18 March 2013
On the night of 13 March, white smoke and chiming bells alerted the world that we had a new Pope. I waited, somewhat impatiently, to see who the new leader of the world’s largest religious institution was going to be. Part of me wished I could have been in the Vatican to witness the revelation for myself. Strange as it may seem for an atheist to express such a desire, it is true. As a Catholic I had once listened to Pope John Paul II speak in the Vatican and I wondered what it would be like to once again listen to a pope speak in the same location but as a non-believer. Furthermore, the revelation of the new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics was a significant moment in history. One moment that happened to be going on just twenty minutes from my old home.
Once Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, stepped out onto the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, it quickly became clear that he would have more mass appeal than his predecessor. News contributors have talked at length of the significance of the name Francis but I realised its significance as soon as I heard the name. For eight years I attended a Catholic school named after St Francis of Assisi and I was well aware of his legacy. He was a man who was born into a wealthy family but chose to live a life of poverty.
In his hometown of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio famously rejected the perks that came with his high rank in the Argentine church. However, it seems that religious leaders are held to a low standard when people determine whether or not they are good people. A church official taking public transport or rejecting a palatial home should not make international headlines. After all, when priests begin their ‘careers’ they take a vow of poverty. All too often though, once a priest climbs a few notches up the church hierarchy those vows are forgotten. I recall when the news broke that Pope Benedict’s butler had leaked private Vatican documents; my first thought was, ‘Why on earth does a man who took a vow of poverty have a butler anyway?’
The decision to go with the name Francis seemed an intelligent one at first, but upon further reflection a problem dawned on me. St Francis celebrated poverty and thought of it as the ideal lifestyle. His goal was not to help people out of poverty. Surely if Pope Francis wants to help the poor it makes more sense to be named after someone who worked to reduce poverty. Instead, he has done the exact opposite. This isn’t a smart move for someone who wants to position himself as a champion of the poor. From Jesus, St Francis and all the way through to more modern ‘icons’ such as Mother Theresa, the Church has valued pain, suffering and poverty. Bergoglio’s frugal lifestyle is no doubt a reflection of the fact that he too values poverty. This is a clear contradiction: Bergoglio supposedly has the interests of the poor at heart, yet as Pope Francis he now heads an institution that venerates poverty and suffering and sees them as ideal for spiritual enlightenment.
The selection of a Pope from Latin America is being hailed as a positive step forward and I can understand why. There hasn’t been a non-European Pope in over a thousand years. Bergoglio is the first Jesuit Pope, the first from Argentina and the first to choose the name Francis. But these are minor changes. What would truly impress me would be if women were allowed to play a greater role in the Church. There is a medieval legend that speaks of a Pope Joan; a woman who disguised herself as a man, entered the priesthood and rose to the papacy. She was only found out when she gave birth while riding a horse. This legend, or more accurately this fable, has been largely discredited but just imagine for a second a woman being ordained a priest in the Catholic Church. This would be a significant first, something that would truly impress me but also something that will never happen. It strikes me that one does not have to be a cardinal to become Pope. Any baptised Catholic male is eligible. This means that my one year old cousin or my fifteen year old brother could technically be Pope – but no woman, no matter her skills base, leadership qualities or commitment to the Catholic Church can even become an ordinary priest. For the Church to truly help the poor they must encourage women’s empowerment. After all, women (and children) are the most marginalised members of society and the worst affected by poverty. Women’s empowerment isn’t a top priority for the new Pope or the Church in general. Perhaps Pope Francis will bring in some reforms but we cannot expect any major shifts in Church policy.
No other religious leader commands as much attention or has as much power as the Catholic Pope. Watching the proceedings in the Vatican on the day Pope Francis was chosen, I remembered what it was like to be Catholic. There is a special feeling that comes with being a part of such a large, unified body, one of the oldest in existence. For me though, that special feeling is gone forever. During his first speech Francis asked that everyone say a silent prayer. The three members of my family watching the news with me closed their eyes and prayed. I shook my head and thought to myself that leaving the Catholic Church was a great decision. The Catholic Church protects paedophile priests; it is misogynist, corrupt, overly secretive and homophobic. As a female I am concerned about having a full range of reproductive rights and not having my sex limit my opportunities in life. The new Pope will not support any of this. Being from sub-Saharan Africa, the region most affected by HIV and AIDS, I support various measures to tackle the pandemic including but not limited to condoms. Pope Francis will continue to uphold the Vatican’s official stance against the use of contraceptives. With its terrible track record, it is astonishing that the Catholic Church still has such a huge following.