It’s Hard To Simply Dismiss The “Simple” New Pope

World, say hello to Pope Francis. After Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in February, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have been waiting to hear who the Cardinals would chose as the next Bishop of Rome. While speculation pointed to Angelo Scola of Milan and Odilo Scherer of São Paulo as frontrunners, after only two days and five votes Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope.

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Quo nomine vis vocari?

After accepting his election, the new pope took the name Francis. Unlike John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the new pontiff’s name will carry no numerals; He will be the first Pope Francis in the nearly 2000-year history of the Church. His choice to invoke the name of St. Francis of Asissi has been called “stunning” and “precedent shattering.” Though St. Francis was modest in his own life, his legacy is anything but. Often associated with nature, St. Francis was committed to poverty and worked to rebuild the Catholic church. In many ways Pope Francis has lived up to his new namesake. He refused a room in the archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires in favor of living in his own downtown apartment and took public transportation to work rather than the limousine that was available to him. After his appointment to cardinalship in 2001, he discouraged Argentinians from travelling to Rome for his celebration and instead asked them to donate the money from plane tickets to the poor.

However, his name pays homage to more than one man. St. Francis Xavier was a follower of Ignatius of Loyola and one of the seven original Jesuits. Pope Francis himself is a Jesuit, the first of the order to be elected to the Holy See. Though Jesuits are typically discouraged from taking positions of power in the church, the pontiff was named Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and became Archbishop on 1998.

Power isn’t the only way in which Pope Francis differs from many Jesuits; his order has been instrumental in spreading liberation theology – a controversial belief that one’s faith is best expressed through political and social support for the poor and oppressed – in Latin America, yet even during times when many priests were making progressive moves Bergoglio “insisted on a more traditional reading of Ignatian spirituality.” His actions during the murderous 1976 -1983 Argentine Junta are inscrutable at best and have been called cowardly by his detractors. When Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics – two Jesuit priests who practiced liberation theology and were working in slums – were kidnapped and tortured, Bergoglio was accused of handing them over to the dictatorship by refusing to publicly support their work. Through a series of quiet moves, he managed to free both men and has told his biographer that he “regularly hid people on church property during the dictatorship, and once gave his identity papers to a man with similar features, enabling him to escape across the border.”

Fratelli e sorelle, buona sera

In his first address as pope, the pontiff told the crowd at St. Peter’s Basilica that “It seems that my brother Cardinals have come almost to the ends of the Earth to get him.”  From the perspective of the Vatican, Argentina might as well be the end of the World. Pope Francis is the first non-European pope since Pope Gregory III, a Syrian who served from 731-741. The son of an Italian immigrant and railway worker, Bergoglio is known as a reserved but compassionate man with a talent for evangelism. Though media-shy, he doesn’t struggle to communicate his orthodox; he simply prefers the pulpit to the TV. In 2010, one month before Argentina legalized gay marriage and full adoption rights, the then-Archbiship sent out a missive to monasteries telling them that adoption by gay people is “discrimination against children” and that they were being lied to by the government and other groups pushing for equality. “Let’s not be naive,” he said, “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.” He’s also expressed views on abortion and contraception that fall in line with traditional Catholic teachings.

Though his name suggests that big changes are in store for the Church, Pope Francis’s history suggests that he’s far from progressive. True, he’s visited an HIV/AIDS hospice to wash and kiss the feet of 12 AIDS patients and has condemned the practice of refusing baptism for children born out of wedlock as “rigorous and hypocritical neo-clericalism.” But these actions, along with those during Argentina’s Dirty War point to what the National Catholic Register aptly calls a penchant for “growth in personal holiness over efforts for structural reform.” While his compassion is admirable, it leaves room to wonder what impact his legacy will have. No amount of modesty will change the fact that this man is now responsible for an institution of enormous power. It may not be the change we would ask for, but we can at least hope that for LGBT Catholics of LGBT people with Catholic families and communities, a Pope who preaches quiet love might make a little room for those close to them to find their own truth.

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 325 articles for us.

22 Comments

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    He also apparently thinks that women are naturally unsuited for political office, that we can “help man, the thinker and doer,” but nothing more than that–at least according to a quote attributed to him that I saw on Facebook…
    His statements about gay people are nothing surprising, and it’ll be nice to have a Pope really committed to fighting poverty, as it seems he might be. But is it so much to ask for a Pope who doesn’t think women are naturally inferior to men and doesn’t collaborate with dictatorships?

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    Quick lesson in theology y’all. Issues like the gays, birth control, etc are issues of moral doctrine in the catholic church. no pope is going to change the church’s views on such matters. it’s not the role of the pope. They don’t change the doctrine, but rather how we teach them. So, the fact he is compassionate towards AIDS patients is likely to teach more compassion. He also strongly believes in the catechism that teaches that gays/lesbians are to be treated with the utmost respect and pastoral understanding. This is a step up from B16(who needed CCD lessons I swear to you) but does NOT mean a change in Catholic stances.

    Also: Pope Francis has distanced himself greatly from liberation theology. Which is way more telling about how he’ll lead his flock

    Can we also acknowledge that LGBT and Catholic are not mutually exclusive? This doesn’t just affect “LGBT individuals with Catholic families and communities” but how about LGBT Catholics

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      hi frances, i’m not sure how you got the idea that i think the pope can change moral doctrine or that i think he’s a change in catholic stances.

      and of course lgbt and catholic aren’t mutually exclusive. you’re right, it’s more than just lgbt people with catholic families. i’m going to change that because you’ve got a definite point.

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      The church’s current positions on gay issues, birth control and the like are not universally held, by Catholic laity, theologians or clergy, and the Pope’s personal views on these issues effect who gets appointed to important positions in the church as well as to what extent heterodox theologians are silenced. This effects the theological consensus, which eventually in turn effects church doctrine.

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      Re: women being inferior to men, I know that Catholic doctrine says women can’t be priests, and I’m not at all surprised that this Pope isn’t going to change that–just like his position on gay marriage. But is it really Catholic doctrine that women aren’t fit for political office? That quote I mentioned earlier was apparently in reference to Christina Kirchner’s election as president of Argentina. I’m no Catholic theologian, or even a Catholic, but it seems to me like you could hold that women shouldn’t be priests without also believing that women are intellectually inferior to men and aren’t fit to hold public office…

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        I’m not Catholic either, but I think that since the “head and helper” verses of the Bible are not specific as to when they apply, some have interpreted them to mean only men are qualified to be the head of the church and/or household and/or other institution.

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    I’m from Argentina and everybody here is really exited about the new pope even the atheist, from one side people are happy because he’s representing our country, and on the other side, the opposition of Christina Kirchner is happy because the pope is against her and with the media attention that it will bring to the country and government, she will have to be on her best behavior.

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    As a recovering Catholic who endured and subsequently repressed years of Catholic school, I’ve been interested in the election of the new pope in spite of myself. Laura, this is a great, succinct article, and your discussion of Francis’ role in the Dirty War is especially good. Thanks for the info!

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    Another sexist, homophobic, anti-contraception/choice old white guy with a “talent” for attacking and destroying other faiths? 266th verse, same as the first. Actually, it really is pretty simple for me to dismiss him.

    And somewhat related: I’ve been really irritated with a lot of the media coverage of this new Pope. Articles and blog posts keep saying “We have a new Pope!” *You* may have a new Pope. *I* have no such thing.

    So thanks for not doing that.

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    As a Catholic, argentinian, gay woman im a just too overwhelmed right now.
    I think is great that he is making history, and he is done so much good for the country, but his words against gay people where very hurtful during the debate on same sex marriege in here.
    But i have to admit that i im full of hope :/

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    Views on women:
    “Women are naturally inept at holding political positions. The natural order and the facts show us that man is the being for politics by excellence; the Scriptures show us that the woman is always the support of the thoughtful man and and doer, but nothing more than that”.

    Views on gay marriage:
    “Let’s not be naive, 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.”

    Accused on supporting the Argentinian dictatorship (1976-1983) including silence over the Plaza de Mayo stolen children and handing political prisioners to the government.

    And, of course, against abortion and contraception.

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    This is a great article Laura – Thank you! Thoughtful, balanced, non-hostile. There are times I feel like an outsider for bring gay and Catholic here on Autotraddle. I still partially adhere to the Church’s teachings on sexuality — ie that it’s sacred and best saved for special relationships — and spend a lot of time here feeling like an archaic prude. But then I skip over to Gay Christian Network and it’s mostly men in the Catholic forum, and I once again don’t feel understood.

    Long-winded and irrelevant to the article! Sorry, back to the artcle:

    Though I’m disappointed by his public distancing from liberation theology, I feel a sense of optimism about this Pope that I did not feel about Benedict. No, he’s not going to embrace gay marriage or women’s ordination; what I do think and hope is that he is going to have a more fervent devotion to the issues of the poor and the marginalized, and, coming from outside the Roman Curia, have the credibility to perhaps reform it.

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      These are mostly my thoughts about Francis too. He seems…interesting. I don’t think anyone can say what he will do at this point, but there are some promising signs. And if his papacy is directed towards the poor, and his public gestures to others acknowledge difference in belief and are kind and respectful, that is huge progress. Imagine my surprise when Benedict used the Christmas Mass to attack gay marriage. It was unnecessary and divisive and I don’t think, despite what went on in Argentina in 2010, that Francis will do something similar. I think if nothing else the church has realized through Benedict (and U.S. bishops who shilled for the GOP in the last election) the extent to which such attitudes and attacks (even on their own nuns) were alienating members.

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    thank you so much for this balanced take on pope francis. i know it can be hard to register anything except the hurt of his repugnant views on lgbtq/women’s issues, but as a queer woman who also has a deep love for catholic and especially ignatian (jesuit) spirituality, as well as for st. francis of assisi, i am moved by the new pope’s compassionate and gentle demeanor and lifestyle. change in the catholic church around its deeply entrenched misogyny and heterosexism will come from the ground up, not from the hierarchy, but i do hope and even pray that there is room for him to be moved on this– who knows?

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    Thanks for this run down on the election and the new pope’s background, Laura. I don’t know much about Catholicism but my guess is that the pope is more of a figurehead than someone who makes dramatic changes in the doctrines of the church itself. And I suppose that the church is so steeped in doctrine anyways that real change is very difficult to take on by anybody. Nevertheless it does seem like an interesting choice in some ways, let’s see how things develop from here.

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    So much of my family is Argentinian, and when I found out the new pope was, too, I got really excited. Argentina is, in my opinion and that of my family, really progressive, even more so than the US in most aspects. I do respect a lot of his practices. I think in that regard, he’s better than a lot of Popes.
    And let’s be honest here, no one was as glad that Benedict left than me. What a monster. And at least Cardinal Francis Arinze wasn’t chosen. That guy is an absolute horror that should not be allowed to make any decisions ever. Nothing says “Love your neighbor” more than supporting the Kill the Gays laws. I actually read a few Nigerian articles in which Nigerians stated they hoped he would be chosen so that he would protect Africa from the homosexuals. What a winner that man is.
    All of that being said, I get that Pope Francis is an old little man (and a cute one, at that), but he does need to spread his love around from just good Christian poor people to everyone else, too.
    Feelings.

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