Jorge Mario Bergoglio, aka Pope Francis, was in the news a while back for not being nasty to gays. Now he’s being nice to atheists. He says:
You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience. Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.
Who would have thought it: compassion and common sense from the Vatican.
Long ago when Pope Paul V1 died I remember being interested in his successor, and being berated for it by my communist girlfriend. She regarded Catholicism as just another reactionary institution to be swept away. It was nothing to do with religion, I said: the Pope has more influence over more people than anyone else on the planet. Who wouldn’t want to know what sort of man he is, what he thinks and feels?
In the event John Paul I checked out after barely a month. His Polish successor was obviously doctrinaire, and I soon lost interest. Has there been anything more stupid and vile than the Vatican’s battle to stop the use of condoms as protection against AIDS, guaranteeing an agonising death to people who might never have got sick? Or the ghastly kiddy-fiddling by priests all over the world, and the lies and cover-ups that followed?
Under successive popes the Catholic Church, as an institution, has seemed reliably to lack any emotional intelligence, any compassion, any understanding of the problems in the lives of ordinary people. When it comes to a choice between standing up for the helpless of the world on the one hand, or preserving its doctrinal purity on the other, the Vatican chooses the other every time. It embodies that extraordinary paradox about the Christianity (and Islam, of course), that so often it seems utterly remote from the teaching of its founding texts. For the Jesus of the Gospels it was all about seeking forgiveness and helping the poor. The hypocritical churchmen, so aloof from the real world, infuriated him.
There’s a lot of stink about Bergoglio’s background, and I was curious about it, so I checked out the new biography of him by Paul Vallely. It seems he has been on both sides of the fence. As the unusually young head of the Jesuit order in Argentina (he was appointed at age 36) he chucked his weight around and harassed those Jesuit priests who had opted to spend time in the slums ministering to poor. This was when Liberation Theology was sweeping the continent, and some activist priests aligned with secular Marxist revolutionaries. In the Dirty War that followed the Church leadership took the side of the murderous junta, while individual priests were among those being tortured and chucked out of planes.
Two of them blamed Bergoglio directly for their ordeal. He had ordered them to stop their charitable activities in poor districts and was outraged when they refused (disobedience is a big deal for Jesuits). He suspended them, which effectively signalled that they were no longer under church protection – a green light for the death squads. The pair were detained and tortured for five months, before being released and fleeing abroad. In other respects Bergoglio seems to have covertly helped people against the regime, showing some personal bravery. But the fate of the two priests has dogged him ever since.
Bergoglio made so many enemies he was eventually forced out, spending years ‘in the wilderness’. Then he was brought back as an assistant bishop in Buenos Aires and eventually became archbishop. But now he was a changed man, his priorities completely altered. Although still a conservative with an authoritarian streak he was no longer much interested in upholding church traditions; instead he used his office for promoting the needs of the poor and needy. He went into the slums, listened and ministered, formed relationships, provided financial assistance wherever he could – exactly the kind of thing that he had formerly condemned those under his authority for doing.
This is how the new Pope is behaving in Rome, and it’s a joy to behold. It’s always good to see traditionalist dinosaurs being discomfited. Minutes after his appointment he made it clear he wasn’t interested in the flummery and dressing up that Benedict enjoyed so much (forget the poncy red shoes, he’s devoted to his battered old black ones.) By tradition he was supposed to carry out a papal footwashing routine in a big church, but instead went to a juvenile detention centre to do it. He likes to drive around Rome in a battered old car, lives in a small room instead of the palatial apartments, etc, etc.
But it’s in the big things that he will really make a mark. One of his first actions was to appoint a panel of strongly outspoken bishops from around the world to advise him how to clean out the Augean stables that the Vatican has become. He’s turned his back on the absolutist monarch model and seems bent on making the church more collegiate, in line with the Vatican II liberal reforms of the 1960s, some of which we may now see enacted for the first time. For Francis, it’s all about pastoral care. He’s unlikely to depart from established doctrines – he’s strongly opposed to gay marriage, for instance – but has more important things to do than ram them down people’s throats. Instead of banging on about abortion he’s concerned about human trafficking and sex slavery.
This is a religious leader one can relate to, and it makes me think about the values we attach to these two rather different ideas – religion and spirituality. I’ve often been shocked by the detached, even dismissive way that some clergymen – Protestants as much as Catholics – talk about spirituality. If they mean New Age faddism, then fair enough: spirituality in the developed world can seem to be a toy of the bored middle classes. But the converse is also true when it comes to the clergy. Traditional religion can seem to lack real spiritual content when it’s all about infallible doctrines, fine phrases, rituals and traditions.
The development of meaningful spirituality may come from the awakening of conscience, and this in turn can be triggered by events. That’s what seems to have happened in the case of Bergoglio. Vallely clearly sees a story of sin and redemption here; he implies, without making heavy weather of it, that Bergoglio eventually went through some dark night of the soul over the fate of the two priests. (One died, still angry; the other has since had an emotional reconciliation with his former tormenter).
Bergoglio has not publicly acknowledged any guilt but he must have felt it. The gradual change, from the hardline conservative who hounded leftwing priests into one who became their champion, is surely explained by his inner anguish at the effects of an act of moral blindness – as one is perhaps justified in calling it. This is why Bergoglio talks all the time of being ‘a sinner and in need of God’s forgiveness’. It was the answer he gave to the ritual question of whether he accepted his election as Pope, before saying yes, the first of many startling departures.
It’s also surely why he behaves as he does now that he has become Pope. This is someone who has experienced life as a man, not just as a religious leader; who has come to understand the effect on other people of his actions, is appalled by it, and now dedicates his life to atonement. He's a deeply religious man in the traditional sense - he spends two hours early every morning in prayer - but he seems also to have experienced the classic transformation that we see in the near-death experience, the kind of conversion which leads to a change of priorities and redemptive action in the real world of relationships. When he says to atheists ‘God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart’, it’s not just a trite formula, it's something he knows from his own experience.
One often feels, when a new leader comes to office, that all the changes he or she introduces won’t last long; that power will soon re-establish the old ways. In five years time all the excitement may have evaporated and the Vatican will have reverted to its former repressive behaviour. We don’t yet know how Francis will deal with the upheavals that could follow if he carries on as he has begun, or whether his congenital conservatism, and the need to preserve the Church, will trump his more recently acquired liberal sensibilities.
Still, it’s possible to imagine, when Bergoglio’s story is told on the big screen - as it surely will be one day – that his election will be portrayed as the first step in a process of change, perhaps even a revolution in world religion.