Pope Francis meets the criterion of personal holiness that so many were looking for in the new pontiff–a “servant of the servants of God” in the spirit of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. A staunch advocate for the poor in an age of globalization, he seems like just the man to inspire the wavering faithful in Latin America and around the world to return to the fold.
And yet, is the 76-year-old Jesuit up the challenge of putting the Church’s house in order? If he has a record dealing with sex abuse cases or making administrative reforms in the archdiocese of Buenos Aires, it has yet to emerge. What we do know is that after coming in second in the last conclave, he expressed relief at not having gotten the job. “In the Curia I would die,” he said.
One way to understand what happened in the Sistine Chapel yesterday is to open your copy of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy to Book III, chapter 1, on the importance of institutions returning to their first principles.
The brilliant Florentine admired St. Francis, and was convinced that but for his and St. Dominic’s success in providing examples of primitive Christian values of poverty and humility, Christianity would have been destroyed by the church leadership’s corruption: “for by their poverty and by their example of the life of Christ, they brought it back to the minds of men where it had already been extinguished; and their new orders were so powerful, that they were the reason why the dishonesty of prelates and the heads of the religion did not ruin her.”
And yet, in his view, it was on account of their very renewal of Christian values that the corruption endured.
By still living in poverty and having so much credit with the people through confessions and preachings, they are able to make them understand that it is evil to speak evil of the evil, and that it is good to live rendering them obedience, and if they make errors to leave their punishment to God. And thus these bad [rulers] do as much evil as they can, because they do not fear that punishment they do not see or believe. This renewal therefore has maintained and still maintains this religion.
Is this too cynical a view of the church today? In today’s New York Times, Rachel Donadio reports that some inside observers see Francis as “a safe pick: the near winner in the last conclave, a humble and popular prelate who could encourage a grass-roots evangelization of the faith without immediately threatening the Vatican bureaucracy or insisting on changes in response to the scandals both sexual and administrative.”
If nothing else, Machiavelli is alive and well in Rome today.