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The First American Pope
Catholicism’s turn into an evangelical future

Pope Francis I, March 13, 2013.

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George Weigel

And now for the ironies.

The 2005 runner-up takes the checkered flag in 2013? Well, not really. Cardinal Bergoglio was used in 2005; he knows precisely who used him and why; and while he is a man of the Gospel who is not looking to settle scores, he is also a man of prudence who knows who his friends, and who his enemies, are. Here’s the story:

In April 2005, the progressive party (which was a real party then) came to Rome after the death of John Paul II thinking it had the wind at its back and clear sailing ahead — only to find that the Ratzinger-for-pope party was well-organized; that Ratzinger had made a very positive impression by the way he had run the General Congregations of cardinals after John Paul II’s death; that he had deep support from throughout the Third World because of the courtesy with which he had treated visiting Third World bishops on their quinquennial visits to Rome over the past 20 years; and that, after his brilliant homily at John Paul’s funeral Mass, he was indisputably the frontrunner for the papacy.

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Confronted with this reality, the progressives panicked. Their first blocking move against Ratzinger was to try to run the aged Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, S.J., emeritus archbishop of Milan, who was already ill with Parkinson’s disease and had retired to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. The idea was not to elect Martini pope; it was to stop the Ratzinger surge. Then, when Ratzinger blew past Martini with almost 50 percent of the vote on what was assumed to be the “courtesy” first ballot (where some votes are cast as gestures of friendship, esteem, etc.), and subsequently went over 50 percent the following morning, the panic intensified. Martini was summarily abandoned (or may have told his supporters to forget it). The progressives then tried to advance Cardinal Bergoglio — who was very much part of the pro-Ratzinger coalition; who embodied “dynamic orthodoxy,” just like John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger; who had been persecuted by his more theologically and politically left-leaning Jesuit brethren after his term as Jesuit provincial in Argentina (they exiled him to northern Argentina, where he taught high-school chemistry until rescued by John Paul II and eventually made archbishop of Buenos Aires); and who was doubtless appalled by the whole exercise on his putative behalf.

It was a last-ditch blocking move, perhaps constructed around the idea that a Third World candidate like Bergoglio would peel off votes from Ratzinger. In any event, it was a complete misreading of the 2005 conclave’s dynamics and a cynical use of Bergoglio, who would almost certainly have been abandoned had the stratagem worked — and it failed miserably.

Thus it may be safely assumed that the coalition that quickly solidified and swiftly elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope in 2013 had little or nothing to do with the eminent cabal that tried to use him in 2005. Pope Francis was elected for who he is, not for taking the silver medal eight years ago.  

The first Jesuit pope? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. Bergoglio is an old-school Jesuit, formed by classic Ignatian spirituality and deeply committed to an intelligent, sophisticated appropriation and proclamation of the full symphony of Catholic truth — qualities not notable for their prevalence among members of the Society of Jesus in the early 21st century. I suspect there were not all that many champagne corks flying last night in those Jesuit residences throughout the world where the Catholic Revolution That Never Was is still regarded as the ecclesiastical holy grail. For the shrewder of the new pope’s Jesuit brothers know full well that that dream was just dealt another severe blow. And they perhaps fear that this pope, knowing the Society of Jesus and its contemporary confusions and corruptions as he does, just might take in hand the reform of the Jesuits that was one of the signal failures of the pontificate of John Paul II.

There will be endless readings of the tea leaves in the days ahead as the new pope, by word and gesture, offers certain signals as to his intentions and his program. But the essentials are already known. This is a keenly intelligent, deeply holy, humble, and shrewd man of the Gospel. He knows that he has been elected as a reformer, and the reforms he will implement are the reforms that will advance the New Evangelization. The rest is detail: important detail, to be sure, but still detail. The course is set, and the Church’s drive into the Evangelical Catholicism of the future has been accelerated by the pope who introduced himself to his diocese, and to the world, by bowing deeply as he asked for our prayers.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. His new book is Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.



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