As always, the gospel according to The New York Times — in an early version of its instant Pope Francis analysis — was spot on, with this headline: “Argentine Pope Will Make History, but Backs Vatican Line.”
And the lede? More of the same:
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, to be called Francis, will break ground as a Jesuit and Latin American. But his views on gay marriage, abortion and other issues make him a conventional choice to lead the church.
In place of the word “conventional,” one could substitute words such as “Catholic” or “orthodox,” with a small “o.” The same thing is true in the headline, where one can strike the word “Vatican” and replace it with something more timeless and accurate.
From this point of view, the key is that the Vatican, the papacy, the catechism and the actual written teachings of centuries of church councils are merely one approach to what it means to be a Catholic. These institutions have no unique, defining Catholic authority, one that would make the “Vatican line” something that Catholics would need to consider anything other than optional.
By this morning, that basic Times story had evolved and collected a few more details:
BUENOS AIRES – Like most of those in Argentina, he is a soccer fan, his favorite team being the underdog San Lorenzo squad. Known for his outreach to the country’s poor, he gave up a palace for a small apartment, rode public transportation instead of a chauffeur-driven car and cooked his own meals.
The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (pronounced ber-GOAL-io), 76, will be called Francis. Chosen Wednesday by a gathering of Roman Catholic cardinals, he is in some ways a history-making pontiff, the first from the Jesuit order and the first pope from Latin America.
But Cardinal Bergoglio is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues — leading to heated clashes with Argentina’s left-leaning president. He was less energetic, however, when it came to standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them, during a period when as many as 30,000 people were abducted, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.
From there, members of the Times community are led into a lengthy discussion of just about everything that they need to know about the new pope that might in any way hint at his beliefs about political issues and the Sexual Revolution. The editorial college of cardinals at the Times have dogma to defend, as well.
The quick mainbar at Time takes a similar, but more muted approach. There’s lots of politics, but, as a kind of throwback to the Time approach of old, the emphasis is on the global view.
I did, as an Eastern Orthodox layman, wonder a bit about this historical summary:
The accession of a new Pope is always cause for wonderment — if only because the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church has managed to survive more trials than almost any other kingdom in history. No other institution can claim to have withstood Attila the Hun, the ambitions of the Habsburgs, the Ottoman Turks, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, in addition to Stalin and his successors. Every new Pope faces fresh crisis and challenges. And in the 21st century, he does so at the head of a spiritual empire that touches more than 1.2 billion souls and whose influence crosses borders and contends with other great powers.
No other institution, other than the papacy, has survived Attila, the Ottomans, Hitler, Stalin, etc.? Speaking only as a member of an Antiochian Orthodox parish, I am sure that our patriarch in Damascus (a deadly serious place right now, once again) would consider that editorial statement questionable, at best.
Let’s continue, since the story then offers a pretty solid description of some of the issues dividing traditional and liberal Catholics. The key, and rarely used, word is “doctrine.”
Francis, the first New World Pope, faces some old and vexing problems. He must confront headlines reminding him of the church’s failures in dealing with the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. He must reform the Vatican’s finances by way of a bureaucracy that originated in medieval times and is burdened by aristocratic privilege and the Machiavellian instincts of feudal Italy. He must respond to the opposing demands of a divided flock — with many Catholics in North America and Europe asking for more-liberal interpretations of doctrine even as many in the burgeoning mission fields of Africa and Asia warm to the conservative comforts of the faith.
But here is the meat of the Time report, an editorial summary of the issues that appear, at first glance, to have played a key role in this papal election.