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What if Francis had been pope in 2005?

The then-Cardinal Bergoglio reportedly came second in the 2005 conclave and is said to have been relieved he wasn’t elected on that occasion

By on Monday, 14 April 2014

Pope Francis (CNS)

Pope Francis (CNS)

Last week marked the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the great western foreign policy failure that inspired the interventionism of Tony Blair. On Monday Blair was arguing for intervention in Syria and justifying his own adventures in Iraq on the grounds that without the 2003 invasion that poor country would have slid into civil war following the Arab Spring, just as Syria had.

Setting aside the fact that Iraq is sort of descending into civil war again anyway – the death toll is now back to the dark days of 2008 – his basic premise is probably right. However Saddam fell, it would have been ugly and sectarian. One thing he failed to mention, though, is that Iraq may well have been caught up in a wider Syrian conflict, in which case the Sunni Saddam Hussein and the Alawite Bashar Assad would have been on opposing sides. As Blair is so keen to topple the Syrian leader right now, would we have been intervening on the side of Saddam against Assad, Iran, Hezbollah et al? The whole thing is a mess.

An equally interesting historical what-if comes to mind as we approach April 19, the ninth anniversary of Benedict XVI’s election to the papacy. The man who reportedly came second in the 2005 vote was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has reputedly said since that he would have taken the name John XXIV but was deeply relieved not to have been elected. Who can blame him? Benedict took the helm just as a number of storms were approaching the Church: the gradual build-up of child abuse scandals across a number of countries, the rise of New Atheism that followed the September 11 attacks, and a new cohort of young people who were not only atheist, but the product of totally secular homes.

Benedict, a highly orthodox and also rather shy man, became the focus of an outpouring of hatred towards the Church, much of it from former Catholics. Even his nationality worked against him, with cruel wartime stereotypes deployed against a scholarly, gentle man whose father publicly clashed with the Nazis.

The sad irony was that during his time as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Benedict was one of the keenest pursuers of clerical abusers and also had notably good judgment when it came to wrongdoers in the Church. But it did not help that under Benedict the Church’s public relations was poor. The biggest blunder was his lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, whose wacky views on the Holocaust and Protocols of Zion were easily available on the internet.

But how would John XXIV, with his seemingly effortless charm in front of the cameras, have fared? Would he have been given the easy ride he since has his election? Or would our papers be making crude references to the Falklands War and presenting him as soft on clerical abuse? Who is to know?

Ed West is the author of The Silence of Our Friends: The Extinction of Christianity in the Middle East

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