THE BLOG
03/20/2013 10:47 am ET Updated May 20, 2013

Meet the New Pope, Same as the Old Pope?

I've been hearing this refrain all week: "Who cares who the next pope is?" I figure that those who don't care who the next pope is probably don't care much about world politics either. I'm writer who has written about 60,000 words on Roman Catholicism in the past three years -- and that does not include the many poems I have written on the subject throughout the years, and I happen to be, Catholic, but my interest in who became pope yesterday is largely political.

When my 14-year-old, who is not Catholic, asked me whether I "liked the new guy," I told her I didn't l know yet, but that it was unlikely that any guy I liked would ever get that job.

But people change, and like Supreme Court justices, popes are in office for life (unless they exit prematurely for political -- ahem -- health reasons). A man in Francis I's position has great power to bring about change.

Look how the last pope changed over the course of time. In 1968, Joseph Ratzinger strongly supported the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. He emphasized the need for Catholics to embrace primacy of conscience.

Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.
("Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II", ed. Vorgrimler, 1968, on Gaudium et spes, part 1, chapter 1)

Yet we saw how quickly that fell by the wayside when Ratzinger excommunicated and defrocked Nobel Peace Prize-nominated, Vietnam Purple Heart Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois for following his conscience in the context of the ordination of women. By the end of Ratzinger's stint, the pope emeritus appeared to think conscience a close second to obedience -- to himself.

Much is now being made of the new pope's humility. I am always wary of talk of humility when it comes from a man on a throne. Humility. Teresa of Calcutta, promoted as a paragon of Roman Catholic humility, has been in the news lately. I'm one of those who does not see her as a such a paragon. I believe one can admire her personal courage and her desire to minister to the suffering while recognizing that Teresa of Calcutta allowed herself to be manipulated by a hierarchy that needed a woman to thrust to the forefront during a time when women were leaving the church and taking their future tithers (children) with them.

Indeed the gift of life is precious, but it is the antithesis of "saintly" to exhort women who can not feed them to give birth to children. It is neither saintly nor by any stretch motherly to promote the eschewing of condom use amid an AIDS epicdemic. Nor is offering an agonizing patient a prayer in lieu of morphine saintly (I would argue that a combination of both is optimal). I think Christopher Hitchens' book about Mother Teresa was, for the most part, well-researched; I found its arguments credible and consistent with what I have heard from nuns and priests through the years. Yet, because she was trotted out by Pope John Paul II and his consigliere Joseph Ratzinger as a female totem of humility, propped up front and center as a means of reminding Roman Catholics -- women especially -- that the apex of female godliness is to be humble in the extreme (which is, of course, often not very humble at all -- but a martyr's narcissism) Mother Teresa became an unofficial saint -- not just to Catholics, but to the world. John Paul II canonized her in 2003, which is the first step toward making her sainthood official.

Jesus was humble in the extreme. Being humble in the extreme is a charism -- but not when it promulgates sexism and misogyny. Nor when it perches on a throne.

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