By Mark McConaghy
Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been elected as pope and has taken the name Francis 1. As a follow up to my wishlist for the papal appointment written last week, I have been encouraged by our readers to provide my thoughts on his election.
As the first pope from Latin America, Francis 1 will of course be an important symbol of regional pride in the global south, where Catholicism remains much stronger then largely secularized Western Europe. As a priest from Latin America, one hopes Francis will have a sensitivity to issues of poverty in the developing world that the removed, European theologian-academic Benedict never managed to display forcefully.
Yet let’s not kid ourselves. Bergoglio is a conservative on issues of gay marriage, abortion, birth control, and LGBT rights, so there is a limit on how much social change we can expect from the institution under his watch. Early reports have praised the new pope for his modest lifestyle and sympathy for the poor. Yet we must wait to see whether he takes an uncompromising position on the ravages of unregulated capitalism, which is the only way the church can truly address the root cause, rather than symptomatic expressions, of poverty globally.
Furthermore, there is the question of of his relation to Argentina’s military dictatorships of the late 70s and early 80s, and these issues need to be carefully scrutinized. As leader of an institution that purports to provide moral exculpation from sin, nothing but a sterling record in opposition to authoritarianism will be acceptable.
So, all in all, this is a conservative pope whose political and economic inclinations are still in question. We can only hope that he chooses to lead the church towards a path of social justice, respect for all (including women and gays), and politically engaged struggle against the economic inequality found in the world today.
These are issues that are so fundamental to a progressive politics of the future that no institution, secular or religious, can avoid them without losing ethical credibility in the eyes of progressive people around the world.
The Catholic Church is no exception.
It’s time that it, and its new leader, got to work.
Finally, I would like to note how wonderfully poignant the above picture is. Taken right after his election, with hundreds of millions of people watching him with great fervency, most of them waiting for some sign of his holiness and leadership, this is the public face he decided to present. He looks shy, quiet, a little overwhelmed. Obviously he is still processing the fact that he has gone, in the span of one bureaucratic vote, from relative obscurity to one of the most important leaders in the world, with a global platform for his ideas few public leaders ever receive. He quite rightly looks a little startled at it all.
What must he have thought when he left that balcony last night? When he closed his eyes late at night and reflected on where his life had taken him, realizing that he was now head of the world’s largest transnational organization, what did he sense? Fear, trepidation, pride?
If one had a microphone thrust in front of you, with billions of people watching around the world, what would you say? What would be your message?
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he is actively thinking of ways to integrate his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.