Will Pope Francis now dare?

M G Radhakrishnan


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Pope Francis rubs his eyes as he listens to children's questions during an audience in the San Damaso courtyard at the Vatican | AP

There is an interesting scene in the wonderful The Two Popes (2019), directed by Fernando Meirelles, when Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) and Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) meet at the Vatican after Pope John Paul II died in 2005. They come across in the washroom when Ratzinger is bemused and irritated by Bergoglio, who loudly whistles while washing his hands, unmindful of the somber circumstances. When Ratzinger asks him what he was whistling, the smiling Bergoglio replies; Dancing Queen by ABBA. The scene establishes the contrasting characters of the two Cardinals, one stern and doctrinaire and the other, simple and fun-loving. Later the Cardinals’ college elects Ratzinger as the next Pope (Benedict XVI), with Bergoglio coming up second. Eight years after when Pope Benedict resigned and shocked the world, the Argentinian Bergoglio got elected as the new Pope Francis.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s recent death and funeral occupied Kerala’s media space much more than anywhere else in India. With all its minor detail, news channels aired live the funeral of the 95-year-old German-born Benedict from the hallowed St Peter’s Basilica. It was understandable because Kerala was not only India’s gateway for Christianity nearly two millennia ago, it remains to date the home of the largest Indian Christian community. According to the 2011 census, 6.41 million of India’s 27.8 million Christians live in Kerala, followed by Tamil Nadu (4.41 million). Among the Kerala Christians, Catholics form more than 60% whose spiritual headquarters is the Vatican, like Catholics worldwide.

Yet, how many have realised Pope Benedict's passing would mark a significant turn in the global Catholic Church’s history? The Kerala media also found this not significant to discuss, notwithstanding its wide coverage of the death and funeral. This is despite Kerala society’s abiding interest in the various political and social issues that animated this turn in the global Catholic Church’s history.

Pope Francis, centre, and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, second from left, attend a funeral mass next to the coffin of late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI St. Peter's Square at the Vatican | AP

Outwardly, the most unprecedented aspect of Benedict’s death was his having been the first Pope to resign in the Catholic Church’s history of the last six centuries after Pope Gregory XII in 1415. Pope Francis happens to be the only serving Pontiff who has presided over the funeral of another pope. Usually, a Pope’s funeral is immediately followed by an elaborate papal conclave of the College of Cardinals held in the Sistine chapel in high secrecy and watched intensely by the world media to elect the new Pope. This was not required this time.

Benedict’s passing away marks the denouement of one of the most dramatic ideological conflicts within the Holy See. A historic conflict represented by Pope Benedict on the one side and Pope Francis on the other but one that remained largely underneath the surface. Jason Horowitz of the New York Times called the death “a final peculiarity to end a strange era in the modern church in which two popes, one resigned and the one in power, one conservative and one liberal, coexisted in the tiny confines of the Vatican”. Therefore for those who followed the two Popes’ ideologies and perspectives, the ritualistic funeral was an occasion to watch with rapt attention how the liberal Francis was bidding farewell to his arch-conservative predecessor. Expectedly, Benedict’s loyalists found the funeral too simple and insufficient to honour the memory of Benedict and squarely blamed Francis, whose homily to his predecessor was remarkably devoid of the usual eulogy. It also attracted much fewer attendees, including heads of state (Even the US President Biden, a Catholic, was absent) compared to the past occasions.

Pope Francis is seen as the most liberal, if not the most radical, pontiff in history. He has dared to address a host of issues that grossly tarnished the image of the Catholic Church throughout history. He honestly owned up to the Church’s historic mistakes, apologized for them, and even set out to correct them. Francis openly opposed the Church’s traditional links with unbridled capitalism, patriarchy, racism and Islamophobia, and it's condoning the horrendous crimes committed by its clergy, including the sexual abuse of children. At the same time, on very sensitive issues like clerical celibacy, ordaining women priests, homosexuality among the clergy, abortion, etc., Pope Francis refrained from deviating from orthodoxy. Yet, though Francis was not for the immediate discontinuance of the highly controversial issue of clerical celibacy, he was willing to discuss it since it was not a matter of faith but only discipline for him. Though he was “worried” over homosexuality among the clergy, Francis supported same-sex civil unions and defended their rights to have a family, saying they, too, are children of god. Francis reiterated that he never saw non-believers as sinners. As an Argentine, Francis was much influenced by the radical Liberation Theology that originated in Latin America during the 1970s that challenged the Vatican. Yet, he kept away from it, which was said to have been inspired by the region’s Marxist mass movements. Esther Ballestrino, Bergoglio’s superior and close friend, when he was working at a laboratory in Buenos Aires, was a Communist revolutionary who was abducted and killed by the Argentinian military junta during the 1970s.

Pope Benedict’s worst record was on the issue of clerical sexual abuse. | AP photo

Therefore, how is it possible to see Pope Francis as an ideological opponent to the staunchly conservative Pope Benedict? The clue lies with Benedict’s extremely adamant conservative views, opposed to which Francis appears a thorough-bred radical. Look at Benedict’s legacy. As he took over succeeding Pope John Paul II, the pontiff who led the demolition of the Communist world, Pope Benedict adamantly blocked every attempt to reform the Church’s perspectives on various controversial topics. In fact, most of his doctrinaire views were crystallized even before he became the pope as the prefect of the Vatican’s highly powerful Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) and also as John Paul’s ideological adviser. His first-ever fatwa was against the Liberation Theology movement, which he declared heresy and perversion. His next big NO was to ordain women or married men as priests. He even initiated action against highly respected priests and theologians who thought otherwise. Ratzinger penned a document calling homosexuality and even masturbation as moral evils. Ratzinger even opposed Pope John Paul’s attempts to have dialogues with other religions, which he thought would lower the Catholic Faith’s “unquestionable supremacy” over all other faiths.

However, Pope Benedict’s worst record was on the issue of clerical sexual abuse. The horrendous stories of priests indulging in the sexual abuse of children were heard for a long time which the Church has always suppressed. But it took an explosive turn when the Boston Globe, an American newspaper, exposed in 2001 the shocking abuse of children by American bishops and priests from the 1950s to 2012, which was upheld later by an inquiry committee. The Globe's investigation was later made into a superb movie -Spotlight- by Tom McCarthy. Though Benedict could not refuse action against many accused priests, he spared the equally tainted bishops. He also refused to address the scandal related to the media leaks (“VatiLeaks'') by his butler on the corruption and sexual misconduct inside the Vatican. Adding further spice was the mysterious disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican staffer. Netflix has recently released a documentary series -Vatican Girl- on this incident.

Pope Francis, right, hugs Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the Vatican | AP

In February 2015, Pope Benedict resigned on health grounds and started living in a monastery at the Vatican. On assuming charge as the new pontiff, Francis began a new chapter in church history. Among his many corrective actions was defrocking of the clergy, including bishops accused of many changes. They also included the expulsion in 2020 of the Syro Malabar church priest Robin Vadakkumcheri of Mananthavadi diocese, now in jail, convicted of raping and impregnating a 15-year-old.

However, according to some observers, Pope Benedict was not an arch-conservative as made out to be but was the Church’s bridge from the conservative John Paul II to the liberal Francis. They point out that Benedict opposed unfettered capitalism, supported Democratic Socialism, and also espoused environmental issues to be named the Green Pope. It is also pointed out that despite their differences, both Benedict and Francis agreed upon the fundamentals of the Church. According to The Two Popes, Benedict stepped down to give way to Francis.

Pope Francis (86), too, is ailing, wheelchair-bound, and has not a long time left. Though seen as the most liberal, he has not successfully brought fundamental reforms on various controversial topics. Besides reneging on many promises, the conservative lobby inside the Church and Pope Benedict, in particular, had openly blocked, even after his resignation, many of Francis’s moves to dilute the position regarding clerical celibacy, etc.

But now, with Benedict passing into history, the world looks toward Pope Francis. Will he or won’t he?

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