Jorge Bergoglio had come in second behind Joe Ratzinger in 2005 at the conclave tasked with electing the next pope. Eight years later, Bergoglio himself was elected to the holy and powerful office. The American media, treading water as usual on the surface, proclaimed Pope Francis to be a reformer. After all, he was the first non-European to hold the office in more than a millennium. However, Francis is a reformer in a very narrow sense, and he is not as much of an outsider as one might suppose from the media reports. As with most matters in life, the truth is more nuanced.
I begin with the matter of the pope ostensibly being an outsider. Because Bergoglio had been born and raised in Argentina, his election quickly came to stand for or personify the increasing salience of Latin America in the contemporary Catholic Church. At the announcement habamus papam, Latino Catholics in the Vatican’s square and on a much larger scale in Argentina spontaneously rose in celebration. However, the assumption that Bergoglio is the first Latin American pope needs some qualification because his parents were Italian immigrants. Not surprisingly, he grew up speaking fluent Italian in addition to Spanish. Accordingly, he had no trouble giving the homily of his first papal Mass in Italian. Italian culture was doubtless a part of his upbringing as well. So it is not strictly true that a non-European was elected pope. More accurately, Pope Francis is a hybrid, or “third culture person,” consisting of Latin American and European elements.
Moreover, in having achieved the high office of cardinal, Pope Francis is not an outsider. His status as an outsider is relatively narrow, being that he has not worked in the Curia at the Vatican. However, even this respect could be moderated by the pope’s Italian upbringing. That is to say, he undoubtedly has the sense of being in the familia in virtue of his Italian roots. Italian cardinals and bishops in the Curia could thus expect to have some pull with him. I doubt this point was not lost on at least some of the Italian cardinals in the conclave. Of course, the fact that the pope appointed so many reformers to his advisory council on the Curia suggests that the term “reformer” applies to him in respect to dealing with the corruption in the Vatican, including its bank and senior officials. This does not mean that he is a reformer writ large—meaning in terms of doctrine, the hierarchy, and social issues.
Even though feminist groups dared to hope that the new pope might finally bring the Church into the twenty-first century on social issues, Bergoglio had been stanchly conservative on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, women in the Church, and even contraception. Therefore, it is very unlikely the new pope would make any changes along the lines sought in the developed West.
Indeed, a month after becoming pope, Francis reaffirmed his predecessor’s rebuke of the Leadership Conference of the Women Religious (LCWR). The umbrella group of American nuns had been accused of excessive feminism and too much attention to social justice and the poor at the expense of preventing abortions. The affirmation is particularly astonishing because Bergoglio had emphasized social justice and the poor as an archbishop in Argentina. That his reaffirmation of the previous pope’s rebuke pertains to a group that shares his own priorities on social justice and the poor suggests that his role as a reformer is narrow indeed. His reforms inside the Church are likely to be limited to reforming the Curia to get rid of its corruption and insularity. To be sure, that he had spoken out against unregulated markets and oppression could suggest that the pope might be a reformer in terms of human rights outside the Church. He might even urge governments to enhance financial regulation and fortify safety nets for the poor. Crucially for our purposes here, this would not make him a doctrinal or social-issue reformer in terms of Catholicism.
George Weigel, a traditionalist Catholic theologian, put the matter of the pope’s orientation very well. “He is a reformer, and making clear that the LCWR’s program in recent decades has been incompatible with Catholicism is part of the reform-by-purification that he is going to lead.” The term “purification” is key here, for it describes the traditionalist approach of the prior two popes wherein a traditionalist interpretation of doctrine (including on social issues) has been used to purge the marginal (i.e., moderate and liberal) Catholics on the way to restoring the true Church to the true believers. In a sense, the traditionalists had succeeded in using the “reform” label for their own purposes, but this does not mean that Pope Francis will open up the Church to women or married priests or relaxed positions on gay marriage, abortion and even contraception. Rather, a bishops’-led return to outward caring for the poor in place of insular infighting and corruption is the sort of “reform” that is perfectly consistent with the ecclesiastical traditionalism of the cardinals who elected the Italian-Argentinian cardinal.
For more, see Jaweed Kaleem’s article, “Pope Francis Gets Strong Ratings From U.S. Catholics in First Days,” in the Huffington Post on March 15, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/pope-francis-approval-us-catholics_n_2884494.html?utm_hp_ref=religion ; Cathy Grossman, “Pope Francis Keeps Tight Rein on U.S. Nuns,” USA Today, April 16, 2013; Laurie Goodstein, “Pope Upholds Reprimand of American Nuns’ Group,” in the New York Times on April 16, 2013