I’ll be honest. I didn’t like Pope Benedict XVI very much. He took few, if any, substantive actions to respond to and combat future sexual abuse cases within the Church, and his attempts at ecumenism were tepid at best and terrible at worst (just ask Muslims). He also endorsed the backward-thinking, narrow stances on many contemporary issues that the Church has taken for years. So when he stepped down I wondered: Will we see a Pope that is capable of modernizing the Church and interpreting Christ’s teachings in a way that takes into account the culture and times in which they were written?
I did not expect to see white smoke coming out of the chimney in the papal conclave yesterday but, nevertheless, it did. As a few coworkers and I huddled around a computer screen where one of us was streaming video of the announcement (speaking of modernism…), we learned that the new Pope’s name was Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, and was taking the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. Jorge was the definition of a dark horse, as election prediction guru Nate Silver only gave him a 4% chance to win, based on his survey of what betting markets were saying. Francis’s election makes history in a few ways. First of all, he is the first non-European Pope in history, something that many papal observers anticipated would happen given the Catholic Church’s decline in Europe and rise in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Francis is also the first Pope to be a member of the Jesuit order of priests. I was excited about this, because Jesuit priests have a reputation for being highly intelligent. Just look at the number of universities they run in the US, some of which are among the best in the country… Georgetown, Boston College, Holy Cross, Loyola Maryland… the list goes on. I also liked that Pope Francis asked for the people’s prayers on accepting the papacy today. It shows that he wants to be in touch with his flock, running counter to the insular elitism of many Church officials, including past Popes.
There are things to like about Pope Francis. Chief among them is his role as an advocate for the poor and marginalized during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In 2009, he spoke at a conference in Argentina, saying that “extreme poverty and unjust economic structures that cause great inequalities” are violations of human rights. During a public servant strike in the city, Francis observed the differences between “poor people who are persecuted for demanding work, and rich people who are applauded for fleeing from justice.” He also took his name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, showing that he wants to be known as an advocate for the poor the way St. Francis was. This furthers my hopes that Pope Francis really could be a Pope who reaches out to everyone in the flock and tries to understand their concerns about Church teaching.
However, several of Pope Francis’s past statements concern me. He still appears to subscribe to the aforementioned antiquated thinking that many in the Church still cling to. First off, he has said that adoption by same-sex couples is a form of discrimination against children, a stance that I can’t even begin to understand. Secondly, there’s this little nugget that he gave us when the Argentine government proposed allowing same-sex marriage:
“Let’s not be naïve, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
The “Father of Lies” he speaks of is the Devil. Yep, that’s right. He just said that two people of the same sex loving each other and raising a family is the work of the Devil. Another wow.
Lastly, Pope Francis also seems eager to continue the recent disturbing trend of denying Eucharist to individuals that disagree with Church teaching on certain hot-button issues. When did the Church become a place of exclusion? Jesus embraced sinners, he did not shun them. He acknowledged that all human beings were flawed and sought to counsel and help them, not push them away.
Pope Francis is also a total wild card on some issues. I have no real idea what he will do regarding the sexual abuse scandals or ecumenism, nor do I know what sorts of Church teaching he will endorse regarding birth control. Based on the above stances, however, I think he will be a staunch traditionalist on birth control, once again refusing to allow Catholic missionaries to distribute condoms in regions where they might save lives.
While there are some things to admire about the new Pope, what the Church needs right now is a transformative figure, one who can unite the faithful and move the Church forward in the way Pope John XXIII did in the early sixties. I am fairly convinced, based on examination of his record as Archbishop, that Jorge Bergoglio is not that figure.