know based on Bergoglio’s identy. What can we say based on what he has done?
His first and most obvious move has been to restore to a place of privilege the Church’s solidarity with the poor. This is quite distinct from specifically liberationist theological commitments (understood as finding God primarily or exclusively in the struggle for justice), but it is also more than a change in style. Bergoglio will be a powerful voice reminding not only Catholics but humanity as a whole that the poor are still among us, and that their demands are just and cannot be ignored, at a time when everyone (even many on the “cultural” left) would like to forget about them.
Second, he has strongly reaffirmed the catholicity of the Church, in the sense that it is not the private property of one or another theological tendency. This is reflected in his decision to canonize both John XXIII and John Paul II, and to raise the question of the sanctity of John Paul I (actually the most challenging and courageous move, since it is a challenge to curial murderers who might easily see him as a target for the same treatment). Bergoglio is clearly saying that you don’t have to belong to a specific theological party in order to be Catholic.
Third, Bergoglio is challenging the way Catholics have thought about the relative importance of the leadership roles of bishops, theologians, and religious superiors. It is not clear that he has formulated a clear doctrine on this point and it is a difficult area given the complexity of the Catholic project. But in explaining his decision to canonize John XXIII without a second miracle he referred to the opinion of many contemporary theologians that such miracles are not necessary for canonical sanctity, implying that the opinions of theologians, if not definitive, are an important source on the basis of which episcopal rulings should be made. Even more radical is his statement that if the Jesuits have taken a vow to obey the pope, then perhaps a Jesuit pope should remain obliged to obey his Jesuit superiors, a claim which gives major superiors of religious orders a status they have not held since the middle ages. We will see if he extends this authority to the major superiors of women religious in the North America.
The one area where Bergoglio seems to promise the least change is with regard to the historic misogyny of the Catholic hierarchy. He has reaffirmed the claim that the teaching that Church lacks the authority to ordain women as priests. Even here, to be sure, he has distanced himself from the doctrine of Woytila and Ratzinger, according to which women could not be priests because they cannot image Jesus, who was male. Instead, he seems to regard the priests as extending the work of the apostles and their successors, the bishops, who were all male, while according women a “superior” (but effectively powerless) role extending the work of Mary who, as he says, is more important in the church than the apostles. This is an improvement, but may reflect his convictions regarding the superiority of religious life to that of the secular priesthood more than any real departure from hierarchical misogyny. On the one hand we must be realistic and understand that this man cannot fight on all fronts at once. On the other hand, whether his statements reflect his actual opinions or simply a tactical pose, we must continue to insist that the Church break with its misogyny as the condition for realizing its full potential as the carrier of the Catholic spiritual and civilizational project.
It is still far from clear what Bergoglio’s papacy will mean. There is reason for hope, especially for the poor and for those who know that they are still with us, that their demands are just, and that we cannot be decent, much less holy, unless we meet them. There is also reason to believe that he will challenge conceptions of authority on both the left and the right and open up a potentially fruitful debate around this difficult and important question. It will probably be left to others to unveil fully the secret truth of the Catholic project: that it mediates our participation in the life of a God who lures us with Her beauty and challenges us as only a wife can, and that these ways of participating in the life of God are as real and holy as those centered on the image of God as Father, Brother, and Spirit.
Finally, we must note that while Bergoglio, as a Jesuit, likely brings to the table both a strategic and tactical sophistication and a power base greater than that of Papa Luciani, he also brings what at this point in the history of the church is a greater challenge to the “dark lords,” who have controlled the church for the past 35 years. Besides, the Jesuits have been broken before and could be broken again. Even as we challenge our brother in areas where we find his teaching and his governing wanting, we must protect him in every way we can from those who would harm him. This obligation extends, furthermore, not only to all Catholics but to all humanity. The dark lords have been set back, but they will strike again. We must be ready.