White smoke billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel on Mar. 13, declaring to the world that the papal conclave had chosen a pope to succeed Benedict XVI, who resigned after declaring his inability to govern in old age. Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, represents many firsts for the Catholic Church’s papal legacy: he is the first to take the name Francis (after Saint Francis of Assisi), the first pope of the Jesuit order, and the first coming to the Vatican from the Americas—specifically, Latin America.
From one perspective, Pope Francis is representative of significant changes within an essentially static 2,000 year-old institution. The majority of practicing Catholics live the southern hemisphere, as more and more Catholics leave the church in Europe and North America, where secular society increasingly defines politics. Demographic shifts characterize today’s Church, and with the appointment of Pope Francis, its political motives are increasingly evident. While the Church has indicated its acknowledgement of its most ardent followers—South American Catholics account for 80.66 per cent of South America’s population, and 27.87 per cent of the world’s Catholics—the appointment is, nonetheless, indicative that the Church’s motives aren’t so much geared toward reform as they are toward policy.
Though some cite “laziness” or “youthful rebellion” as the reasons for which increasing numbers of young people are leaving the Church, this can be linked to shortcomings on the part of the institution itself. Social issues like gay marriage are important to younger demographics today, but the inability for women and married men to become priests also limit the Church’s accessibility, as well as its potential for growth. While going to church is not exactly every college student’s ideal Sunday morning, their lack of incentive is enhanced by outdated Church doctrine. According to CNN’s Belief Blog, one in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. 2001 census data shows that more than 80 per cent of Quebecers still declare themselves Catholic, but only about 6 per cent of these declared Catholics attend mass weekly, demonstrating the increasingly popular ‘pick and choose’ approach to modern faith. The child sex abuse scandals which the Church has been slow to address have certainly not encouraged “fallen-away” Catholics to return either.
Even as it trends away from institutionalized belief, the Western world celebrated the newly chosen bishop of Rome. Church bells rang out mid-afternoon in Montreal, the press was abuzz worldwide, and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement welcoming the new pope.
Despite growing tension between the spiritual individual and the institution, and general indifference toward religion in Europe and North America, we appear to celebrate, and in fact, amplify an event that will not affect many of us at all—Catholic, non-Catholic, or non-religious.
Given the decision to elect a pope only nine years younger than Pope Benedict, it doesn’t appear that the Vatican is interested in making any major differences to the papal post. Though we can only speculate right now, it is likely that the views of the man leading the Church will not align with North America’s 173 million Catholics.
If this gap widens, and the Church fails to address issues facing Catholics in North America and Europe, only more followers will lose touch with their faith. While perhaps a decisive geo-political move, the accumulating ignorance toward Western social changes will inevitably hinder the Vatican’s political and religious power in these locations should Pope Francis follow in Benedict’s, and others’, footsteps.