Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, defies classification. He’s the first pope from the western hemisphere (meaning the Americas), but his parents were Italian immigrants. He’s Jesuit but doctrinally conservative, and then again, while conservative, speaks out strongly on social injustice.
Even his choice of Francis as his regnal name has intrigued many. Media reports first suggested he was honoring Francis of Assisi, who renounced a life of wealth to found an order later to be called the Franciscans, known for simplicity. But now there’s talk that it may have been Francis Xavier, one of the early Jesuits who is remembered for his commitment to evangelization.
Maybe it’s just as well that Francis can’t be pigeonholed. The Catholic Church, the world, needs a religious leader who can dialogue, and cross boundaries, and it seems the new Pope may be able to do that. Much is already being said about his being holy… and humble. After being elected he gently “chided” his fellow cardinals for having “to go to the ends of the world” to find a new pope, and after delivering his first speech and blessing the crowd, simply bowed his head, and told the crowd, “Buona notte e buon riposo” (Good night and rest well.)
Geography of ideas
It may be useful to do a bit of analysis using a “geography of ideas” frame, the term coming from the late Cardinal Yves Congar who proposed that ideas always have a geographical (and, by extension, historical) context. Thus, the Catholic Church, while declaring itself to be universal—“catholic” means precisely that—is marked by differences from one geographic region to another.
When we talk about ideas we are talking about people, and we know how important the personal ideas of popes have been in shaping the direction of the Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion followers.
The American Public Broadcasting System had an excellent video production several years ago focusing on John Paul II’s life, and was very clear in showing how his being Polish was so important in shaping his ideas later. For example, his distrust of anything that seemed “leftist”—and that included the theology of liberation which became popular in the 1970s and 1980s—was linked to his being a priest and, later, a bishop in Poland having to fight a communist regime.
Francis comes from a different time, and place. He is Argentinean, which at least fulfills the hope of many Catholics for a pope that would come from outside Europe or the Old World. There have been European and African popes, the latter in the very early years of the Catholic Church, but never from the Americas or Asia, until now.
Will a “New World” pope make a difference? Perhaps, and maybe an Argentinean pope is a kind of transition. Argentina may be New World but it is one of the most Europeanized countries in Latin America. And again, as I mentioned at the beginning, the new Pope’s parents were Italian immigrants. Francis also studied in Germany and, as a Jesuit, would have been very much exposed to the world. He seems to be acceptable to the “old guard” in the Vatican, and was said to have been the “runner-up” to Benedict XVI during the last papal election in 2005.
All that said, the Pope’s Argentinean roots are still important. Like other Latin American countries, Argentina was born out of an intense and protracted struggle in the first part of the 19th century between the royalists, who wanted to remain part of the Spanish empire, and the patriots, who wanted independence.
Like most of Latin America, and the Philippines, Argentina is marked by gross economic and social inequities, brought about by centuries of feudalism and the rule of caudillos (authoritarian leaders). Argentina’s Juan Peron and his wife Evita are the most well-known of these leaders, and it is said that the Perons were role models for our Marcoses.
In the 1970s, the entire continent (and again, the Philippines) erupted in social unrest, with US-sponsored military dictatorships that were bloody and brutal. Argentina had its Dirty War—Guerra Sucia—from 1975 to 1978, of state-sponsored terrorism intended to block socialists from gaining political power. As in the Philippines, thousands were killed or “disappeared” during that turbulent decade.
The new Pope was born in 1936, which means he was a teenager when the Perons first came to power. He was the Jesuit Provincial in Argentina at the time of the Dirty War. I have not been able to find material on what he did during the 1970s, but the Argentinean bishops, under his leadership, issued an apology in 2012 acknowledging their failure to protect their flock during the Dirty War.
John Allen, one of the most respected “Vatican-watchers” and who writes for the National Catholic Reporter, included the then Cardinal Bergoglio in a series of articles about the papabili. One striking quote from a 2007 speech by the cardinal to a gathering of Latin American bishops: “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least… The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”
The use of the term “social sin” is significant, one which is associated with liberation theologians who wanted people to move away from the idea of sin as purely individual-focused transgressions—for example, missing Mass—to one that includes shirking social responsibilities.
Into the streets
It would have been possible for Cardinal Bergoglio to live his whole life in Argentina and still be insensitive to social realities, as we often see among our Filipino clergy. But the new Pope has been described as being very different from other cardinals, choosing to live in an apartment rather than an archbishop’s palace, riding the bus to work, cooking his own meals, and visiting urban slums.
I am sure there was a flurry of texting among Jesuits and Jesuit-school alumni (like myself) on having an “SJ” (Society of Jesus) pope. I can already imagine some fringe Catholics predicting the end of the world because Jesuits are generally seen as too liberal, but the new Pope is still conservative when it comes to Catholic doctrines. He is close to Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation), a lay Catholic group emphasizing spirituality and a return to fundamental doctrines. It has conservative positions on stem-cell research, end-of-life decisions, and same-sex marriage, and Francis was outspoken in his opposition to a proposed same-sex marriage law in Argentina.
On the other hand, he has also condemned the practice of some priests of refusing to baptize children from out of wedlock and has emphasized “mercy” (meaning more understanding ) in pastoral work. He has been quoted as warning against the Catholic Church being too “self-referential” and has urged priests to go out into the streets.
At this difficult juncture for the Catholic Church, labels like “conservative” and “liberal” will become less important than openness, and dialogue. The world will watch Pope Francis and see how he leads the Church into an era of humbled, and humble, strength.
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