Much like a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, the Catholic Pope is appointed to his office for life. But where members of America’s highest court often resign in old age, such behavior is all but unknown at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world when he announced his retirement less than a decade into office, the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years. His successor, Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, now reigns as Pope Francis — the Argentine "Pope of the Americas."
There now exists a rare and fleeting opportunity to reform the Catholic Church for the modern world, given the repeated scandals that rocked Benedict’s tenure. Alas, it’s an opportunity Francis will likely dismiss.
Like Benedict’s resignation, Francis himself is an oddity in almost every way. The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, he studied technical chemistry at university before turning to faith. Having joined the Society of Jesus in 1958, Francis is the first Jesuit pontiff, a member of an all-male religious order dedicated to hard work and humility. A series of health problems in his youth resulted in the loss of his right lung, though the Vatican doesn’t expect this will impede his work. And, of course, he represents the first non-European pope in a millennium, and the first Latin American pope in history.
It’s an impressive and unorthodox résumé, something the electing cardinals must have recognized. Once the stronghold of Christendom, the West has turned secular these past decades while Catholicism surges across the global south. As the political saying goes, demographics are destiny. The Vatican has yielded its Eurocentric foundations to ensure its future, delighting the Latin world.
Even so, it could have gone farther; Francis may be the first Latin American pontiff, but he can’t fairly be called the first Hispanic. The papacy has again passed to an Italian, albeit one born across the Atlantic.
More interesting is his theology, given the pomp and circumstance of the papal court in Rome. Jesuits adhere much more strictly to the example set by Jesus and his disciples, Francis himself more than most. He abandoned the archbishop’s palace for a simple apartment, cooking his own meals, and riding public transit. Even his papal name, Francis, is a return to simpler, nobler times; Saint Francis of Assisi gave up an easy life of wealth for impoverished service to God. How that legacy will be reconciled with the Vatican’s excessive opulence is unclear.
But all that matters little next to the doctrinal opinions that will guide the Church through the new pope’s reign. There Francis is no different from his predecessors, deeply conservative despite having some more liberal modern attitudes. Like John Paul II, he’s focused significant effort on strengthening interfaith ties, particularly with Jews and Muslims.
And like Benedict, he is unlikely to repudiate the Church’s sadly outdated moral code. As Cardinal Bergoglio, he described the pro-choice movement as "a culture of death." And he battled publicly with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner before the country legalized same-sex marriage and adoption. The new pope characterized the fight for same-sex marriage as one headed by Satan ("the father of lies"), designed to destroy the very fabric of moral society. On gay adoption, he compared the raising of children by same-sex couples to discrimination bordering on child abuse.
Nonetheless, he was among the first (and sternest) to condemn the Vatican’s pitiful response to real child abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. He’s also railed against social and income inequality, charging that tolerating those problems is a violation of human rights, as well as the failure to stem the global AIDS crisis. There, at least, there is hope. Not many would call for "a poor Church, and for the poor."
With Francis, the Catholic Church has finally made the difficult choice of choosing one of two destinies. His election over another European or reform-minded American suggests a certain recognition of faith’s failing power in the West. It’s a wise choice to bolster Catholic power in the face of secular tides, but a sad miscalculation for the longer game.
A Church focused on social inequality, hard work, and humility could have won converts in an age dominated by recession, social welfare, and rampant materialism. It’s a shame, then, that most will turn aside when he first turns his bully pulpit toward what free men and women do in the privacy of their bedrooms. Habemus papam, indeed. We have a pope, but we could have had so much more.