Pope Francis: Change or More of the Same?

Amy Sullivan

It is still hard to quite grasp the astounding idea of former Pope Benedict XVI watching from his home along with the rest of the world as the man who was his runner-up in the 2005 papal conclave, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, greeted the crowd in St. Peter's Square as the next head of the Roman Catholic Church. In a year that has already seen the first papal resignation in more than 800 years, the selection of Bergoglio breaks new ground on a number of fronts.

The cardinal will be known as Pope Francis, the first time any pontiff has taken the name that is assumed to be in reference to Saint Francis of Assisi. Bergoglio will also be the first pope from the Society of Jesus, whose members are called Jesuits. And he is not only the first non-European elected to the papacy in 1,000 years, but also the first ever from the Americas.

And yet real change proceeds at its own deliberate pace in this 2,000-year-old institution. Those who saw the possibility for significant change in the Roman Catholic Church with the selection of a new pope will likely need to wait a while longer. At age 76, Bergoglio is just two years younger than Benedict was upon his election. At the time, many Vatican observers believed Benedict would be a placeholder pope whose presumably short tenure would give the church time to figure out its direction for the future. That sort of thinking can always backfire, of course—John XXIII was elected at age 76 by peers who hoped for a short, uneventful papacy, and yet he is the pope who called the Second Vatican Council. Still, it's hard to imagine that many of the cardinals electing Francis did so believing he will lead the church for several decades, especially since Benedict has set the precedent of stepping down when age and health issues intervene.

There is no doubt that the selection of the church's first non-European pope in more than a millennium is significant, and it may sound merely ungenerous to observe that it is not as significant as it could have been. About 40 percent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, which has been largely unrepresented at the highest levels of the church—in this papal conclave, for example, only 17 percent of the electors came from Latin America. But as the son of an Italian father—and as an Argentine, not a Brazilian or Colombian—Bergoglio is hardly the "brown pope" many in the developing world desired. 

Similarly, while Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, himself a Jesuit, told reporters on Wednesday evening that he was "in shock" about the election of someone from his order to the papacy, Bergoglio does not fit the mold of a typical Jesuit. The bad boys of the Catholic Church are known for disdaining the rise-through-the-ranks orientation of most in the Catholic hierarchy and are typically discouraged from accepting ecclesiastical honors. Yet Bergoglio rose fairly rapidly, despite needing to take time out of his training while recovering from the removal of a lung in his early 20s, and was made a cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. Throughout his career, he has consistently pushed back against liberalizing elements in the Jesuit community, whether it was calling priests out of their community-based work during Argentina's Dirty War or dismissing the work of those who embraced liberation theology. Jesuits around the world are understandably celebrating Bergoglio's election, but even they understand that he will not be a Jesuit pope. 

The instant reaction to Bergoglio's election, particularly from the U.S. media, centered on the cardinal's conservatism—his opposition to contraception use and his role in opposing Argentina's successful adoption of civil unions—as if these positions were surprising. It's true that in the days leading up to the conclave, there was some discussion in the media about whether the cardinals would elect a "reformer." But that word does not mean the same thing in a Catholic context that it might elsewhere. The cardinals—more than half of whom were appointed by Benedict in the past eight years—were never going to elect a pope who supports married clergy or female priests. The pool of candidates was unfailingly conservative, with only slight variations in terms of emphasis and priorities.

The real decision was about personality and an inclination to bring order to a corrupt and ill-managed Curia. On these fronts, we have only an incomplete record on Bergoglio. He is well-known for his humble—sometimes even described as stern—manner. In his short remarks on Wednesday evening in Rome, it was striking that the new pope led the crowd in reciting the Lord's Prayer and that he asked the people to pray that God would bless him. That more informal approach is of a piece with Bergoglio's life in Argentina. When he was made archbishop, Bergoglio chose not to live in the archdiocese's mansion but instead in a modest apartment in the Buenos Aires suburbs. According to John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, Bergoglio dismissed his chauffeur and takes the bus and other public transportation around town, and he even cooks his own meals, a practice surely rare in the college of cardinals.

Bergoglio's strength—and one of the reasons he was such a strong contender in 2005—is his focus on spiritual life and evangelism. But he has never worked inside the Vatican, and it is unclear what skills Bergoglio will bring to an institution in dire need of internal reform. Pope Francis takes charge of a church that is suffering a prolonged crisis of confidence that can no longer be ignored. At the time of the last papal conclave in 2005, Catholic leaders could still feasibly—if incorrectly—dismiss the sex-abuse scandal as an American problem. But since then, revelations in Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Kenya, and elsewhere have made illusion impossible to maintain. One of the few available signs is a statement the cardinal made last fall when he furiously went after priests in Argentina who refused to baptize babies born out of wedlock, calling their actions "rigorous and hypocritical neo-clericalism."

In a statement late Wednesday, President Obama praised Bergoglio as "a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us," a reference to the cardinal's advocacy on the issue of human trafficking. And Cardinal Timothy Dolan, one of the Americans who participated in the conclave, spoke highly of his colleague as well. Given the many lines of tension between Catholics worldwide and here in the United States, however, Dolan may be speaking more out of hope than certainty when he describes the new pope as "the figure of unity for all Catholics wherever they reside."