On Saturday, Pope Francis will awaken and flounder in the luxurious excesses of his new home, the Apostolic Palace. The 1.75 million square-foot residence will be a far cry from his humble Argentinian roots, where Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio resided in a small apartment and took the bus to work. His life of modesty will quickly be transformed by the demands of the papacy, and the predicaments that accompany it. While the new pope has been praised “a champion of the poor” by President Obama, the obstacles bequeathed upon him will overturn any charitable dispositions.
In recent years, scandalous forces have consumed the pontiff and his council. Beyond the pestering allegations of sexual abuse, other elements, including resistance to sexual education, contraception, and financial scandals, have dissolved papal influence. The criticism is deserved, particularly as the church rapidly expands throughout the developing world. Bergoglio has condemned sovereign governments for the “unjust economic structures that give rise to great inequalities.” But like his predecessor, Pope Francis is expected to preserve traditional conservative principles, themselves barriers to the changes in social structures needed to relieve impoverished populations. During this pontificate, Francis must promote an image of modesty and abandon the Vatican’s bygone social policies.
Since 2009, a corporate transparency scandal has engulfed the Vatican’s Institute for Works of Religion. The financial institution has been plagued by charges of corruption, tax evasion and money laundering for nearly three decades, but the dismissal of Vatican Bank Head Ettore Gotti Tedeschi in May re-invigorated public suspicions. Improper transactions worth $218 million have under investigation. Regardless of the gossip’s validity, its constant press has deteriorated the church’s public perception, generating an image of papal extravagance.
It would be easy to see past the Vatican’s lucre if the church’s poverty programs were effective. But this is not the case. It has become a papal tradition to criticize economic structures out of their control, while assuming that the church’s venerated principles will somehow relieve the impoverished. It is the preservation of this strategy that makes Vatican guidance so damaging.
With 1.2 billion constituents, the papacy has never exercised such broad influence. From a political standpoint, however, the office is historically marginalized. The Pontifical Swiss Guard reminds us of a time when the church employed a legitimate military force and the Vatican governed all of Western Europe. For centuries, the papacy governed from the top, instructing governments on policy and rule of law. Today, its influence is exerted from the bottom, guiding the free decisions of individuals in their quest for post-mortem paradise. This new power is applied in a misleading manner, where the glory of God is supposedly exemplified by the Vatican’s opulent semblance. Would Jesus of Nazareth have expected his successors to live in such affluence? It seems unlikely. Cardinal Bergoglio would be the first to tell you it is not a sustainable example for the world.
Some 158 million Catholics live in Africa, while 432 million reside in Latin America, accounting for nearly half of the world’s Catholic population. Estimates suggest a third of these men and women live in poverty. Many live under divided, corrupt governance, where the conditions of poverty worsen with economic “progress.” It is not just that impoverished populations have grown more vulnerable to global shifts in food prices or internal displacement, but that the dynamics of social systems have shown no signs of transformation. By empowering women and combating disease at the individual level, social systems become more propitious to economic growth. Thus far, the papacy has been ineffective in leveraging its power to improve these social foundations and minimizing the conditions that fuel vulnerability.
A constant focus on slowing the supposed erosion of social ethics has prevented pragmatic steps to end suffering. Papal enlightenment attempts to alleviate HIV/AIDS and abortion, among a plethora of societal “dysfunctions,” by prohibiting pre-marital sex. Children who inherit HIV at birth are somehow responsible for their own plight. Meanwhile, archaic policies preventing abortion under any circumstance reflects a system of discriminatory practices against women. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the continued prevention of female priesthood impedes the entire genders socioeconomic development in developing societies.
The time has come for a refreshed approach to poverty. Pope Francis can continue to criticize the world’s economic structures and the immoralities that accompany them, but his voice will be drowned out as the church stumbles to defend its antiquated social policies. Even if he is unwilling to relinquish outdated doctrines, abandoning the church’s affluent appearance is certainly within his means. Reformatting the world’s economy and sustaining its resources requires a template of modesty. In lifestyle, in eloquence, and in fiscal restraint, this can be achieved. Pope Francis can empower the church once again by deserting the pressures of conservatism and ushering in an evolutionary era.