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Reforms in Vatican bureaucracy loom under Pope Francis

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Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis I on Wednesday, becoming the first Latin American pontiff in a surprise decision that signalled a desire for a more open Catholic Church.


VATICAN–The election as pope of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who as archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina had tangled with state authorities over abortion, homosexual marriage, and the culture wars, is expected to provide a pastoral polish to the conservative theology of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Like Blessed John Paul, Pope Francis has called the liberal call for contraception, abortion and euthanasia as part of the “culture of death.” And like Benedict who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and doctrinal watchdog of John Paul II had called homosexuality an “objective disorder,” the new pope has come up with harsher language to depict the gay rights movement pushing for “same-sex marriage”: he has called it a “demonic movement.”

In short, Bergoglio provides both continuity and consolidation to the much lauded—or criticized—conservative stance of John Paul and Benedict.

Often derided for taking allegedly dogmatic positions on HIV-Aids and other issues of sexual morality, Benedict was perceived as theologically brilliant but pastorally deficient.

As a prelate actively engaged in various ministries for the family and the poor in Argentina, Bergoglio is expected to provide the pastoral or practical underpinning to the Chuch’s highly unpopular stand on the very divisive issues.

Bergoglio was made a cardinal by John Paul in the consistory of 2001. Depending on varying accounts of the papal conclave of 2005 that elected John Paul’s successor, he was said to have been runner-up to Benedict XVI or at least, his name had figured in the initial ballot.  (A conclave is confidential and cardinal-electors take a vow of secrecy.)

Other accounts said it was another Jesuit contender, Milan Archbishop Emeritus Carlo Maria Martini, who was pitted against Ratzinger.

Under Benedict, Bergoglio became a member of the obligatory congregations such as the Congregation for the Clergy and Pontifical Council for Family.

Bergoglio also follows the cautious legacy of John Paul and Benedict on social justice.

While John Paul wrote the celebrated social encyclical on labor and justice, Laborem Excersens, and Benedict excoriated liberal capitalism, they were critical of the theology of liberation, a distinctly Latin American theology that provided a political reading of the Bible to connect it with the alleged structural injustice in South America and the need to liberate people from such an unfair system.

Ratzinger, as doctrinal watchdog, condemned liberation theology for its use of Marxist analysis. His 1984 “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’” was supported by Pope John Paul II, who having come from Communist Poland and spearheaded the movement that led to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, was necessarily wary of any political philosophy that freely borrowed from Marxism.

Although eschewing the triumphalist trappings of the usual high church functionary to better identify himself with the poor, Bergoglio is perceived ambivalently on social justice and human rights.

The Argentinian Church has been criticized for its establishment connections, especially since it receives state subsidy. His fellow Jesuit priest, Orlando Yorio, had criticized him when he was head of the Argentinian Jesuits in the 1970’s for failing to endorse the activist work of the Jesuits against the former military dictatorship.

Reform of Vatican bureaucracy

Although a member of a number of dicasteries, Bergoglio is a Vatican outsider and his election should indicate that the cardinal-electors had felt the reform of the Vatican bureaucracy would have to come from the outside and not within.

The overhaul of the bureaucracy has been seen as paramount considering Pope Benedict’s short reign was marred by the “Vatican leaks” scandal and other instances of red tape and factional struggles. Vatican observer Alberto Meloni has suggested that the reform should be made by devolution and “consultation with bishop conferences.”

As reelected president of the Argentine bishops conference, Bergoglio may do just that, but the initiative may run counter to the legacy of Benedict and even John Paul.

In the Ratzinger Report (1985), the Pope Emeritus said the Episcopal conferences “have no theological basis, they do not belong to the structure of the Church as willed by Christ.”

Benedict however upheld the “conciliarism” of the Second Vatican Council and connected it with bishops’ unity with the papacy.

In earlier books commenting on the reforms of the council, where he was a peritus or theological adviser from 1962-1965, he said that the unity of the Church is rooted in the Episcopate (the bishops who are the magisterium or the teaching authority of the Church) and the unity of the bishops requires the existence of a fellow bishop who is head of the college of bishops—the Bishop of Rome and successor of St. Peter.

Still, for Ratzinger, episcopal conferences are just a clearing house of issues, its opinions and discussions are not theologically binding.

In 1998, at Ratzinger’s prodding, Pope John Paul II released the apostolic letter, Apostolos Suos, in which it was declared that bishops conferences could not issue statements on doctrine or morality without unanimity among its members or prior approval from the Holy See.


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Tags: Church , conservative theology , News , Pope Francis , Religion , Vatican




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