March 14, 2013 7:42 pm

A Pope in sandals to lead the Church

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More focus on poverty will help church move on from sex

The first Jesuit Pope; the first non-European in more than 1,000 years; and the first Latin American. But more important than the geography of Pope Francis are his human qualities. Francis is known for his humble lifestyle and care for the poor – hence the symbolism of his name. His first words from the balcony of St Peter’s were also sincere – a good start. But will Francis swim with the tide that insists on a renovated church, or against it?

Francis may be youthful-looking, but 76 is not an obvious age to take the reins of a stumbling multinational. The Vatican Bank is not a global financial player, with $8bn of assets. But, absurdly, it does not meet money-laundering standards; more transparency and technical competence are required. Externally, the church must also get to grips with its child-abuse scandals. Francis has told Argentine friends there will be “zero tolerance”. Coming clean on that subject, and assuaging concerns about his alleged complicity in the abduction of two priests during Argentina’s military dictatorship, are surely necessary first steps.

More broadly, there is the growing irrelevance of a church that can sometimes seem cursed with a death wish. Latin America is home to almost half the world’s 1.2bn Catholics. Yet this is not a reflection of ebullient faith. Rather, the church there suffers the same problems as elsewhere – only more of them and with fewer priests. One oft-suggested reform is to allow optional celibacy for priests. Otherwise who will administer the sacraments in a generation’s time?

Indeed, moving the Church on from the subject of sex is how Francis’s background could help shape his papacy. Despite Latin America’s macho reputation, full civil gay marriage is legal in several jurisdictions, including Argentina. Although Francis, a theological conservative, has spoken out against gay marriage, he has kept quiet on civil unions.

But the theme most likely to mark his papacy is poverty. That he comes from the world’s most unequal continent will add resonance to his edicts on a subject more relevant, to more people, than sex. This may be especially so in parts of southern Europe facing austerity comparable to that once suffered by Argentina, which he criticised fiercely at the time.

Francis’s first public words as Pope were “buona sera” – good evening. Time will tell whether he was inadvertently describing the dimming twilight of the church he now leads or, as he intended, simply giving a hopeful greeting to the faithful in St Peter’s Square.

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