On the evening of March 13, 2013, a narrow column of white smoke rose from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel, in Vatican City. The College of Cardinals had just chosen one of their own—a Jesuit from Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio—to become Pope Francis, the first Catholic leader to adopt the name of the patron saint of peace and of the poor.
There are hopes the first Latin American Pope, having adopted the name of Francis, will be a reformer who opens the church and who will seek to mobilize 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide to drive a transition to a period of greater fairness in economics and in politics. As the world’s population continues to expand toward 8 billion, socio-economic disparities are expanding on every continent.
Cardinal Bergoglio has often spoken of the need for leadership to combat poverty, but many in Latin America, including among the Jesuits, have criticized him for not being more supportive of the social justice movement known as Liberation Theology. He is seen by those who know him, according to recent reporting, as a humble and traditional man who brooks no hypocrisy.
As such, there is hope that though it seems to be in his character to speak softly, to be diplomatic and protective of church doctrine, he will also prove to be a moral leader unwilling to accept abuses, cover-ups or any failure to lead on questions of human rights and global justice. His position will be strained from both sides of the political center, as conservatives will want him to defend tradition and liberals will want him to soften hard edges of doctrine.
The papacy of Pope Francis I is certain to be at once a more global papacy, and one which will require serious self criticism. It was even before it began, as the eyes of the world turned to St. Peter’s Square and the intrigue of the Conclave; people from around the world told the press and pushed the idea on social media that the Pope has an obligation to be a moral leader and a defender of all people everywhere.
In some sense, the doctrine of the Universal Church does support and promote this view. It is, nevertheless, a tall order. Pope Francis will be expected to be more liberal than the last two Popes, even if he may not be inclined to be; he will be expected to institute important reforms, both to structure and to teaching; he will be expected to pressure world leaders for action on social justice, climate justice and gender justice.
It is possible the early weeks and months of Pope Francis’ tenure will reflect his reputed mild-mannered style: a quiet but deliberate beginning, involving a lot of careful listening. It also seems likely he will begin laying the groundwork for substantive structural reforms aimed at allaying concerns about transparency—if not actually going so far as to guarantee it.
Though Cardinal Bergoglio was 76 years old, and is considered one of the more conservative of prominent Jesuits in the Church, his background, his focus on the needs and rights of the poor, and his position as the first Pope from the “New World”, could give him the momentum needed to make needed reforms.
In the US and Europe, as well as in parts of Latin America, there has been a hunger for more progressive social policy advocacy from the Vatican, as well as expanded privileges for women and for gays, inside the Church hierarchy. This should not be expected to be a first priority of the new Pontiff, but such issues will be part of his relationship to Europe and the Americas.
The Vatican is in many ways a political anomaly, a private, non-profit entity, which has its own national territory and borders, its own security services, its own central bank, and whose citizens, though few, are all clerics and all celibate. Nevertheless, it represents or interacts with the cultural background or aspirations of a population of 1.2 billion people, some of whom reside in virtually every nation on Earth.
Roughly 75 million American citizens are Catholic, nearly one-quarter of the entire population. Only Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines have larger Catholic populations, in that order. This means the United States is immensely important to the Catholic Church and the policies of the Catholic Church have the potential to be truly influential in the landscape of American politics.
Watch for increasing discussion of Catholic Social Teaching, a need to expand the ranks of a democratically empowered, resilient middle class, and to combat poverty, conflict and degradation around the world. We should also expect increasing discussion of harmonies between stated Vatican principles of peace and the US administration’s long-term aim to rid the world of all nuclear weapons and to end violence against women.