Once again Catholics have a new Pope and once again he comes from a far country. The spiritual head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics hails from Argentina. He is the first Pope in about 1,300 years who is not from Europe, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere.
“You know that the duty of the Conclave was to give a bishop to Rome,” Pope Francis told the throng in St Peter’s Square. “It seems as though my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world to get him. But here we are.”
John Paul II used almost the same words in his balcony address, too. “And now the eminent cardinals have called a new bishop of Rome. They have called him from a far country. “
Their agendas may end up being even more similar than their words. What Pope John Paul did to the dominant ideology of Communism, Pope Francis could do to the secular humanism which dominates political life in the West.
When Karol Wojtyła became Pope, the dominant reality of world politics was the power of a self-confident and expansionist Marxism. The decay and sclerosis of the Soviet Union was hardly apparent at that stage. Communism was the ideology of half of the developed world. Its promise of equality, order and prosperity was seducing governments in Africa, Asia and Central and South America.
Even in the Catholic Church, Communism was making in-roads. Rebel movements supported by liberation theologians combined a romantic struggle against injustice with the traditional piety of the peasants.
Wojtyła brought this to a screeching halt. In Moscow the Politburo was horrified and greeted his election with frigid courtesy. John Paul knew their secrets. He knew how hollow were the promises of the Communism. The dead hand of bureaucracy had demoralised the people, denied them their liberties, told them lies about God — and in return left them wallowing in gritty poverty.
In his visits to Poland, John Paul encouraged his countrymen to hope for freedom. The restless Poles listened and threw off the Communist yoke. Two years later the Soviet Union fell apart. What led to the fall of Communism is a complex question, but John Paul obviously played a key role. Compared to Marxist posturing he was the true revolutionary.
Francis stands in a similar position. He has become Pope almost a generation after the fall of Communism. A new ideology, even more seductive and in some ways even more destructive, has replaced it, secular humanism. It is a complex phenomenon, but its two central dogmas are absolute personal autonomy and the irrelevance of God. This is what has led to the erosion of traditional moral values in many Western countries and beggar-my-neighbour egotism in economic and social life.
Argentina has been no exception to this. In many ways it is a deeply Catholic country, but there has always been a strong secular streak among the intelligentsia which is evident in the government of Cristina Kirchner. Gay marriage was introduced in 2010. Abortion is making inroads in the legal system, although it still is not unequivocally legalised.
As the leading Catholic churchman in Argentina, Bergoglio’s relations with the Kirchner government spanned the gamut of emotions from bad to awful. Like the apparatchiks of the previous generation, La Presidenta must have been horrified by the news from Rome. Her message of congratulation was stiff and frosty.
Bergoglio has been fighting against the dehumanising aspects of secular humanism ever since he became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. He has been a champion of the poor and a stern critic of the vast inequalities in Argentine society. He led the Church in apologising for clerics who collaborated with the military dictatorship during the “dirty war” of the 1970s.
His ferocious words in a letter shortly before the passage of Argentina’s gay marriage bill have often been quoted in the last 24 hours: “We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
This makes Bergoglio sound like a fundamentalist. However, as his deeply humane book Sobre el cielo y la tierra makes clear, his opposition is philosophical as well as religious. He believes that marriage between a man and a woman is supported by thousands of years of tradition and that same-sex parenting will disadvantage children. Similarly, with abortion, he argues that it is not a religious issue but a scientific one. He is not afraid to engage secular humanism with facts and reasoned arguments.
What makes the new Pope’s challenge persuasive is that he lives by what he believes. When he was on his way to be made a cardinal by John Paul II, he recalled something his father had told him: “when you are on your way up, wave to everyone; they’re the same people you’ll meet on the way back down.” Gentle, austere and simple, he gained the respect of the people of Buenos Aires as a champion of the poor.
On the day after he had denounced the government’s plan for same-sex marriage, he visited a slum where he gave a jeremiad against the exploitation of the poor. The city was controlled, he said, by “big mafias of very elegant gentlemen” who lived on bribes and who had turned it into “a factory of slaves and a meat-grinder” for people who were forced into prostitution, scavenging in rubbish tips and jobs in grimy textile workshops. The new Pope is no mere theoretician of Christian social action.
If there is anyone who can begin to roll back the dominance of secular humanism, it is a man like Pope Francis. Communism looked as though it would last forever, but a decade after the election of John Paul II it vanished almost completely in Europe. Secular humanism also appears to be the hegemonic ideology – how long will it last under the hammering of a Pope like Jorge Bergoglio?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.