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Choice shows decisive shift from Europe

Pope Francis, who is from Argentina, represents an extraordinary leap away from the conservative and cautious nature of the last two papacies.

world Updated: Mar 14, 2013 22:45 IST

The choice of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to take office as Pope Francis is an extraordinary leap away from the conservative and cautious nature of the last two papacies.

Although Bergoglio is described as a moderate conservative, the Jesuits have a reputation in the modern church for rigorous and independent thought, and under Pope John Paul II they were in deep disfavour for their sympathy with liberation theology in Latin America.

The election of a Latin American Jesuit would also have been unthinkable 30 years ago.

The choice of Bergoglio shows a decisive shift in the church's centre of gravity away from Europe and towards the continent where most Catholics live, and where the challenges to the church are rather different to those in Europe.

Latin American issues
The overwhelming problem in Latin America is the shortage of priests and the shrinkage of believers. Although 40% of the world's Catholic population live in the continent, it can no longer be automatically assumed that a Latin American is a Catholic.

Pentecostal Protestantism has made huge inroads, and, nowadays, secularism as well. These are problems which the church under John Paul II and Benedict XVI refused to confront head on. The choice of Bergoglio shows the question can no longer be dodged.

Although the church continues to grow in Africa, and the conclave shows that it can still hold the attention of the world when it puts on a show, the trend in most developed countries is deeply unfavourable. Partly as a result of shrinking family sizes, Catholic church attendance in the developed world has been falling steadily in the last decade.

One in 10 adult Americans is now a lapsed Catholic. In both North and South America those who leave the Catholic church tend to become either charismatic evangelical Protestants or to abandon religion altogether. In western Europe there is no other form of Christianity picking up the slack.

The church's attitude to women, its teachings on sex, and the corrosive effect of the abuse scandals are blamed by some; others claim that doctrinal drift and dull, spiritless services are responsible for the problem.

Priest shortage
The presence of priests is central to a flourishing Catholic church. Only they can celebrate the Mass. And there is a huge crisis in the priesthood in many of its historic heartlands.

Battered first by a widespread rebellion against compulsory celibacy — more than 100,000 priests were dispensed from their vows to marry in the seventies and eighties before John Paul II made it almost impossible as part of his more general crackdown on liberalism — and then by the reputational damage of the abuse scandals, the clergy had dwindled and aged at astonishing speed.

The average age of American priests has risen from 34 to 64. The whole of England and Wales produces fewer priests a year than almost any single Anglican diocese. Seminaries have closed all over the Western world.

A very high proportion of the remaining clergy are thought by qualified observers to be gay, if often celibate. In the developing world, the regulations on celibacy are widely flouted.

Church scandals
But this cannot happen without a thorough clearout of the conservatives in the Vatican.

The Curia, as the Vatican's bureaucracy is known, has been shaken by numerous scandals in the last eight years. The jailing of Pope Benedict's own butler for leaking documents to the outside world was the most notable case.

But in those documents, there were allegations of financial corruption and of the existence of gay networks of influence. The Vatican bank has also been reluctant to sign up to European money-laundering protocols.

All these are symptoms of a wider dysfunction. The first Jesuit pope may show that independent thought was all the time flourishing in the wider church and with it an escape from stifling centralisation.