Habemus Papem! While virtually all the papabili who went into conclave as potential popes came out as cardinals, one minor candidate — Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires — has become the newest leader of the 2,000-year-old Catholic Church.
Bergoglio wasn’t on the radar for plenty of conclave-watchers, and maybe he should have been. He was seen as a serious contender (and rumored runner-up) during the conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger. But at age 76, many figured he was too old for the job (especially following the resignation of an aged, worn-out Pope pleading ill health) and too weak-willed to govern the Church effectively. Most dismissed him as a has-been, a man past his prime who’d already had his chance.
Considered a moderate with the potential to bridge the divide between progressive and conservative church factions, Bergoglio seems to signal a push for renewal in Catholicism. He is the first-ever Latin-American pontiff — indeed, the first non-European in centuries — and the first Jesuit priest to ascend to the Chair of St. Peter. Both facts could be significant. The Jesuit order is known for its missionary zeal, charitable works, and intellectual activity on theological matters, and the concerns of Latin American Church leaders often differ considerably from those of European and North American prelates. When it comes to Catholic social justice, Bergoglio is used to focusing on economic inequality, not sexual politics.
He further indicated his search for a new direction by selecting a name no pontiff has ever used before: Francis, after the popular Saint Francis of Assisi. The name fits. Bergoglio is known amongst the cardinals as a compassionate figure who eschews the fancier perks of his office: he gave up the archbishop’s palace to live in a simple apartment in Buenos Aires, and he traded in the archbishops’ limo for a bus pass.
These are all promising signs for the Vatican-watchers who wonder how the Curia can live in such opulence while children starve or who harbor concerns about the Vatican’s financial management.
To those hoping to see the Church revisit questions of sexual morality, Bergoglio is a much more disappointing candidate.
He remains staunchly conservative on issues like abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. He’s known for speaking harshly against Argentine pro-gay-marriage legislation by calling gay marriage “a destructive pretension against the plan of God” and “a machination of the Father of Lies.” Though disappointing to many, it’s hardly surprising, given that all the candidates were selected by either Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI, both deeply conservative on sexual morality.
Still, there’s promise in the election of a pontiff who blends intellectual and pastoral concerns and generally discourages involving the Church in secular politics. His election signals the cardinals’ recognition that the Church has become mired in divisive politics and their desire to refocus the Church on individual spirituality and common-ground issues like poverty and economic equality. It may also provide an opportunity to increase the Church’s relevance to alienated believers while reducing Catholicism’s intrusions into the political sphere.
It’s a strategic choice for an institution battered by controversy under the papacy of Benedict XVI. Bergoglio’s first challenge will be to compassionately address the wounds caused by institutionalized sexual abuse so he and his Church can move forward on the issues close to his heart.
You don’t have to be a believer to hope he’s able to make it better.