One didn’t have to be a Catholic to be impressed by the demeanor and grace shown by Pope Francis after his election yesterday at the Vatican. The media is full of pundits and so-called experts giving the pope advice as to how to deal with his church’s problems or even on how best to adjust its doctrines to suit their beliefs. That seems to me to be not only absurd but also a waste of time. As the first South American and the first Jesuit pope, Francis is a symbol of change. But if there is anything that observers should take away from the drama that has unfolded in Rome this last week it is that the Catholic Church remains firmly in the hands of those who love its teachings and are determined to both preserve them and to help ensure that they continue to serve the needs of the faithful and the world in general.
That is good news indeed, since in the last century the church has reasserted itself as a force for good. Especially under the leadership of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the church has become a beacon of conviction against anti-Semitism. As a disciple of John Paul II and someone who had warm relations with Argentine Jewry, Pope Francis appears to be very much part of that movement. While that might appear to be a parochial concern for Jews, it is actually very significant.
The point about the transformation of the church over the last century from an institution that fomented prejudice against Jews to one that is in the forefront of those fighting against anti-Semitism cannot be emphasized enough. The church has not only cleaned its own house with respect to a legacy of hate; it has become a stalwart partner in the struggle to eradicate it everywhere.
The church’s turn against anti-Semitism and the Vatican’s recognition of the legitimacy of the State of Israel cannot be isolated from the role it played in standing for freedom against Communist tyranny during the Cold War. As that struggle recedes into memory, the church remains a bulwark for the cause of religious freedom throughout the globe. That’s why it is so disappointing that so many who are quite vocal about advocacy for religious freedom elsewhere were silent when it came to standing with the church as it sought to defend its own liberty of conscience against the federal government’s health care mandates.
Ironically, for much of the last century as the church did evolve to its current position on these issues, it has suffered from the abuse heaped upon it and other organized religions from intellectuals and the world of popular culture. Some writers have told us that ours is an age in which atheism has gone mainstream and a time when traditional faiths must abandon their beliefs in order to become more “relevant” to the young. But the outpouring of good will for the new pope shows that those who have predicted the decline of religion are almost certainly wrong.
Though it is beset with many problems as well as scandals that still hang over some of its leaders, the church’s legacy of faith is one that continues to nurture and inspire its believers as well as sympathetic observers from other faiths. All persons of faith should join with Catholics to pray for Francis’s success and to hope that the church will remain steadfast in its mission as a force for good.