By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
In the coming weeks and months, much will be expected of the new pontiff, not only as the faith’s religious leader but also as the Church’s CEO. There is no question that he will quickly start to address most, if not all, of the church’s most public problems and by doing so be seen as a reformer.
While he will address the internal and external problems in the church with grace and speed, other issues presented by the modern world will challenge core teachings. In Europe and the United States, a significant number of Catholics have pulled away from the Church or have abandoned it altogether. In France and Germany, attendance is at all time lows. Each person has his or her own reasons but a large number disagree with the Church’s positions on the ordination of women, gay marriage and the call for the marriage of priests. Still others believe that Rome is a relic of the past, and Papal authority on social issues is as outdated as the power of the divine right of kings and queens. These are core issues, but Rome has never been swayed by democratic voting, so-to-speak.
In keeping with the tradition of his namesake, Francis will continue to wash the feet of the poor and the sick, but on core issues he will not wash away the core teachings in favor of modernity. Many will be disappointed by his decisions, others will applaud them, and still others will point to the Vatican as a dated relic from the past. And others could care less.
But a distinction has to be made between Catholic doctrine and our interest in it as evidenced by the number of people who watched the election of the new pope. No different than the monarchy of the United Kingdom during the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary on the throne and the interest in the sex of Kate’s forthcoming first child, the Vatican knows how to put on a great performance and herein is to be found the interest for many people. Both institutions take the long view. They know that whatever is commanding our attention in the political and economic world will pass. They will continue long into the future.
In the tradition of St. Francis, we may see Pope Francis appeal to his flock and billions of others to arrest the further destruction of the environment, which has accelerated on his continent, leaving its rain forests and indigenous peoples under threat. There is no question that if his good health continues, he will be a world traveler in the tradition of John Paul II. Perhaps using the prologue of St. Francis and his Order, he may well capitalize on this tradition and conjoin it with a heightened emphasis on the poor in a world now looking at 8 billion people and perhaps leveling off at 10 billion. A trip to Brazil had already been announced. We may also see him in Africa, where the Catholic population is growing with great speed and in some regions under threat.
Reaching out to other faiths may also be on his emerging agenda. A trip to Israel is a certainty, no different than his two predecessors. Whether he will visit the Islamic world in this time of rapid change and turbulence is hard to predict. Many Christians have left Iraq while 2.2 million remain in war torn Syria and more than 8 million still live in Egypt. Here he will need his diplomat hat, which appears to be in keeping with his personality.
All of this is a tall order for a man of 76. Even popes have their limitations as we saw with his predecessor. Seventy-six is not the new 42.