Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

New man a sign times may just be a-changing

The election of a South American Pope shows the Catholic Church's centre of gravity has at last swung away from its European and Western-leaning elite, writes David Quinn

Prior to his election as Pope eight years ago, Benedict XVI said that the Holy Spirit does not guarantee the election of a good Pope, instead he guarantees that a bad Pope will not destroy the Church.

In a similar vein, Saint Vincent of Lerins, in the fifth century, said: "God gives some Popes, God tolerates some Popes and God inflicts some Popes."

History shows that this is exactly true. Incompetent people have occupied the Chair of Peter and so have some very bad men. And yet, somehow, the Catholic Church carries on.

In the West, it may be in decline, as is religion in general. But elsewhere in the world, especially in Africa and Asia, where the influence of the West is not so great, it is growing fast.

In South America, where the new Pope is from, Catholicism is under pressure from both European-style secularism and evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism.

This is testament to the cultural melange that is South America; part African, part native American and part European. The European part is dragging South America, including Pope Francis's native Argentina, in a decidedly radical and secular direction.

There has been no bad man on the Chair of Peter in a long time. This or that recent Pope can be criticised for not giving the Church the kind of leadership it needed at a given moment, but we haven't had a morally corrupt Pope probably in several centuries.

So, to return to Saint Vincent of Lerins, God may have tolerated some recent Popes and given us some recent Popes, but I don't think he has inflicted any of the recent Popes on us.

The new Pope appears to be a good man.

Appearing on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica on Wednesday, dressed simply in white, struck exactly the right note.

Calling himself Francis after the most loved saint in the history of the Catholic Church struck exactly the right note. Overall, his modest introduction to the world struck exactly the right note.

His election by his fellow cardinals also shows the folly of listening to Vatican experts. None of them predicted his election – just as few predicted the election of Joseph Ratzinger last time.

In a similar vein, let's not make too many bold predictions about the kind of papacy this will be. I think the only safe bet we can make is that he will be a champion for the poor above all else.

In our Western-centric view, we still think the Church's priorities have to be what we in the West believe are our priorities.

The biggest clash between the Church and Western secular liberalism is over sexual morality, hence the repeated rows over abortion, homosexuality and celibacy.

However, most Catholics live in poor, or relatively poor, countries. Many live in countries where they are literally in danger of their lives. Their priorities are completely different from ours.

They want freedom from poverty and freedom from oppression. Pope Francis is going to speak for them above all, although let it be noted that he had little time for liberation theology back in the 1970s and 1980s, because of its flirtation with Marxism.

Pope Francis believes in the 'preferential option for the poor', but not the Marxist option for the poor, which is what many liberation theologians decided was the way forward.

Obviously, he will be expected to get the Vatican's house in order. Much has already been written about this. He cannot govern well unless he has a good government around him.

Benedict didn't have that, which is one reason why, apart from his age, he found his office too much in the end.

If Francis fails to knock the Curia into shape, then he will have failed. Full stop.

He will have to consider bringing in competent lay people, including women, if that is what it takes to make the Curia work properly.

There is something else to be said about the election of Francis. Obviously it says that the Church is a Church of the world and not just of Europe and the West.

His election is testament to the fact that 70% of the world's Catholics now live outside the West. So, on one level, it is testament to the growth of the Church in the rest of the world and its decline in this part of the world.

But it is also testament to the relative decline of the West itself, and especially of Europe.

Europe is simply less important to the Catholic Church than it once was and, frankly, Europe is less important to the world than it once was.

Religion may be far less central to the life of Europe than it was, but Europe is less central to the life of the world.

Maybe that is one reason Barack Obama seems to pay more attention to Asia than Europe.

The fact is that Europe's share of the world economy has declined sharply and its population is aging almost as rapidly as that of church-goers in Europe.

Meanwhile, religion is burgeoning in most of the rest of the world. What this means is that it is not religion that is being left behind in the slipstream of history, it is Europe itself.

The election of a South American pontiff is merely one more sign of that.

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