An Interesting Choice

Our local newspaper in a front page story today described the new Pope Francis as the first Hispanic Pope. Well, either they do not believe people from Spain qualify as “Hispanic” or their news staff is historically challenged. The latter explanation would not be surprising in today’s brave new world. Pope Alexander VI, nee Rodrigo Borgia, although he was far from an exemplar of papal virtue, was Spanish. I have not delved into the ethnic or national backgrounds of anywhere near all of the 266 pontiffs, but I suspect there are probably others who hailed from the Iberian Peninsula, known as “Hispania” to the ancients.

But, so what? Francis, the son of immigrants from Italy, could also probably qualify as Italian, which might mollify the churchmen from that country who had the papacy to themselves for over 500 years, but have been excluded for the last 35 or so.

In some ways it is more significant that Francis is a Jesuit. No member of that order has previously been Pope. In fact St. Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, didn’t believe members of his order should even become bishops; members of the order were from the beginning sworn to be directly obedient and responsible to the Pope. Loyola was aware that so many bishops in early modern Europe were political hacks first, and ministers of the Gospel second, or even further down the line. As a former soldier, and scholar trained at the University of Paris, he organized the Jesuits along military lines with corresponding discipline, and committed its members to intellectual rigor. Those attributes, together with their missionary zeal, they helped reform and revitalize the Church, which was badly in need of such given the venality of Borgia, the Medicis, and at least three other Renaissance popes who provoked Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others to leave the Church altogether. (See Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly (1984)) Jesuits, though vowing to be obedient to the Pope, were not timid souls or hidebound traditionalists in non-theological matters. They occasionally became crossways with the powers that be in many European countries, and elsewhere, to the point of being expelled. Even the papacy suppressed the order from 1773 through 1814. Not content with only preaching the Gospel, the Society of Jesus has produced scientists and scholars of every stripe. Given this history, I suspect there could be some serious reforms in the present day Catholic Church under Francis. Whether this would include ending the requirement of celibacy for priests or the ordination of women, I don’t venture to speculate. Since these are essentially organizational and non-doctrinal, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first Jesuit Pope would make these changes. But hope springs eternal.

I don’t know whether to make much of the political ramifications of choosing an Argentinian. It was not unexpected that a non-European would be elected. The Americas, Africa, and now Asia are far outstripping Europe in the number of members of the Roman Catholic Church, and for that matter, in Christians of all denominations. Keeping the papacy in the hands of Europeans seems anomalous given that reality. Having over one billion people professing at least nominal allegiance to the Catholic Church and the Pope, is bound to have some political effect. But it appears that the days of having a man who is supposedly God’s viceroy on earth in the political pocket of a great power or superpower are gone for good. Unless, of course, there is a wholesale conversion of Chinese (which could happen) and the Holy See moves to Beijing. Popes as Mandarins? Who would have thought?

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