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Hope for reform in the Vatican

The election of a broad-minded, non-European pope may portend the change the Church needs

The unexpected resignation of Benedict XVI has produced an equally unexpected result: his substitution in record time at the head of a global institution, whose center of gravity has been shifting to the Americas, where 47 percent of Catholics now reside. For the first time the Church has elected a Jesuit pope, with the solidity and seriousness this implies, and the first non-European since ancient times. Moreover, his native tongue is Spanish, the first-ranking language among Catholics worldwide.

Such novelties may be interpreted as the long-hoped-for message of renewal in the Church. Apart from the purely geographical non-European aspect, the new Vatican government will find it hard to ignore the innovative force of the transatlantic Church, which in the days previous to the conclave asserted itself, calling for new ways of looking at things. We must not forget that Latin America was the principal scene of the now-silenced theology of liberation, while the United States was the first land to rebel against the Church hierarchy’s systematic concealment of sexual abuses. Thence, too, come the demands for more transparency, in a backward-looking institution plagued with scandals. The profile of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Francis I, is moderate, and sufficiently remote from Vatican intrigues to enable him him to walk this new road. The simplicity and direct style of his initial greeting last night are indicative of a different frame of mind.

During recent days, the Catholic Church has projected the most splendid and archaic image of itself. The Vatican has shown us a masterly media staging of its ancient and solemn traditions, which however cannot obscure the critical problems which Benedict XVI’s resignation — the first in five centuries — has left to his successor. The first pope who asked forgivenness for the pedophilia scandals, spent the last days of his reign issuing warnings against corruption, replacing top figures in the Vatican bank, forcing the resignation of a cardinal accused of pedophilia, expelling close collaborators of Tarcisio Bertone, and seeing to the confidential safekeeping of the “Vatileaks” report on corruption in the curia, which some consider the cause of his resignation.

All these points make the changeover an exceptional one because they will determine, at the very least, the first steps to be taken by Francis I. The situation facing the first Jesuit, and Argentinian, pontiff is a paradoxical one. With an unprecedented number of followers and a global reach, the Catholic Church has lost influence in the modern world.

The tensions are obvious enough within the Church itself and in its relation with the outer world, which may be fascinated by the spectacle of ritual, but is repelled by dogmatic intransigence in matters related with sex, new forms of family relations, gender equality, bioethics and, in general, democratic usages. No one expected a revolutionary pope, and sometimes expectations do not answer to the profile of the chosen one; but the credentials of Francis I as an upright, broad-minded man, and as a Jesuit, appear to be strong assets pointing toward a necessary evolution.

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