Francis: A New Pope for a Globalized World

Daniela Enriquez

Monday, May 06, 2013

n May 2 the US-Italy Global Affairs Forum and the European Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) organized a panel discussion focused on a worldwide event which kept billions staring at their TVs for a number of days: the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis.

In order to help the public understand what it means to cover a papal transition, Jason Horowitz – Washington Post reporter – spoke about his experience of being called to report on what he defined as “a surreal event which Americans were suddenly interested in”, a “political event sui generis, because it does not require any polling!” Although the conclave can be seen as an exotic process which aroused the interest of millions of people, a journalist needs to find a political story, a piece of news which will allow one to write a daily dispatch from the Vatican. The Vatican is a 100% political institution, one of whose problems is a surfeit of gossip. It is difficult for a reporter to know whom to trust. During his time there, Horowitz heard stories about leaked documents, secret reports, and letters by a gay lobby internal to the Vatican. In conclusion, to his eyes, the Vatican appears to be a global institution with a parochial, “Italian-style” government, given the powerful role of Italians in the Curia.

Fabrizio Maronta represented Limes, the Italian journal of geopolitics, which recently came out with a special issue on Pope Francis. Maronta began by discussing two competing interpretations of what could have brought Pope Benedict XVI to resign. According to the first, Ratzinger was something of a coward, not up to the task he had undertaken. A second thesis presents Ratzinger as a brave man who, no longer able to lead the Vatican physically and politically, courageously decided to quit. Of course, it is not clear which of the two options is true.

One thing we can be sure of is the deeply divergent conceptions that the previous and the current Popes have of the Church as an institution. While Pope Benedict XVI viewed the core of Catholicism as rooted in a “minority Church”, in the sense of responding to leadership elite, Francis’s vision is different. He believes that the Church – as a global institution – needs to take risks and go out into the streets to engage face to face with the people.

Maronta reminded us that, although the Church should be an institution whose goal is the care of souls, in reality it is an international secular organization with political branches and a major bank. Furthermore, the Catholic Church is a Roman institution and it should focus on the Roman – read European – world. In the past, the majority of Catholics were located in Europe and North America, but today their number is growing in South America and Africa. On this point, however, it was interesting to hear Pope Francis describe himself firstly as the Bishop of Rome, and only secondly as the Pope.

With regard to the issues the Pope should address, Maronta argued that, although homosexuality is an important problem, the Church will not accept it.

The fact that Francis is the first South American Pope is highly significant. Professor Riordan Roett – Director of Western Hemisphere and Latin American Studies at SAIS – based on his extensive experience with this part of the world and personal acquaintance with the new Pope when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, highlighted how important it is to understand the distinctive point of view of the Church in South America if one is to understand the region’s political development.

According to Roett, Pope Francis must address the social issues and problems which afflict his native continent, among them abortion, contraception, pedophilia and homosexuality. Latin America is changing quickly: Buenos Aires is a “gay city”, and Rio De Janeiro is known world- wide as a “sin city”. The Church has the opportunity to take care of these issues and must do so now; it must focus again on human rights and human dignity. This is a huge challenge. Will the Catholic Church be able to break down the big wall which separates it from the population’s evolving views on social issues? Will it be able to survive the threat posed by Evangelical Christianity, which is acquiring new members in both South America and Africa?

Since the Church is an international institution, it is important that it have good relations with the political leaders of the world. But how diplomatic is this new Pope? Father Thomas Reese, S.J. – Author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church – addressed this question.  Like his two predecessors, Pope Francis does not have any diplomatic experience, and this could get him in trouble. This happened with Benedict XVI, when he addressed the Islamic world harshly. In order to avoid similar incidents, the Pope should follow the advice of the Vatican’s diplomatic cadre, a group of experts lead by the Secretary of State. We can expect Pope Francis to follow their advice and not to change any of the main lines of Vatican foreign policy.

However, some troubles can arise with regard to economic policy. In his past books, Francis seemed to condemn capitalism and economic liberalism, and to focus attention on global economic justice. He had harsh words against globalization as well. Rather than the current development paradigm, which he defined as “a way to enslave nations”, Pope Francis would like to have a “real” globalization where “everybody maintains his own particularity”.

With regard to the primary challenges facing the Catholic Church at this time, Father Reese argued that, rather than being worried about Latin America and Africa, where the Church has a great consensus and is growing, the Pope should find a way to bring increasingly secular Europeans and North Americans back to the faith.

The large audience had many comments and questions for the panelists during a lively question and answer session moderated by US-Italy Global Affairs Forum President Eric Terzuolo.

Watch a video of the event here .