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Pope Francis I, economic crusader

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14 March 2013 14:30

Crispin Rovere has done research on Australia-Holy See relations and is now a PhD candidate at ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. He recently wrote on Ratzinger the Reformer.

The past few weeks have been a persistent break with Vatican tradition. Pope Benedict retired, being the first to do so for at least 600 years. Now the first non-European has been elected pope in 1200 years. He is also the first Jesuit and the first to take the name of the founder of the Franciscan Order.

The election of Cardinal Bergoglio is a bold move by the Curia, likely foreseen and endorsed by Ratzinger himself. Cardinal Bergoglio appears quite different to his predecessor, not only through his Argentine nationality (albeit with strong Italian heritage), but also, unlike the bookish Ratzinger, a very experienced pastoralist. Critically, Bergoglio is a crusader on economic inequity, and conveying this message from the pulpit of humility and simple living is very likely to resonate.

Despite his Argentine nationality, Cardinal Bergoglio is not the unlikely chance that has been reported. In the 2005 Conclave Bergoglio was a main contender, persistently runner-up in all rounds of voting to Ratzinger, although by all accounts Bergoglio had a visceral reaction to the idea of being named pope. Ratzinger is therefore well aware of Bergoglio's popularity, and knowing that Bergoglio's age would soon make him ineligible to participate in Conclave it is possible Ratzinger vacated the chair of St Peter to maximise Bergoglio's chances of being elected.

Cardinal Bergoglio's election is likely to have little to do with him being more representative of the global distribution of Catholics and everything to do with the issues raised in South America being more consistent with what people find agreeable about the Church. In the West, any interview with a senior clergyman invariably moves rapidly to the issue of child sex abuse, but Cardinal Bergoglio makes headlines for his political activism and deep seated intolerance for economic inequity.

This is part of a much larger approach to the moral restoration of the Catholic Church.

While other states measure power in gross national product, geography and military capabilities, the Holy See's international impact rests in its moral authority and the degree to which that moral authority is recognised.

Pope Pius XI saw this when he relinquished the Papal States. This decision was a recognition that in some important respects a global claim to authority is incompatible with temporal governance (incidentally, this is one of the reasons why those who argue the Vatican isn't really a state because it doesn't have a permanent population are wrong, this having been explicitly traded for independent sovereignty). The restoration of the Church's moral authority in the wake of the ongoing child sex abuse scandals is therefore essential if the Holy See is to be of global political significance into the future.

The election of Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy makes this strategy clear. The Catholic Church is following the approach to moral restoration of John Paul II — by taking on a cause. Bergoglio is going to want to do justice to the name 'Francis I', by being to social economic inequality what John Paul II was to communism. Cardinal Bergoglio firmly believes that poverty should not be tolerated in any country that can afford to eradicate it.

On this issue Cardinal Bergoglio does not shy from political activism. In 2009, he was scathing of what he saw as the Argentine Government's unjustified tolerance of an increase in poverty, saying that 'human rights are violated not only by terrorism, repression and murder, but also by unjust economic structures that cause great inequalities.' Pope Francis I, invoking the name of the founder of the Franciscan order, promises to be a deeply divisive political figure, but given the resonance of this message among masses of people worldwide, it might just be here the reconstitution of the Church's authority could be found.

On doctrinal matters, Cardinal Bergoglio is quite nuanced. The central tenet of the Franciscan order is 'to follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps'. Or, as Americans often ask when faced with a moral dilemma: 'what would Jesus do?'

So on the one hand he is very conservative on doctrine for which there is an agreed liturgical basis (such as abortion), but pragmatic on issues where the doctrine has been interpreted (such as contraception). It is possible, therefore, that Cardinal Bergoglio is going to be more liberal as pope than his immediate predecessors, not only on contraception but also on other issues of contention such as the role of women in the Church. Indeed, one imagines that if Bergoglio can secure Ratzinger's backing for reform, he could force through quite substantive changes to the status quo while still maintaining unity within the Church.

It is of course too early to tell how likely a strategy of economic activism is to succeed in reconstituting the Church in the eyes of the West, but like any crusade, we can be sure of major disruption to the status quo along the way.

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