DIONNE: Pope Francis: a new center of gravity
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.
In winning election as Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio defied the papal pundits, even though they should have seen him coming. His rise marks the decisive shift within Roman Catholicism toward Latin America and the developing world.
In theological terms, he represents continuity, yet he is the first non-European pope in more than 1,000 years, and also the first Jesuit.
He is a doctrinal conservative who battled gay marriage in Argentina and fellow Jesuits who were more liberal. But he also rebuked priests who denied baptism to children born out of wedlock and has spoken strongly for social justice. He is the first pope to take the name of the saint known for his devotion to humility and to the poor. He is likely to weigh in often on behalf of the world's poorest regions.
In the run-up to the conclave, however, he was pushed down the list of probable victors, partly because of his age — he is 76 — and partly because some cardinals wondered whether he had the toughness to take on a Vatican bureaucracy in desperate need for reform. This will now be tested.
More liberal American Catholics seeking change in the church's stance on the role of women and sexuality cannot expect much movement from Pope Francis. He is a traditionalist, although the same could be said of all other potential winners. Francis was an early critic of liberation theology, which united Catholics and movements on the political left in Latin America.
Yet an American bishop noted that the choice of Francis would not be greeted as a clear victory by conservatives, either. On liturgical issues, he has opposed those who seek to roll back changes instituted by the Second Vatican Council.
This bishop also noted that in his first speech as pope to the crowd in St. Peter's Square, Francis laid heavy stress on his role as the
The conclave also pointedly stepped away from cardinals with close ties to the Curia, as the Vatican bureaucracy is known, and also from the early Italian favorite, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan.
In the end, it is Pope Francis' standing as a Latin American and as an advocate of the poor that may well define him.
His connection to Argentina is not without ambiguity. He has come under criticism for not speaking up strongly against the brutal Argentine junta that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. Yet he is unlike some past leaders in the Latin Church who allied themselves with privilege.
He gave up the archbishop's mansion in favor of a small apartment, and used public transit. He's worked in his nation's slums and asked his priests to do the same. He has outlined the shortcomings of unregulated capitalism, and of the International Monetary Fund.
For many Catholics, a great deal of hope rests on the new pontiff's choice of the name Francis, the saint who disdained formal authority, devoted himself to a simple life, cared passionately about the marginalized, and saw actions as counting far more than proclamations.
It is said that St. Francis once declared,
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