Well, we have a pope. After almost two weeks of speculation, prediction, even handicapping, the first non-European pope in over a thousand years, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, stepped out on the Vatican loggia at 8:22 Central European Time today to be introduced to the world.
In some respects, the election of Cardinal Bergoglio is a very promising sign. As an archbishop from the most populous Catholic continent on Earth, Latin America, the new Pope Francis I symbolizes a shift that has been a very long time coming, from Eurocentrism to the Church of the Global South. Not to mention his reputation as an advocate for the poor, emphasizing the Christian Gospel of love, washing the feet of AIDS victims, and more.
The new pope’s legacy will stand him in good stead as well, since his parents were Italians, and he speaks Italian fluently—not a bad thing for a pope—even as he has never served in the Vatican curia, the focus of much criticism and concern in recent months. He is also the first Jesuit pope in history. Being a member of the largest religious order in the Church certainly can’t hurt.
For a Church that isn’t exactly known for headlong change, this may well the best we Catholics could have hoped for. But let’s be clear: Pope Francis is a conservative—as anyone elected by this conclave would have been. From the beginning of his career, he has opposed liberation theology, the Latin American-rooted progressive theology that has inspired many liberal Catholics, myself included, since the 1960s. And he is opposed to homosexuality.
Most people have already heard more than they need to about the problems the new pope will face: the sex abuse scandal, corruption at the Vatican Bank and throughout the Vatican administration, secularism in the West, reaching out to the burgeoning Church in the Global South. Good luck to him on all counts, I say.
For me, though, the kicker, the “line in the sand,” as Archbishop Timothy Dolan would put it: the most important problem facing Pope Bergoglio is the Church’s benighted attitude toward and treatment of women. This could be perceived as the opinion of a privileged North American woman who cares more about gender than about the poor to whom this new pope is dedicated. But let’s be clear: half of the world’s poor are women, and the Church’s effort to deprive the Catholic women among them of contraceptives, of the use of condoms that could protect them from HIV-AIDS, and of the ministry of women priests who would marry, absolve, and anoint them, is no service to them.
Even as President Ronald Reagan challenged Michael Gorbachev to tear down the wall between East and West, the much-loved Pope John Paul II put every effort into freeing the Catholics of Eastern Europe from religious and political oppression. The new supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis I, has the opportunity to end another form of oppression, the second-class status of women in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, bring down this wall!