As Pope Benedict XVI steps down, observers have criticized his tenure as lacking diplomatic focus. In fact, thanks to his efforts, the Holy See was able to establish full diplomatic relations with several new countries, including Russia, and improve its ties with many more, not least Saudi Arabia.
The Vatican is banking on Pope Francis to revive the Catholic Church in Latin America or, at the very least, help slow its decline. But those hopes are unfounded. Catholics in Latin America are leaving the church in record numbers because they find other religions more self-empowering, more modern, and less hierarchical. The fact of a Latin American pope won't change all that.
Keychains featuring newly-printed images of the newly-elected Pope Francis. (Alessandro Bianchi / Courtesy Reuters)
The selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a 76-year-old Argentinian cardinal, as the 266th pontiff of the Catholic Church demonstrates a dynamism and flexibility that critics generally do not associate with the church. It also showed that the church might be more unified than many realized: for an institution supposedly riven between the conservative Roman Curia, which runs the Vatican, and reformers throughout the rest of the church, the College of Cardinals coalesced around its new leader quite quickly. If his tenure is anything like his ascension to the papacy, Bergoglio will bring about a new season of renewal with an emphasis on Christian fundamentals such as charity, the word of God, and reconciliation with other faiths.
Pope Francis, as Bergoglio will now be called, defies easy categorization. Much has been made, of course, of his standing as the first pontiff from South America (indeed, the first non-European in 1,200 years). He is also the first Jesuit in papal history, which is, in some ways, an even more mind-blowing milestone. Founded in the sixteenth century as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits today comprise the church’s largest religious order with a reputation as its leading intellectual wellspring. The Jesuits run education institutions around the world and tend to shun positions of power in favor of missionary work. The group has even been somewhat controversial: in the 1970s and 1980s, Pope John Paul II, for example, harshly criticized some Jesuits for being too liberal and politically engaged.
So in both his geographic and spiritual identity, Francis is an outsider. He is a New World man with Old World ties (his parents were Italian immigrants). He is the son of a railroad worker who rose to become a Prince of the Church, as cardinals are known. He is a liberal who ardently advocates for the poor and condemns social inequality and also a conservative who maintains a hard line against abortion and same-sex marriage. If anything, the impossibility of pigeonholing Francis’ qualities will allow him to bridge old divides...