The Roman Catholic Church has startled the world by electing, after five ballots, the Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th Pope. The new pontiff, who has taken the name Francis, is the first Pope from the Americas, the first from outside Europe in 1,300 years, and is the first member of the Society of Jesus to attain the office; aged 76, he is also the oldest of the likely candidates. He accedes to a position of incalculable spiritual and moral authority and even political influence, and will lead an institution facing immense challenges in the form of terrible internal scandals and enormous differences in the lives and attitudes of its 1.2 billion followers. To start with, the Church has been deeply shaken by the exposure of sex scandals among the clergy; in the developed world this seems to consist mainly of the abuse of young men and boys including young priests, and in the developing world of breaches of the vows of lifetime celibacy. Further problems arise from continuing revelations of slow responses to the scandals, in what is tantamount to a concealment strategy. In addition, corruption scandals have surfaced, together with allegations of incompetence within the Curia, the Church’s governing body.

While the question of whether celibacy is too severe a requirement to impose on the priesthood might appear to be in part an internal matter, the Church’s more obviously public involvements are no less fraught. In the last three decades, the institution has reconfirmed highly conservative positions opposing abortion and homosexuality, though condoms to prevent disease transmission within marriage have had papal sanction; caution has also been restated over ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. The impact of these positions, needless to say, varies hugely according to social and cultural differences around the world. In 2008, a United States national survey found that 98 per cent of sexually active Catholic women there use some form of contraception which the Church would ban, and a Pew Research poll found that only 21 per cent of U.S. Catholics think abortion should be illegal. Latin America, home to 40 per cent of all Catholics, may, however, reveal very different public attitudes on such matters. The new Pope is a doctrinal conservative, but his personality and background as a Jesuit may well be an advantage; as a Cardinal he lived in his own modest flat, used public transport, and cooked for himself. Secondly, he favours interfaith contact. Thirdly, he has criticised the effects of unregulated capitalism, calling inequality a social sin that “cries out to Heaven.” Regardless of the limitations of his office and doctrinal approach, His Holiness Pope Francis could yet help to make the world a better place.

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