Habemus Papam: Thoughts on the New Pope

Friday, 15 March 2013

I got an email Wednesday from my university's communication department, asking if they could direct local reporters to me if they had any questions about the new pope. This was after the white smoke had emerged from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel but before the actual announcement had been made. I was already listening to the radio and watching live streaming video of Vatican TV, but if I wanted to be prepared for reporters' questions, I had to switch into overdrive to get as much information as I could as quickly as possible. I began looking at several different websites, including various predictions about likely candidates for pope (mostly useless, as it turned out), the list of the "Dirty Dozen" cardinals that SNAP didn't want to see become the next pope (the one they chose wasn't on the list), and, yes, various Wikipedia pages, including the one that contains the list of all previous popes.

Then came the announcement: taking the name Pope Francis, the new pope was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. This information sent me scrambling to find out all I could about him, including a variety of news sites, Wikipedia English, and Wikipedia Spanish. (The English Wikipedia page on Pope Francis went live only a minute or two after the official announcement; obviously several such pages were built in anticipation of the revelation of the new pope's name, and it was a little sparse at first, with occasional typos, but I was still impressed with the concept of a crowd-sourced online encyclopedia: what a great resource!) I made copious notes, and sure enough, a couple of reporters did call me within a half hour or so, one wanting me to do a live interview that night on one of the local Spanish stations. Despite my somewhat limited Spanish communication skills (reading, no problem; listening and understanding, no problem; speaking on live TV and not sounding like an overeducated five-year-old, problem!), I survived, due in large measure to an excited and rather loquacious priest who took up most of the interview time (¡gracias!). Neither the phone interview nor the TV interview were extensive enough to let me address many of what I thought were the most significant issues concerning the new pope, so I decided to write a blog entry about the choice.

First, let me be clear about the perspective I bring to my analysis. I am not Catholic, though I have great respect for many of the people who are members of the Roman Catholic Church--laity and leaders alike--and for many of their theological positions, especially those expressed in many of the Vatican II and more recent documents (e.g., Nostra Aetate [Declaration of the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions], which rejected anti-Semitism, and Gaudium et Spes [The Church in the Modern World], which advocates for the poor, for social justice, for the value of science, and against runaway capitalism). I am an academic who approaches questions of religion from a progressive, ecumenical, pluralist, Protestant Christian perspective. So having said that, what are my impressions about the selection of the new pope?

My first thoughts have more to do with what I think this pick represents than with the specific person chosen. Francis is the first pope in the 2000 year history of the church from the Western hemisphere. He is the first pope from the global south. He is the first pope from Latin America, where more than 40% of all Catholics live. For all these reasons, I think he brings a unique perspective to the position, one that no pope before him has had. He may be theologically conservative, as all cardinals appointed by the last two popes would naturally be, but his unique perspective means that his actions cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty. He is also the first non-European pope since the eighth century, when the Syrian pope Gregory III reigned from 731 to 741. Yes, he is of European extraction, but he has a distinctive Latin American identity that may well shape his thinking.

Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit to serve as pope, a factor that has not been played up as much as some of his other distinctives. The Jesuits have a history of tension with the Catholic hierarchy. Some of their members opposed the expansion of slavery in the New World, in some cases giving their lives to protect the indigenous peoples of South America, and the conflict with the papacy, which supported the slave-trading states of Spain and Portugal, got so heated that the Jesuit order was suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 and only restored in 1814 by Pope Pius VII. Jesuits famous for their stance in favor of the poor, the oppressed, and ordinary workers around the world include Daniel Berrigan, John Corridan, John Dear, Alberto Hurtado, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Juan Luis Segundo, and Jon Sobrino. Certainly not all Jesuits can be counted among those who have sided with workers and the poor, but the many that can be provide a measure of hope that the first Jesuit pope might as well.

When I first heard that the new pope had chosen the name Francis, and that he was a Jesuit, my first thought was that he had chosen the name--the first time Francis has been used by a pope--in honor of Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order and a famous missionary to Asia. However, it appears that he chose the name instead in honor of Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans, an order that is traditionally seen as a rival to the Society of Jesus (i.e., the Jesuits). His choice of the name Francis gives me hope for two reasons. First, Francis of Assisi is acknowledged by all as a person of peace and a person who identified with the poor like no one before or perhaps since. Francis's commitment to the poor was so complete that many have called him the Second Christ, a sad commentary on the many Christian leaders through the centuries, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who have supported the powerful over the poor, the oppressors over the oppressed, and the cause of war over the cause of peace. The second reason I find hope in the choice of Francis as the papal name is that it seems to show that the new pope is willing to reach out to rivals to try to find common ground, a stance that was hardly characteristic of the last two popes (for example, Pope John Paul II's suppression of many liberation theologians, primarily through his theological hatchet man, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI).

So much for the symbols; what about the man chosen to be pope, Cardinal Bergoglio? I only know what has been reported in the news media, but his purposeful identification with the poor in Buenos Aires--for example, by eschewing the papal limousine in favor of riding public transportation--is a positive sign. On the other hand, I am troubled by allegations of his collaboration with repressive Argentinian regimes, or at least silence in the face of violence and injustice, but some reporters have claimed that he actually saved the lives of several people who might otherwise have been killed by those same regimes. How his past relations with repressive governments will affect his actions going forward is anyone's guess. Among other things, he will be judged by how he deals with the continuing clergy sexual abuse scandal, with corruption in the Roman Curia, and with the contentious atmosphere that has developed between Rome and women religious.

Much as many people would like him to be (myself included), Pope Francis is not a liberation theologian. He is unlikely to overturn the ban on women clergy or allow married men as priests. He almost certainly won't change the church's stance on abortion or homosexuality, though some have speculated that he might loosen the restriction on birth control at least a little, from the perspective of public health. But if he is unlikely to make any drastic changes in these areas quickly, perhaps he will at least open dialogs on some of these subjects with people--many within the Catholic church itself--whose views differ from the official party line.

It's obvious why the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics care about the identity and possible future actions of the new pope, but why should the remaining 6 billion people care? They should care because no other person on the planet speaks authoritatively, or at least somewhat authoritatively, for more than one-seventh of the people alive today. His moral pronouncements and his example have the potential to sway the minds of hundreds of millions of people, including leaders of nations and non-state actors. Will Pope Francis turn out to be a reforming pope, or a pope whose election at least signals the start of a new day for the Roman Catholic Church? In some ways the election of this Argentinian prelate to the chair of Peter is just as significant as the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president. Will the reign of Pope Francis turn out to be a game changer, a big step in a positive direction? Only time will tell, but as for me, admittedly an eternal optimist, I hope so.

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