Hate to say I told you so but, exactly as predicted in my recent novel, The Messiah Matrix, for the first time in history we now have a Jesuit pope: yesterday, Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio; today, Pope Francis I.
I confess to mixed feelings about the new man in the Vatican. The good news is that he is a humble man who gave up the cardinals' limo to ride the bus, flies economy, lived in a small flat in Buenos Aires, is an ardent soccer fan, and prays in the back of the cathedral in his spare moments. That he is another testimony to the world's rapid drift toward embracing diversity which I've written about in a previous Huffington Post. That he doesn't mince words in confronting the gap between the haves and have-nots. That he has chosen to name himself after Italy's patron saint, who practiced and preached poverty and simplicity and was chosen by God to repair a church in ruins; today's church, according to the late Milanese cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, is "200 hundred years behind the times." Yet the shadow of the other St. Francis, the first great Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier hovers ambivalently over his papal nomenclature. I like this story.
The bad news is that the Argentine (of Italian immigrant parents) is known to be a doctrinal conservative, upholding tradition, by opposing compromise with homosexuality, with birth control, and with ordaining women. He has a debatable track record vis-à-vis the Argentine church's relationship with the junta in the 1970s Dirty War, which strained his relations with many liberal Jesuits worldwide. I don't like this story.
What's really going on here?
Behind the scenes, the Roman Catholic Church is either coming of age -- if Francis turns it in a liberal direction with his new-found power, or is reaching the end of its two-millennium hegemony of the Christian faith.
The mechanics of my novel's backstory pits the Jesuits against the papacy, and suggests a pact made between the then reigning pope, now to be known as the "pope emeritus" (quite fittingly for Joseph Ratzinger's academic bent) -- and the head of the Jesuit order -- a pact by which the reigning pope would either be silent or resign, in favor of a Jesuit who would push the order's liberal agenda.
The conflict beneath it all is the age-old contest between fundamentalists (aka "conservatives") and "humanists." Christian fundamentalists I define as those who insist that everything in the Gospels (that were not, by the way, written down until the second century!) is literally true. Humanists, on the other hand, hold the Pauline or mystic-mythical or Gnostic view of Christ that asserts that the true Christ lies within us all and is reachable when we pursue our higher (spiritual) instincts and repress our lower (animal) instincts.
That the divine lies within us is anathema to the fundamentalists, I believe, for a very simple reason: If we can all reach Christhood ourselves, what is our need for organized religion or Peter 's pence? All the gold of the Vatican, all its real estate worldwide, its ill-gotten Vatican Bank deposits -- could all be liquidated (just as Bergoglio sold the cardinal's residence and chose to live in an unpretentious apartment) -- and used to equalize the gap between rich and poor. Who the new pope, henceforth to sign himself servus servorum dei, "servant of the servants of God," has sworn to nurture with the gold pontiff's shepherd staff that he now wields.
The Jesuits, intellectuals and humanists from their founding by Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, and Pierre Favre, have always recognized that the basic spiritual teachings of Christianity, enshrined in the formulaic Beatitudes, are universal and are as evident in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, and every ancient religion from Egypt to Persia, as they are in traditional Catholic doctrine. The Golden Rule trumps the Ten Commandments, and was embraced even by my novel's Emperor Augustus in his final years as his legacy.
Maybe Benedict XVI couldn't take it anymore. Maybe his scholarly soul knew the truth -- that the wondrously magical Christ myth is not literally true, but demands humanity taking responsibility for our own, and the world's, good and evil -- but his training and vocation demanded that he continue to profess the fundamentalist faith to the point that his papacy became a constant stream of contradictions.
Maybe the ambivalence or ambiguity of Francis' chosen papal name was intentional? To keep them guessing, while Jorge himself figures out what to do: return a true spirituality to the sin-battered church -- the "fraternity" he spoke of in his opening blessing, or continue the ambivalent and progressively decadent way of his predecessor toward marginalizing the Roman Catholic Church even further and thereby finally destroying the mighty Roman Empire of which it is but the continuation?
Let's hope the seagull on the white smoke chimney was a good omen.
Let's hope that when Francis speaks the cardinals as well as the birds of heaven are listening.
Dr. Atchity's first novel, The Messiah Matrix (www.messiahmatrix.com), explores the labyrinthine politics of the Vatican, the doctrinal rivalries within the ancient church, and the enforced mysteries masking the true origins of Christianity.