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How Influential, Really, Is the Pope?

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Last Tuesday, I received an email from a friend in the US: "Why are the BBC spending so much time on the new Pope business?"

Well, the very next day, the new Pope had a name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to be known henceforth (in English at least) as Pope Francis.

And since his new job involves leading the largest Christian community in the world, and offering guidance on issues such as same sex marriage, abortion, contraception and priestly celibacy, you could argue that the Pope, whoever he is, is one of the most influential leaders on earth.

But here comes the but. How many of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics actually follow their church's teaching on matters such as contraception and abortion? How many actually believe its teaching on transubstantiation, that during Holy Communion the bread and wine offered to the congregation are miraculously changed into the body and blood of Christ?

I can't help wondering if the Pope is, in fact, rather less influential in terms of people's everyday behaviour than is often assumed. On the other hand, if he were to pop up on Sunday morning and say he's changed his mind about same sex marriage (he is vehemently opposed, you won't be surprised to learn) - and that as a result, the teaching of the Catholic church will also change - well, that would make a real difference to many people's lives.

Ditto if he were to change the Catholic church's teaching on abortion, or priestly celibacy. In fact, though, there seems to be little to no chance of any of that happening.

So yet another conservative Cardinal with traditional views has been elected Pope? Maybe - but after all, what kind of institution would deliberately elect a leader who was pledged to tear up the rule book? So I don't find any of this surprising.

What is interesting, I think, are the indications of a more modest Papacy than we're used to, in the hands of a man who has little taste for the trappings of religious leadership and who prefers to stay close to the people he believes he has been elected to serve. Modesty and compassion don't necessarily mean he's a liberal, of course - look at Mother Teresa of Calcutta, not short of compassion, certainly, but no one would ever have called her a liberal.

And as for all the hullabaloo about the new pontiff being the first non-European pope since the year dot, well, sorry, but that doesn't impress me at all. For one thing, his parents were both Italian immigrants, which makes him non-European only in the sense that he wasn't born and brought up in Europe. (I've always thought of Argentina anyway as a country largely inhabited by Italians who think they are Spanish).

And for another thing, if you go back a mere 1,200 years, you come across Popes like Sisinnius, Constantine and Gregory III, all of whom hailed from what is now Syria. They were far less European than their successor Pope Francis, even if the continent that he calls home is now one of the places where the Catholic church is growing fastest.

So what are we to make of suggestions that the new Pope has a murky past when it comes to his record during the grim days of Argentina's military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983? He was leader of the country's Jesuits at the time, and some critics claim he did nothing to halt the brutal treatment of the junta's opponents, including Catholic priests.

He denies it, and the facts seem less than clear. What is clear is that he was not among the loudest voices condemning the dictatorship, even if last year, under his leadership,
Argentina's bishops did issue a collective apology for the church's failure to protect its followers.

So: a conservative with simple tastes who cares about the poor. And a man with a nice dry sense of humour who owes little to the Vatican barons who have run the place so disastrously for so many years.

My guess? He'll do away with some of the pomp (not all of it, though, he's still the Pope, after all), but won't budge on doctrine. The big question is how much notice people will take of what he says.

We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?