An old family acquaintance from the Seventies had an observation combined with a prophesy that he was fond of making. "There are two great monoliths in the world," he would tell my father, "the Vatican and the Kremlin. In the long run, my money is on the former outlasting the latter."
That bet was settled in 1992, but while our friend was attempting to differentiate the leadership of the Catholic and Communist worlds, they are, in fact, strikingly similar. Reform has been stifled and crises have multiplied across virtually all the structures of the church for the same reason they were in Brezhnev's Soviet Union.
Consider the spectacle we just witnessed. A man has been named supreme spiritual leader of over one billion people, after roughly 48 hours of consultation among a tiny, self-selected elite of conservative, European (for the most part) men (exclusively).
The criteria for selection or the arguments in favour of Cardinal Bergoglio's elevation have not been, and will not be, made public. Questions about his involvement in Argentina's 'dirty wars' have been met with outrage over their being raised, rather than answers. The entire church is now expected to show unquestioning and unwavering fealty to a man 99 per cent of them hadn't heard of before last week, and whose views and intentions are a mystery.
If I were to replace a few proper nouns in the above passage, I'd have a very good description of the methodology of the old Soviet Politburo for picking its chairmen. Just as in the church, the CPSU's leaders justified their authoritarian rule and lack of accountability through reference to a book, one they claimed provided all of the answers to the questions of human existence and a blueprint for universal peace and prosperity.
Only those who had undergone the ritualistic study and interpretation of the sacred texts of Marx and Engels could possibly be trusted to have the requisite knowledge, judgement and, of course, humility necessary to shepherd the masses towards their destiny.
The next logical step for both the apparatchiks and the hierarchy was the reconceptualisation of their place in society as less of a professional order and more of a caste. Removed from accountability to the societies they supposedly existed to shepherd and serve, both the Kremlin and the Vatican inexorably became corrupt, intellectually and ethically.
In the church's case, this was exacerbated by a mindset among the clergy that has prioritised accountability to canon law over civil. The decades of inaction and obfuscation over child abuse were made possible because those in a position of responsibility often genuinely did not feel obligated to report offenders to civil legal authorities.
This mindset persists – among the electors of Pope Francis were Cardinals Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Domenico Calgano of Savona, both facing highly credible allegations of having colluded in shielding paedophile priests from justice.
The case of Cardinal Keith O'Brien shows that the privilege of the papal ballot can be withdrawn from those shown to lack the judgement to properly wield it. Why the different treatment of Mahony and Calgano? Why were such men deemed fit and proper to help choose the supreme spiritual leader of a global faith?
More fundamentally, the problem that faced the Politburo in the Eighties and the Curia today was intellectual stagnation, derived from an ideology that stressed the absolute perfection of a particular belief system.
The refusal of Gorbachev's predecessors, and many of his colleagues, to accept new ideas and ways of thinking widened the gap between the Kremlin and society. This lack of understanding ultimately led to the overthrow of Soviet power.
Catholics sincere in their desire to reform the church reading this will take heart at the mention of Gorbachev, in the possibility of someone with a genuine appreciation of the church's problems, and what needs to be done to address them rising to a position of authority. However, Gorbachev's efforts towards reform collapsed – mainly because, by that point, reform had become impossible. The smouldering wreckage his attempt left eventually formed the foundations of Putinism.
The church, of course, does not face the same pressures the Kremlin did, in managing a massive military and economic empire and fighting a constant, draining cold war (or at least it hasn't since the loss of the papal states). The resignation of a Pope and the election of a South American Jesuit are both welcome indicators that the church is capable of a certain degree of change.
But it is not enough. The Vatican cannot survive as a monolith. It must be prepared to engage with ordinary Catholics in a more democratic fashion. Its membership is voluntary – a great strength, but one that has seen the church shrink both among the clergy and laity.
The church needs to talk with Catholics, not at them. Quite simply, it has lost its credibility as a moral arbiter, through repeated failures of accountability and transparency. It cannot regain it in its current form, and it can only determine what new shape will work by listening to its members.
Pope Francis has been dismissed in some corners as a caretaker Pope. For the sake of the church's long-term future, it is to be hoped this is not the case. But the question is no longer whether change is necessary – it is now whether it is possible.