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How European Catholics see Pope Francis

The more devout and orthodox the believer, the more likely they are to welcome the pope, but even liberal Catholics are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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Seminary students from Australia show a special edition of Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano to diners from Ireland, at a restaurant in Rome on Thursday. The selection of Pope Francis was met with outpourings of joy from the faithful in Europe, but the continent's liberals remain cautious about his appointment.

Chris Helgren/Reuters

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Catholics across the world are celebrating the inauguration of a new pope and Europe is no exception. But many are wondering what kind of leader Pope Francis will be.

Given there are an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, it is no surprise that the election of a pope is a major event, never less so than this year with Pope Benedict's XVI surprise resignation. Newly minted Pope Francis is a man who breaks with tradition, but will his doctrinal orthodoxy disappoint increasingly secular European Catholics?

The former Cardinal Bergoglio, now Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, is a man of firsts. The first pope named after the famed champion of the poor, he is also the first member of the Jesuit order, known for its commitment to intellectual inquiry, to become pope. Perhaps most significantly, he is the first to hail from the Americas, and the first non-European pontiff since Gregory III, a Syrian who reigned from 731 to 741 A.D.

As with all popes, including Benedict XVI who was later to be seen as a controversial figure, the election of Francis by the College of Cardinals was met with outpourings of joy from the faithful. But liberal critics are muttering darkly, including about his role under Argentina's military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

This duality is a microcosm of the wider European response to the new boss in Rome.

A cautious optimism

Ireland, once one of Europe's most devout Catholic nations, is now thoroughly secularized, but that doesn't mean no one there has been paying attention.

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The more devout and orthodox the believer, the more likely they are to welcome the pope, but Francis's views on poverty mean even liberal Catholics are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Fiona Hanley from Dublin, who describes herself as "not particularly devout" and "a liberal Catholic" says the new pope must prove himself capable of reforming the church.

"At community level, the priests are brilliant. I've never heard a priest or nun make an anti-gay or anti-woman remark in my life," she says.

Church officialdom, however, she is not so keen on. "I find it ludicrous that the hierarchy of the church hasn't apologized properly [for the child abuse scandals]."

Ms. Hanley's views cut to the heart of the divisions opening up in European Catholicism, including, arguably, in the person of Francis himself. "The new pope is a bigot. He's denying homosexuals the right to marriage. In every other sense he is focused on social justice, and so was Benedict. Jesus's main message was to love one another as we love ourselves," she says.

The Irish church is still recovering from child abuse scandals, and the country is currently engaged in divisive discussions on legalizing abortion, as well as recognizing gay marriage.

Questions among the clergy

But it's not only the laity who are asking questions about what kind of pope has been elected. Catholic clergy, too, are looking for signs, at least of the man, if not from heaven.

The Rev. Vincent Twomey, an Orthodox Catholic theologian based in the Maynooth seminary in Ireland, says Francis is an "impressive man" who will make "a very strong pope."

"He's very clear in his basic principles of devotion to Our Lord Jesus Christ and the poor," he says.

Fr. Twomey dismisses complaints that Francis is insufficiently modern in his thinking. "I'm impressed with his simplicity and humility, and his basic doctrine is that of his predecessors, which is to be expected of course."

The Rev. Tony Flannery, spokesman for Ireland's Association of Catholic Priests, takes a more circumspect view.

"There are positive signs about the new pope. There are also contrary signs. We just need to see what happens and how it develops," says Fr. Flannery, who has been censured and officially silenced by the Vatican for his liberal views on contraception, clerical celibacy, and the ordination of women priests.

Flannery says that even in the short window since Benedict's resignation, there have been signs of defrosting, and although Francis is likely to be a doctrinally orthodox figure, there is reform he can accomplish.

The Roman Curia, the Vatican's central administrative authority, in particular has been coming in for criticism, albeit largely privately. Many observers say the curia, which operates more like a medieval court than a modern civil service, is at least inefficient, if not corrupt, and is out-of-touch with the faithful.

"There was [recently] a recognition that the curia is in dire need of reform. [Francis] comes in with a very strong hand and if he has the strength in him to do it, he can achieve a lot. There does seem to be an anti-curia mood in Rome," says Flannery.

European church divided

Divisions are not unique to Ireland. Europe's Catholics fall into two broad camps: those who want to strengthen the liberalizing influence of the Second Vatican Council, and those who seek a return to orthodoxy, even at the price of a smaller church.

In Croatia, an 86.2 percent Catholic country, the new pope has been met with enthusiasm.

Smiljan Berišić, who sells flowers at Zagreb's downtown market, hopes Francis's humility will inspire change.

"It is important that he starts reforms, that he makes changes for the better, so the priests stop driving in expensive cars while the people suffer. The priests here behave the same as politicians, but they should be humble. I think the pope will change this because he comes from Latin America and over there he was doing a lot to help the poor. A man who chooses an iron crucifix instead of a golden one obviously wants to do something good,” he says.

As with elsewhere, though, some remain unconvinced. Buying flowers was Rada Borić, director of Zagreb's Center for Women's Studies, included in the 2010 Forbes list of the world's most influential feminists.

“There might be some reason for the enthusiastic reception he has had," she says. "Mainly, the fact that for the first time we have a pope who is not from Europe, and a pope who is a Jesuit but who took a Franciscan name, which is probably symbolic.

"But as a woman, as a feminist," Ms. Borić adds, "I found unfortunate some of his statements that women should stay in their husbands' shadows and that there is no place for women in political decision-making, which surprised me since Argentina does have a woman president. I'm afraid the pope is not really keeping up with the times, and is discriminatory toward the same-sex unions. Of course, that is what the church is, but I was still hoping he would be a bit more open to the modernity."

Out of touch with Europe?

The Vatican has been on the side of orthodoxy since the appointment of John Paul II in 1978, with Benedict XVI following very much in his predecessor's footsteps, albeit with the owlish demeanor of a scholar rather than the celebrity trappings of John Paul II.

Orthodoxy has not pleased everyone. In Austria, sections of the church are in revolt against the Vatican, with dissident priests of the Pfarrer Initiative challenging doctrine such as clerical celibacy and women priests.

Liberals are antsy in elsewhere, too. Christian Weisner of German Catholic pressure group Wir Sind Kirche (We are Church) fears that the new pope represents a deepening of conservative mysticism in the church, something he relates to Latin America.

"He is a conservative man. I really hope he will at least listen to us and the people of God in different cultures. In homilies he is talking about the devil and so on. In Europe, in line with the Second Vatican Council, we don't talk like that," he says.

Mr. Weisner also worries about the pope's views on abortion and homosexuality, and says the Argentine church must engage in dialogue about its role under the military regime.

Wir Sind Kirche is calling on the new pope to open a truth and reconciliation commission on the issue of clerical sex abuse.

One thing most Vatican-watchers, of every political stripe, can agree on, though, is the need for administrative reform.

"The first thing to do is to clear out the Roman Curia," says Weisner.


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