Francis: A Socially Conscious, Politically Passive Pope?

Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who kissed the feet of AIDS patients and whose trademark is humility and simplicity, could have an important social impact on the Church, even if his conservatism will disappoint the Catholic world’s liberals

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Considering the burden of hope and expectations that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio carries as the new elected pope, his choice of papal name is certainly interesting.

St. Francis of Assisi is known for his complete renouncement of material wealth and personal property, and his devotion to a life of simplicity, poverty and preaching of the gospel. The order he founded was sanctioned by the papacy and became one of the most prominent orders in Catholic history.

Yet St. Francis of Assisi is also known as a reformer, whose charismatic authority was to a certain extent anti-institutional. Perhaps for this reason, throughout history, no pope has ever taken up his name. Could this daring, even subversive, choice of name trigger the change that the Catholic Church is hoping for?

The conclave began last week in a pessimistic atmosphere. In addition to rumors and allegations of corruption and criminal behavior by church officials, the shock of Benedict's retirement weakened the Catholic spirit even further. Beyond the diverse internal issues burdening the Church, there is a general, and disturbing, feeling that it is lagging behind – certainly in the rapidly changing West, but also in developing countries.

Benedict is thought to have clearly expressed this feeling in his retirement speech, admitting that the world is moving too fast and he was unable to keep up with the pace. His resignation was a confession of personal incompetence, but many Catholics understood it also as reflecting the state of the Church as a whole.

Besides referring to his own specific papacy, Benedict’s retirement raised profound theological and existential questions regarding papal authority, Church-papal relations and the place of Catholicism in today's world in general. The Sede Vacante – the short interim between Benedict's resignation and Francis' election, was largely dedicated to Catholic self-examination and reflection.

However, with all due respect to self-reflection, the void had to be filled in time for Easter. Therefore, after a short conclave Pope Francis made his appearance on St Peter's balcony. All doubts seemed to fade into a cloud of hope, entirely focused on one figure. But does this man really bring winds of change?

Many commentators have already taken a pessimistic approach, claiming that Pope Francis will essentially be more of the same. Like his predecessor, he is a conservative pope who will stick to traditional doctrine on controversial issues such as abortion and sexuality. The liberals are bound for disappointment once again.

True – he is an Argentinean, the first non-European pope since Gregory III in the 8th century. However, he has European DNA, both metaphorically (because of his traditional opinions) and genealogically (his father was an Italian), so his South American origins do not necessarily imply a change in Catholicism's center of gravity.

Notwithstanding his emphasis on the poor, it seems that throughout his career Bergoglio was always careful not to associate himself or engage too deeply in issues that had tense political resonance.

He opposed liberation theology, a socially and politically critical Catholic movement that flourished in Latin America during the '70s and '80s, but was later crushed by Church officials. He seemed to have abstained from strongly and openly challenging the Junta's rule in Argentina, and he opposed the more liberal trends in his own Jesuit order, which tended to be more politically active.

The hopes for rejuvenating the Church under a younger pope seem to have also faded away. In view of his track record, it is hard to imagine Bergoglio taking up a revolutionary approach at the age of 76 (even though John XXIII conducted the revolutionary Second Vatican Council at the age of 77).

However, there are some narrative threads in Bergoglio's personal history that may hold hope for the change and renovation that the Catholic Church so desperately needs. The poor, developing world of South America was at the center of his career.

Conservative or not, Francis brings with him a completely different story, with different historical consciousness and cultural sensitivities. In contrast to Benedict, who will be mainly remembered for his theological contribution (and his unexpected resignation), Bergoglio, who kisses the feet of AIDS patients, and whose trademark is humility and simplicity, could have an important social impact on the Church. His emphasis on personal integrity and self-restraint directly addresses the Church's current crisis. Also, his focus on popular social issues could make the Church a more substantial player in the current global discourse on these issues.

By being the first pope to choose to be called Francis, Bergoglio is stating that he is aiming for a new beginning. Time will tell whether this gesture will fulfill itself, or remain in name only.

Karma Ben Johanan is a PhD candidate at the Tel Aviv University School of History. She is writing on reciprocal perceptions of Christians and Jews in contemporary theology. 

Pope Francis waving to the journalists attending his first public audience at the Vatican. Credit: AP

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