What is there to say about the election of Francis I? If nothing else, it reflects the bridge between the priorities the church has and the priorities the punditocracy would like it to have. This was supposed to be the time that pundits got to write the once-in-a-lifetime column like “The First African Pope.” (Never mind that there had probably been three before.) In this way, the Roman Catholic Church is like American evangelical congregations: When the Southern Baptist Convention meets, the punditocracy only reports on resolutions concerning abortion or gay marriage, while the main topics of discussion center on subjects like Neo-Calvinism. But, since it is what pundits do, I’ll try to highlight a few things about the new pope that might be significant. The most important thing to know about Francis I is that he is the first pope not only to sympathize with the developing world, but to align himself with it.
For millennials, the election of the new pope probably will not be particularly significant. There might be a few who will lament that his views on social policy do not align with the board members of other large charities, such as the Gates Foundation. And there will probably be others who will keep raising completely unfounded claims that the new pope collaborated with a past dictatorship that they didn’t even know existed until the media started poking around. (I’d equate these views with those of the journalists who were shocked, shocked! to learn that when Hitler was in power, Pope Benedict XVI was guilty of being German.)
In reality, hardly any pope ever comes into office “bent on reform”. There are some exceptions to the rule. When Pope Leo XIII came to the Throne of St. Peter, the church needed a little tuning up. Championing the Divine Right of Kings in the 20th Century wouldn’t do. But, mostly, the church is meant to be unchanging. And it should probably be suspicious of change also. The church condemned infanticide and slavery before doing so was cool. Given that fashionable opinion was dead set against both positions at the time, it is not surprising that the church should roll its eyes a bit when the enlightened try to advise it on getting in line with the times.
That being said, there is at least one way that Francis I appears to be different. He is a clear champion of the underdog. This is not to say that Argentina is a Third World country. Far from it. But it is an underdog, particularly in its engagement with the United States and the United Kingdom. To the extent that he has dwelled on relations between the First and Third World, Francis appears to fall squarely on the side of the developing countries.
Admittedly, there is not a lot to go on and it might not be an important issue during his papacy. Nonetheless, that does not change the fact that during a memorial ceremony for Argentine soldiers who died during the Falkland Island War, the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires made the divinely uninspired claim that the British defense of the Falkland Islands was a “usurpation” and that the Argentine soldiers who died “went out to defend their mother, their homeland, to reclaim what was theirs”. Perhaps the mothers the Argentine soldiers were defending were the three that voted to divest the islands from British rule this month. In opposition to the ballots of those three (whoever they were) were 1,500 ballots of Falkland Islanders who seemed pretty content being loyal subjects of Her Majesty the Queen.
This claim of Francis I might not reflect his actual views. It might be more a display of patriotism than anything else. But it is still more of a pander to autocracy. The Falkland Islands have always been the main scapegoat of Argentine autocrats attempting to distract the public from domestic troubles at home which have ranged from economic upheaval to human rights abuse. These autocrats ranged from Jorge Anaya on the Right to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on the Left.
If Francis I’s papacy is one which serves to legitimize the bombast of autocrats like the next Anaya or Kirchner, Castro or Correa by endorsing the view that they are not failures, just victims, then he will be doing a great disservice, to the people whom the autocrats claim to champion, if no one else.