Today marks the fifth anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope to succeed Pope Benedict who resigned a month earlier, the only pope to do so voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294. Francis was immediately divisive. Catholic liberals hoped he would end the dominance of enjoyed by conservatives since John XXIII died 55 years ago. Equally, Catholicism’s right was concerned that their not-an-inch influence might fade. They need not have worried.
Francis presented a warm, engaging personality, a more charismatic presence. He rejected imperial pomp and exercised humility. He may have indulged constructive ambiguities on issues like homosexuality — “Who am I to judge?” — and whether divorced or remarried Catholics might be offered Communion. He also spoke about climate change but it would be naive to imagine that his velvet gloves cover anything but steel. Core dogma or practice has not changed.
In his half-decade pontificate little if anything of any real substance has shifted in how Catholicism sees its place in the world. Neither has it felt the need to embrace evolving social principles — or the protections any civilised society offers children. Despite assurance after assurance that the leopard had changed its spots, December’s Vatican funeral, at which Pope Francis officiated, for Boston’s sanctuary-seeking Cardinal Law, one of the great facilitators of serial paedophilia, spoke more loudly than oft-repeated promises of a new dawn. That abuse survivor Marie Collins felt obliged to resign from the Commission for the Protection of Minors — led by another Boston cardinal, Sean O’Malley — because of a lack of resources but primarily because a proposal that a tribunal be set up at the Vatican to deal with bishops who had not protected children was, despite the Pope’s endorsement, blocked.
As Mary McAleese’s speech in Rome last week — “codology dressed as theology”— pointed out the role of women in the Catholic Church seems rooted in irresolvable misogyny rather than any idea of equity. McAleese is not alone. In November Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said “the low standing of women in the Catholic Church is the most significant reason for the feeling of alienation towards it in Ireland today”.
But how much of this matters in a society where vocations continue to fall, where the priesthood is disappearing? Are the battles between the right and left wings of Catholicism relevant in a society where Mass attendance continues to collapse towards the 20% mark, the norm in Catholic Europe? Mass attendance is almost a matter of historical interest in working-class urban areas. Despite this rejection Catholicism retains a dominant voice in our State education system.
When Pope Francis visits he will be welcome but the mardi gras that greeted John Paul in 1979 will not be repeated. It is even more difficult to imagine that even a sliver of the mass public and official piety of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress — an event closer to Celestine V’s world than ours — will be repeated. Society may have changed but it seems that, at its core, Catholicism clings to its age-old credo and is willing to pay a very heavy price for that orthodoxy. To believe or change, that is the question — or find a way to do both.