WASHINGTON -- It was a breathtakingly dramatic week, from Rome to Buenos Aires. It was a week upon which, it might well be argued, the basic moral principles of one-fifth of humanity depend. It was a week when a humble Italian-Argentine Jesuit intellectual became the new "Prince of Rome."
One would have to be insensitive not to hear and almost feel the raindrops falling on the thousands of umbrellas of the faithful waiting in St. Peter's Square for the great announcement. One would have to be without poetry of soul, Catholic or not, to be untouched by Pope Francis' simple greeting to his people: "Good evening, brothers and sisters."
There are big decisions to make -- the future of the Catholic Church, the power of the laity, questions of sexuality and birth and, above all, the place of women in the church -- but first, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires had things to do that were holy in their smallness, among them dinner with the other cardinals and a ride back to his hotel on a Roman bus!
But as one watched closely on Wednesday evening, just after the white smoke was seen about 7 p.m. Rome time, one could be forgiven for feeling uneasy regarding the joyous enthusiasm of the crowd in the square and the so-carefully dressed men on the balcony.
After a while, I "got it." Many in the square were roused to hope that this good man could really make a difference. From those who were interviewed, it was clear they were thinking of major changes, such as women's full participation in the church, birth control availability without guilt, and an end to the sick pedophilia among priests.
But up on the balcony, the cardinals and Pope Francis were thinking about protecting the basic principles of the Catholic Church. Certainly they will continue fighting pedophilia (that fight is already well established), but we will not likely see female priests, women even in sensitive positions in the church, contraception or divorce.
Such shocking developments as Pope Benedict's own butler having filched secret documents to reveal power schemes and financial disorder in the Vatican Bank and in the Vatican itself ("Vatileaks") will surely gain Pope Francis' immediate attention. But not one interview I saw in hours of watching television and reading the major papers mentioned these transgressions.
What I am suggesting is a possibility I take little pleasure in: that, say, two or three years down the road, the new pope will not have answered the serious questions raised by laity all over the world, and particularly in the United States -- but that he will have addressed problems that are not primary with the laity, such as reform of the Vatican Bank.
Neither do I see as relatively important the repeated refrain Wednesday that this pope, being from Latin America, will necessarily represent the poor and wretched of the world. Particularly because the Argentine church is very much like the Italian church.
It is true that Pope Francis, informally called "Padre Jorge" by his Buenos Aires parishioners, is a man of simple habits. But the idea that his being from the Latin part of the Western Hemisphere somehow makes the papacy more human, closer to the people and of greater importance to all the world simply does not hold up.
Pope Francis is not only just as unbending on those social issues mentioned above, but his reputation during the horrendous military dictatorship of 1976-'83, in which approximately 30,000 people either died or "disappeared," most of them dumped alive by military planes into the sea, was extremely negative. The Argentine church's position was "complicit silence," a Buenos Aires court recently ruled.
In fact, the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America has been one of questionable morality. Catholic priests were right alongside the Spanish conquistadores in their invasions of Mexico and of the great Inca kingdoms of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. The exorbitant cruelty of these invasions make the Protestants who took North America from the Indians look as nothing in comparison.
In the 16th century, the entire apparatus of the Spanish and Portuguese churches was transported to the New World, even the Inquisition, which came in 1570 to Cartagena, Lima and Mexico. Even in recent times, the Catholic Church has seen vast schisms between the form and the substance -- between the formalities of the traditional pastoral structures of the parishes and the powerful and often wealthy otherworlds of the cardinals and bishops.
When I was living in South America during the 1960s, that was the age, too, of "liberation theology," where young leftish priests, unhappy with the status quo, wanted to make the people conscious of their plight and thus imbue within them the capacity and the urge to change everything.
Such history is to be taken as a warning against expecting too much, even while one hopes for a great deal indeed. Until we see more, all we can say is, "Good evening, Your Holiness Padre Jorge."