The new Pope faces South, away from the comfortable church of Europe, to a more restless church closer to New Zealand. Here's how that could mean big change

Pope Francis got on the bus. It was a simple action. But symbolism is reality in the Catholic church. 

It was as if he took the church off the unreachable and opulent Vatican balcony, leaving behind the red ‘Liberace’ frills of former popes, and got on a bus.  

While he’s not about to turn his back on the establishment European church, he is at least facing the Catholic church of the South. 

Southern Catholics are more marginalised. In countries like New Zealand they are not the church of the establishment. Even when they’re the majority, they are often more radical than their European brethren. Think of the role the church has played in revolutions across Latin America. 

 In Europe the catholic church is the church of the powerful. It has a vested interest in the status quo. It feels comfortable, reassuring. The Southern church is restless in comparison. It struggles to combine spiritual life with politics. It can’t avoid politics. It fights poverty first, preaches sexual morality second.

That doesn’t mean Southern Catholics are more liberal about gay marriage and contraception. Often they’re more conservative. Critics have quoted Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio  calling gay marriage ‘the work of the devil’.

To outsiders, this is a closed case. The new Pope is a conservative. Preaching about sexual morality will remain the church’s misguided mission, and they find no hope in old quotes from the former Cardinal.  

But this misses the point – that sexual morality is not the core mission of the church in the South. African Catholics are morally conservative, its true, but their work is in the poorest suburbs. Catholics in Latin American talk about a moral economics targeting poverty. In Africa, they fight voodoo and black magic first, before they pass judgement on what goes on in the bedroom.

In the economic crisis of 2001-2002, when Argentina defaulted on its debt, people protested in the streets and supermarkets were looted. Cardinal Bergoglio was quick to denounce the neo-liberal banking system which had left Argentina with terrible debt.

Maybe if the church returns to its core mission, lives amongst us, not above us, then in time, its moral compass on sexuality will realign. How can it not if it’s brushing up against our complicated loves and struggles? It’s possible that this first step is necessary before a full reform of the church’s views on women and homosexuality is possible. 

There are over one million verses in the Bible, and only six or seven talk about homosexuality, and even then, not in the way that we think of modern day gay couples. There are thousands of verses on compassion, forgiveness and turning the tables on corrupt money hoarders. Jesus never once mentions homosexuality. How is it then, that the Catholic church has become synonymous with anti-gay views? Surely that has more to do with the human manifestation of the church. The ‘Curio’ or court of the Vatican is flawed, riddled with factional politics, and played its part in covering up sex abuse scandals. It resembles the court of the Henry VIII more than an earthy manifestation of the Bible’s message. 

I’ve stood as a political candidate several times in New Zealand, and at every election the Catholic church hosts candidate debates. Every candidate knows that they will have to answer a question on abortion, and if they get it wrong, they’ll lose the debate no matter how they answered the other questions. 

Most candidates squirm and try to express moral concern at rising abortion rates, while rejecting the premise that abortion is ‘murder’. Only Trevor Mallard had the guts to be straight. I once heard him say to a Catholic audience ‘I respect your views and thank you for inviting me here tonight, but I don’t believe in God. I don’t go to church, and I reject the notion that a woman who has an abortion is a murderer.’ 

 I remember standing up, angrily throwing my notes away and channeling Jim Anderton, my boss at the time and a fellow Catholic: 

‘How is it that at every election, the only issue Catholics seem to care about is abortion? Is that what makes us Catholic? Our views on abortion? Do you really believe that if Jesus were alive today, his top priority would be to picket outside an abortion clinic and tear down the condom machines in pubs?’ 

There is something in the sacraments of the Catholic church, from baptism to the last rites, that answers the very human need in us all to belong, to be loved and to love. To be forgiven. 

There is something very democratic and moving to see lines of people, old and young, rich and poor, lining up to receive mass. 

This is what is good about being Catholic.

New Popes change their name because it’s believed they become a different person. They are re-born as Pope. It’s a blank page. Much has been written about the humble cardinal Jorge Boglianio  who worked in the poor suburbs of Buenos Aries and lived in an simple apartment. Much has also been written about the cardinal who didn’t do enough to protect radical priests during the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s. 

All that matters now is was what he did in the first few hours after becoming Pope Francis I. He got on a bus. I’m hopeful.

Some things you may not know about Pope Francis and Argentina:

  • His favourite football team is San Lorenzo – who are appropriately, underdogs
  • He trained as a chemist.
  • He has a passion for literature.
  • He was born to a working family of Italian origin in a traditional middle-class quarter of Buenos Aires.
  • My twelve year old daughter just ‘friended’ him on Facebook
  • Argentina approved same-sex marriage in 2010, making it the first Latin American country to legalize the union.


Comments (3)

by Tim Watkin on March 17, 2013
Tim Watkin

I hope that hope's well placed. There seems to be an air of the outsider about him, but then it seems that the curia insiders backed him ahead of the Italian to protect their own skins. Which makes me fear they have reason to think he won't rock the boat (the boat being an early church symbol and the Pope being the rock, geddit?).

He seems to genuinely have a heart for the poor (a couple of thousand verses on that, from memory) and I read in one report that he's hinted that contraception to prevent diseases may not be a terrible thing... that's a radical papal thought and some sort of contraceptive loophole would be an amazing step forward.

He also seems to have some done brave things during the dicatorships Argentina endured, such as give his ID papers to a man who looked like him to help him over the border. The quick condemnation by some seems to have been premature – one of the priests he was supposed to have abandoned seems to have forgiven him and the Pope claims to have acted independently to help them get released.

Others have pointed out that he was hardly in a senior position to go round denouncing the military and dictatorships and many in Argentina are, in some way or another, guilty of silence in the face of oppression. Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel says he never collaborated.

On the other hand there are stories of him failing to stand up to the oppressors and not wanting to expose the church to thorough investigation in the years since. Hardly an encouraging precedent when it comes to the sex abuse scandal. And the NYT said he's anti liberation theology.

So will he be another fill-in pope preparing the way for a more transformative figure, or will he make a stand?

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