The attention surrounding the election of a new pontiff confirms the ongoing significance of the Catholic Church, a Griffith University expert in international politics says.
Associate Professor Gideon Baker from the School of Government and International Relations argues that, using a different lens, the Catholic Church can be seen as a contemporary institution rather than an archaic one, as it is often portrayed.
“Here is an institution that claims it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, if you’re rich or poor, you belong to and are welcomed into this community as much as everyone else,” Associate Professor Baker says.
“It’s a complicated picture in that it does not transcend gender but it transcends race and ethnicity like perhaps no other global organisation.”
Gideon Baker is an expert in international political theory, with interests in cosmopolitanism and in the contemporary relevance of religious ideas.
He observes that accusations of secrecy and arguments against the absolute power of its leader do not appear to overly trouble the Catholic faithful.
“It is accused of being out of touch with the democratic sensibilities of our age, but there is plenty of secrecy in secular politics. It is accused of being a reactionary institution that is stuck in the past, in terms of attitudes towards contraception, for example. From that perspective, it is easy to make the Church appear irrelevant to 21st century lives.
“But that is not the only perspective. If you look at the Catholic Church from another angle, it can be seen as very contemporary. The massive worldwide reception the Pope’s election has received reminds us that it is very relevant to millions of lives, especially in the global south where most people live. The comparison between archaic and modern institutions, with the Church identified only with the former, is too strongly drawn in many cases.”
One of the key elements which sets it apart from secular institutions is the transnational sense of identity it offers its membership, Associate Professor Baker says. “It’s a community of identity that goes above and beyond citizenship. It does not discriminate on the basis of citizenship.
“There is a tendency to see international politics through the lens of state, but for millions of Catholics around the world, they identify with a global organisation whose membership transcends borders.”
The unprecedented decision by Pope Benedict to step down and the efficiency of his replacement are indications that senior figures in the Vatican are not incapable of decisive action. So too the decision to appoint a leader from South America, where 40% of the world’s Catholics live.
“Stepping down was a good thing. It worked as a corrective to the quasi-divine aura around the Pope that would be an obstacle to many outsiders. It made the Pope look like a human being.
“The fact they have replaced the Pope so quickly shows the Church is not stupid. They understood the importance of minimising the interlude so the Pope’s sense of authority wouldn’t be undermined by a sustained vacuum. These are factors often lost through the disconnect that exists between the Catholic Church and a predominantly liberal, secular media in countries like Australia.”