A Pope of 'firsts' emerges from behind the smokescreen

14 March 2013

Pope Francis is a 'pope of firsts' in some ways but not in others, says Dr Laura Beth Bugg. [Image: Flickr/Catholic Church (England and Wales), used under the Creative Commons licence]
Pope Francis is a 'pope of firsts' in some ways but not in others, says Dr Laura Beth Bugg. [Image: Flickr/Catholic Church (England and Wales), used under the Creative Commons licence]

Catholicism's 'Old Boys Club' has elected a 'Pope of firsts'. But is genuine reform of the Catholic Church possible now, asks Laura Beth Bugg.

Habemus Papam. We have a Pope.

Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is already being called 'The Pope of Firsts'.

He's the first Pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit, and the first to take the name Francis.

He's also the first Pope to be announced in a tweet (albeit in ALL CAPS, like an email from your Grandfather).

Bookies betting on Benedict's replacement had at least 15 names ahead of Cardinal Bergoglio on their lists.

Cardinal Scolo of Italy, Cardinal Scherer of Brazil and Cardinal Turkson of Ghana were all frequently mentioned.

But even though the odds were 25-1 against the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, you didn't have to be Tom Waterhouse to place a safe bet that the new Pope wouldn't be a woman.

That's because the only real requirement for Pope, despite the Cardinals' 'wishlist' of someone who's humble, a brilliant manager, gifted theologian and radical reformer, is a Y-chromosome.

Some have argued that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI opened possibilities for a 'Vatican Spring' and that the election of Pope Francis signals an important shift.

Some have even hailed the new Pope as a progressive. However, it's hard to get something progressive out of, as activist nun Maureen Fiedler has called the conclave, the "Vatican version of the Tea Party movement".

The conclave was, literally, an 'Old Boys Club'. The cardinals were all male, with an average age of over 72.

Most came from Europe and North America. This is despite the fact that they represent a Church made up mostly of women, and two-thirds of their membership is from the developing world.

Because former Pope Benedict named 67 of the current College of Cardinals, more than half of the total who elected his successor, it was unlikely that the new Pope would represent a radical shift in direction.

Benedict was a diehard traditionalist. Like his predecessor John Paul II, he staunchly opposed the ordination of women priests and publicly disciplined priests who spoke out in favour of or participated in the ordination of women.

Benedict reprimanded American nuns who supported President Obama's plan for universal healthcare coverage and who spoke out against Church teaching on contraception. He described gay marriage as a threat to humanity.

The new Pope Francis has shown he is deeply committed to the poor.

As Cardinal he rode the bus, swapped the big house for an apartment, and regularly visited the slums of Argentina's capitals. But on social issues, he is singing out of the same hymnbook.

He clashed with the Argentinian government over the legalisation of gay marriage, declaring it a "destructive attack on God's plan", and he was outspoken against the government's distribution of free contraception.

As Cardinal he also condemned adoption by gay couples, arguing that it discriminated against children.

The new Pope also believes women should not be ordained.

Recent surveys in the US and Europe find that more than half of Catholics think the Church is out of touch on issues such as marriage for priests, contraception and the ordination of women. My guess is that an Australian survey would show the same, and groups in this country like Catholics for Renewal indicate the vibrancy of movements for change within the Church.

Although it didn't receive much coverage in the media, women's ordination groups from Australia, the US and UK actively protested in St Peter's Square, releasing canisters of pink smoke into the air in a colourful protest for women's equality in the Church.

They were protesting not only the fact that women can't be ordained, but that they couldn't even get a look in on the processes of decision making.

And that to me seems to be one of the Vatican's biggest problems.

The conclave process itself represented so much that is wrong with the Church right now.

Lack of transparency. Lack of representation. The same process and the same script that's been followed since the Middle Ages.

A Church that tries to use Twitter but still sends out smoke signals.

The mere fact of Benedict's resignation and the selection of a Pope of firsts shows that even the most staid and conventional of institutions can change.

The Church once sanctioned slavery, but it changed. The role of women in the Church has increased significantly, even since Vatican II.

The Church has changed, is changing, will change.

Once it recognises the limitations of absolute power and utter opacity, as well as the dangers of excluding the gifts of half of its members, then perhaps we will see some true signs of spring in the Catholic Church.

Dr Laura Beth Bugg is an expert in the sociology of religion from the Department of Sociology and Social Policy.

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