Quick Thoughts on Pope Francis
J. Peter Nixon March 13, 2013 - 8:16pm
Why Bergoglio? Obviously I wasnt in the conclave or even in Rome, but if I had to sum it up in a sentence Id say hes a Latin American Sean OMalley.Much of the boomlet for OMalley over the last couple of weeks focused on his simplicity, commitment to the poor and personal holiness. His administrative chops and seriousness on the issue of clerical sexual abuse were a clear asset, but without the former elements he wouldnt have been as compelling a candidate.As many others have observed, Bergoglio has similar qualities. He famously urged those interested in coming to his installation as archbishop to stay home and give the money to the poor. Rather than live in the archbishops mansion, he chose to live in an apartment and apparently takes public transit to work (I wonder if he realizes yet that he will never do so again). It is also reported that when he was made a cardinal, he chose to alter his predecessor's robes rather than paying for new ones. His choice of Francis as a name is, to put it mildly, extremely bold and suggests a strong identification with the poor.In the runup to the conclave, many cardinals appeared to understand that the Churchs witness is the most powerful and compelling when it is voiced from a place of simplicity and humility. It is then that the Church best conveys the simplicity and humility of Christ himself. Francis decision to ask the crowd assembled in St. Peters Square to bless him before he blessed them was a powerful symbol in that regard.Bergoglio was also, of course, from Latin America. He reportedly came in second in the 2005 conclave, suggesting a strong base of support for a candidate from the developing world. I dont know whether the cardinals from Asia or Africa put forward any favorite sons on the first ballot, but I suspect the list of non-European candidates probably winnowed to Bergoglio and Scherer rather quickly, in which case the choice of both the critics of the Curia and those favoring a Third-World pontiff was probably clear.A number of observers have described Bergoglio as a conservative, although Im not clear what criteria they are using to make that judgment. If the test is his opposition to same-sex marriage and legal abortion then the entire conclave was comprised of conservatives in which case the category is analytically useless.A more sophisticated approach to this question cites Bergoglios criticism of certain aspects of Liberation Theology. Here too, however, it is important not to oversimplify the issues. While many North American critics of Liberation Theology were defenders of neo-liberal economic policies, that was not necessarily the case for all critics. The debate in the 80s and 90s over Liberation Theology focused on a number of issues, including: 1) whether it was possible to use social analysis (usually neo-Marxist or some form of dependency theory) as a tool for interpreting the Gospel in a Latin American context (Aquinas use of Aristotle was often cited as a precedent); 2) how closely to identify political and social development with the emergence of the Kingdom of God; 3) to what extent new forms of ecclesial organization in Latin America (e.g. base communities) should be seen as a model for the universal Church; and 4) how closely to ally the Church with popular movements dedicated to radical social change.These were difficult debates within the Latin American Church, the global Church, and within Bergoglios own Jesuit order. With the benefit of hindsight, even a number of center-left observers (this author included) would not defend every position taken in the name of Liberation Theology during this period. One does not have to embrace all aspects of Liberation Theology to believe in a preferential option for the poor.It is also interesting to reflect on what the cardinals didnt get when they elected Bergoglio. While he was certainly not a candidate allied with the Curialists, there isnt a lot in his past to suggest a take charge administrator ready to clean house (I stand ready to be corrected if anyone has information to the contrary). Its also not clear that Bergoglio is the man to re-evangelize Europe and North America, although to be fair it is not clear that anyone in the conclave was well positioned to carry out that task. He may well, however, be the man to give the Church in Latin America a needed shot in the arm. For all the talk about Christianitys growth in the Third World, the recent history of the Catholic Church in Latin America has been mixed and the Church has been losing ground to Protestant denominations, mostly Evangelical and Pentecostal.Its also not clear that Bergoglio is someone who gets the clerical sexual abuse crisis in a way that many North American and European cardinals said they wanted. To be fair, unlike some other candidates, he hasnt said anything mind-numbingly stupid about it either. How he will address the issue remains to be seen.One area where I was pleasantly surprised was his strong relationship to the Jewish community in Argentina, partly arising out of his response to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish apartment complex. In a book review I did for America some years ago, I raised a concern that a pope from the Third World would not have the lived experience with Judaism that European popes like John Paul II and Benedict did. This was around the time where Cardinal Maradiaga of Honduras was in hot water for suggesting that "Jewish interests" were responsible for the media focus on clerical sexual abuse in the United States. I surmised that the election of a Third World pope could mean that relations between Catholics and Jews could be in for a rough patch. Im not getting the impression that this will be as problem with our new pontiff.In all this, its important to remember that the past is not always prologue when it comes to the papacy. Giovanni Montini was the choice of many reformers in 1963, but Paul VI often disappointed them. After 2005, many conservatives were hoping that Joseph Ratzinger, Gods Rottweiler, would be the Hammer of the Heretics, but got a shy, retiring professor who shocked them with his abdication. We know a fair bit about Jorge Bergoglio. But the history of Pope Francis is just beginning.