Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Pope Francis: A Cautious Break With Tradition

by Isobel Coleman
March 14, 2013

Newly elected Pope Francis appears on a large screen as he leads a mass in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican on March 14, 2013 (Alessandro Bianchi/Courtesy Reuters). Newly elected Pope Francis appears on a large screen as he leads a mass in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican on March 14, 2013 (Alessandro Bianchi/Courtesy Reuters).


Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio wasn’t quite the bold choice many were hoping for in a new pope. Personally, I was rooting for a younger, more out-of-the-box possibility like Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. At 76, Pope Francis is on the older side and faces not only a demanding role as global leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, but also the myriad challenges of a secretive institution that has not fully confronted the depth of its scandals. At a minimum, he will need the blessing of stamina.

Let’s face it: a visionary reformer was never likely to emerge from the conclave. After all, the majority of voting cardinals (and realistic candidates) was put in place by the conservative Pope Benedict–a reward for toeing the party line. Needless to say, Cardinal Bergoglio’s conservative credentials are more than intact: stridently anti-abortion, he has gone head to head with Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, over gay marriage and the free distribution of birth control.

Indeed, on many substantive issues, he seems cut from the same cloth as his conservative predecessor: ordaining women? No way. Liberation theology? A scourge. Moreover, Bergoglio has faced swirling allegations of condoning, if not complicity with, Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship that in the 1970s “disappeared” some 30,000 opponents, allegations he has vigorously denied but that still dog him. Some Argentinians continue to complain that he did not speak out forcefully enough against the violence and tyranny of the military regime and that when he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998) and then cardinal (2001), he did not do enough to examine the church’s role in the conflict. In several interviews over the years, he has defended his behavior, citing his efforts to help protect various people at risk. Given that he supposedly came in second to Cardinal Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave, the Vatican has had ample time to consider, and dismiss, these criticisms.

Despite being another conservative septuagenarian, Cardinal Bergoglio is in some ways an exciting choice for the papacy. The first person from the Americas to gain the post, Bergoglio’s selection in part reflects the fact that the majority of Catholics now hail from the global south. Central and South America are home to some 40 percent of the world’s Catholics, and from Mexico to Chile there is tremendous enthusiasm and hope that Pope Francis represents an opportunity for that part of the world to exert more influence in Rome. “It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world [to pick me],” Bergoglio noted wryly after being chosen.

Perhaps most importantly, Bergoglio is also the first Jesuit to become pope. Founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus is a Catholic order associated for centuries with intellectualism, education and the founding of schools (think Georgetown), ministry to the sick and poor, and an emphasis on social justice. Following a religious epiphany, St. Ignatius vowed to renounce his comfortable existence and dedicate himself to a life of good works modeled after the 12th-century spiritual leader St. Francis of Assisi, among others. Cardinal Bergoglio is the first to choose Francis as his papal name, and by all accounts, he strives to lead a humble life. Much has been made of the fact that he sold the archbishop’s elegant residence in Buenos Aires, opting instead to live in a small apartment and take the bus to work. He seems to walk the talk of humility.

Whether Pope Francis is up to the daunting challenges confronting the Catholic Church today remains to be seen. The scandals have shaken the faith of many, but the fact remains that around the world, the Catholic Church plays a vital on-the-ground role in places where few others are willing to serve. Many Catholic nuns, priests, and other affiliates are not only faith leaders, but also aid workers on the front lines of some of the harshest conditions, making deep sacrifices to serve the poorest of the poor. Pope Francis is long known for speaking out on behalf of those who have least. At a time of growing inequality, he has an important role to play.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Rashmee Roshan Lall

    Whoever the cardinals chose as Pope, from whichever continent, we could only ever say one thing with certainty: it would be a man. There’s the rub.

    How much more out of date can the Catholic Church be?

    As someone told me: “They’re not yet ready for pink smoke”.

    If only there had been the late Cardinal Carlo Martini, the former archbishop of Milan. In an interview released after his death, the Cardinal said that the Catholic church was 200 years behind the times. Had there ever been a Martini papacy, it would have been radical and progressive. Fourteen years ago, at a bishops gathering, Martini had attacked the church’s conservatism, urging a rethink of the role of women, marriage and divorce.

    If only.

    Then again, the church isn’t regressive on everything. It has historically stood with those who suffer.When John Paul II came to Haiti, he spoke out against the conditions under the Duvaliers and arguably triggered the massive movement that dislodged a dictatorship. In South Africa, Catholic bishops were among the Christian clerics who spoke out against apartheid. In Salvador, the Catholic archbishop spoke out against state torture. His bravery cost him his life. The church continues to work with the poor, the damned, disinherited and dispossessed.

    On most issues, the church stands with the little man. But not with the little woman. On issues of gender and sexuality it is hopelessly out of date.

  • Posted by Imran Riffat

    The Roman Catholic flock is not alone in being behind times; in recent years it has come under severe criticism for its shortcomings in failing to be in step with a changing world. The College of Cardinals may have erred by not electing a younger and more liberal person to be the new pope but a majority of those who were eligible to vote were hand-picked by outgoing Pope Benedict who is known to be an ultra right conservative.

    Change, especially in institutions that have been around for centuries, comes slowly. The fact that the new head of the Church is from another continent is in itself a gutsy departure from tradition. One must not overlook the freedom Roman Catholics enjoy in expressing a dissenting opinion and putting pressure on the Church to reform. A silent, and quite commendably, violence-free revolt is already in the works; it is bound to gain momentum. Without disagreeing on the need for more change I look at it as a glass that is half full.

  • Posted by F.R. Duplantier

    You want change? Change yourself. The Church is constant.

  • Posted by Mary

    Should I be surprised by CFR publishing a piece highlighting the absence of female ordination? No. However I am surprised that people (Catholics and nonCatholics alike) continue to think that because women in t he Church aren’t ordained they are at a disadvantage. That may have been true at some point but the 20th century saw the emergence of strong female leaders in the Church such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Faustina of Poland, Gianna Beretta Molla of Italy who was strong and vibrant, Edith Stein whose philosophical insights are as powerful as any male intellectual. Throughout history there are even more women who the church reveres and are examples of strength, independence, compassion, loyalty and faith. Joan of Arc led an army, Catherine of Siena was a trusted advisor to the vatican, maria goretti and other teenage saints refused to marry or sleep with men even when their lives were the cost and let us not forget St. Clare who fought to follow St. Francis in a monastic missionary life. Just because women aren’t ordained doesn’t mean we don’t lead the church in administration, outreach, education, etc.
    If people truly are accepting of others’ faith then they should accept that the Church’s teachings are its foundation and there are many faiths with different teachings and foundations – God’s gift of free will is so beautiful – we are able to believe various things and go to different churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, etc. and God still loves each and everyone of us – regardless of our faults. As Catholics we believe that God is our father in heaven and so the Church’s doors are always open to anyone of any faith and as Christ’s representative on earth, Pope Francis has and will continue to greet with open arms men women and children of all backgrounds.

  • Posted by Penrose

    It is, of course, inconceivable to assume that the Catholic Church should turn around and embrace doctrines, practices and other modern belief-systems of the types favored by all the Churches that have evolved out of the protest movements of the 16th Century Reformation. At center stage of the various calls for changes within Catholicism is the basic question: Should the Catholic Church now make an about-face and become a protestant church? A conclusion in the affirmative would appear to be a very doubtful proposition, isn’t it?

  • Posted by Hari Garhwal

    As an avid student of global leadership and change management, I am closely following transformational efforts of the revered Pope Francis. Yes, institutions shaped over thousands of years of slow evolution do not change overnight. And mindless change for change’s sake without carefully thinking through what replaces it leads to instability, vacuum, chaos, without enduring gain. We have witnessed that on the global scene recently. But so far I am impressed and deeply touched by his approach to change management: by walking the talk, leading by example, by powerful symbolic gestures he has made. We wish him success as it is a daunting task to reshape an institution with 1.2 billion followers across diverse countries and cultures. Pope Francis’ change management efforts and approach could be a great case study for corporate CEOs.

  • Posted by Eileen M.

    All of the “reforms” since Vatican II times have led to declines in priests, nuns, and church attendance. The Protestant churches that have embraced the feminist & gay agendas, and have acquiesced to ideas that make enemies of Christ happy, have been devastated by following such actions. To any Christians reading this, if you find yourself in collaboration with enemies of Christ, anti-Christian bigots, atheists, etc. then maybe it’s time you considered that your positions are detrimental? thanks

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