“The new pope will be the Bishop of Rome. Like many bishops throughout the world, he can make time to go to soup kitchens and serve the poor, visit the infirm in hospitals and go to local prisons, spending time with those whom the rest of the world tends to shun. Such visits can become a regular part of the new pope's foreign travel schedule. A pope must visit with the powerful, with civil and ecclesial leaders, to be sure, but there is no reason he cannot regularly visit the world's poor as well.”--Michael Sean Winters, “What to Look for in a New Pope: Among the Poor,” The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2013
From conservative to liberal, several prominent Roman Catholic writers weighed in during the course of last week’s “Saturday Essay" in The Wall Street Journal on what to hope for in a new pontiff: Peggy Noonan, George Weigel, James Carroll, Mary Eberstadt, Paul Baumann, and Michael Sean Winters. But so far, it seems to me, the vision of Winters (author of Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats) bears the closest resemblance to prophecy.
He begins by imagining a new pope garbed in simple white—and indeed, that is precisely how the former Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio came before the world for the first time in a balcony at the Vatican: the proverbial electoral dark horse, clad in white.
Bergoglio’s background in Argentina reinforces Winters’ perceptions. The cardinal spoke out consistently about poverty in his country, and his lifestyle–riding the bus, cooking his own meals and living in a small apartment—led by example. And, of course, assuming the name Pope Francis speaks volumes about his identification with the poor and the simple life that is antithetical to material-based capitalism.
But as admirable as all this is, I wonder if it is enough in the current crisis. After all, every pontiff since John XXIII has spoken out against massive injustice—and meant it. Yet the world has found it increasingly easy to dismiss the counsel of the Roman Catholic Church on these and other matters, with the sexual-abuse crisis providing an especially useful excuse to do so.
Simultaneously, then, as he denounces structures of inequality in the City of Man, Francis must, with perhaps even greater fervor, dismantle the structures of secrecy within the City of God that underlie the abuse and VatiLeaks scandals. Given his advanced age (76), he has precious little time to accomplish the latter.
In this regard, a New York Times front-page article from last week by Daniel J. Wakin gives me pause. Cardinal Bergoglio, by this account, came from the back of the pack of candidates “in part because the Vatican-based cardinals protective of their bureaucracy snubbed the presumptive front-runner, and a favored candidate of reformers, Cardinal Angelo Scola.” His “attractive mix of piety, humility and administrative skills” made it easy for Bergoglio to win crossover votes from the portion of the College of Cardinals who believed that only someone distant from the Curia could begin to reform it.
For a decade now, commentators have asked, in swelling volume and numbers, whether the Roman Catholic Church can really survive after the abuse scandals. The Church’s endurance in the face of one specter after another over two millennia should put paid to that notion. The real question, however, is why it has to endure a self-inflicted wound as unnecessary and damaging as the corruption and authoritarianism that gave rise to Protestantism.
It’s not just those outside or permanently alienated from the Church who deserve to know why the Vatican has, over the past few decades, called on the carpet nuns and intellectually-questing theologians far quicker than violators of youthful innocence. It’s those in the pews who deserve that answer, too. After all, they, as much as the princes of the Church who elected Francis last week, are the “pilgrim people of God.”