Published in The Huffington Post on March 14th, 2013
The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76 year old Argentine Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, as the leader of the Catholic world under the name of Francis should come as no surprise. Bergoglio was a finalist in the 2005 election that resulted in the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Benedict XVI.
At the time, the new pope received at least 40 of the 77 necessary votes in the last round of voting that decided between him and Ratzinger.
Nonetheless, initial reactions underline the historical significance of this appointment: Bergoglio is the first Latin American – or non-European – in the Catholic Church’s two thousand year history to be selected as pope. According to analysts, this appointment reflects less the relative weakening of Catholicism under the current wave of Modernism, skepticism and other characteristics of our times but rather the importance that the faithful masses in Latin American have gained within the Catholic World.
Indeed, 480 million Catholics live in Latin America, making up 39 percent of the entire of the population. However, only 17 percent of the cardinals who voted in the conclave are from the subcontinent.
In contrast, 52 percent of the voting cardinals are from Europe, where only 24 percent of the global Catholic flock live.
With this choice, the 115 cardinals dismantled theories claiming that the next pope would be an existing member of the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, such as Cardinal Angelo Scola or another representative of the Italian cardinals, who still makeup the most powerful block among the voters.
The election of the first Jesuit also has much historic significance, given that the order has not always been considered at the center of the events at the Vatican, and Wednesday’s events demonstrate recognition and considerable advancement for this entity.
With the ascendance of this new Latin American prelate (although he is the son of Italian parents), the question arises: what has been his positions over the years regarding the most important issues facing Latin Americans in their respective countries, especially in terms of the socio-economic and political confrontation which divided the population for decades between the left and right?
Bergoglio has been characterized as the voice of the Argentine conscience and champion of the poor. He is a man who prefers to take the bus instead of using the private vehicle that his ecclesiastic ranking affords him, and has up until now lived in a simple apartment instead of a mansion. Likewise, many emphasize his humble origins: born in Buenos Aires, he was one of five sons to an Italian immigrant railroad worker.
Nonetheless, these praises are not unanimous. Shortly before the vote that ended his candidacy in 2005, the now-pope was accused of the one of the worst crimes of our times by human rights lawyers: conspiring along with the military dictatorship that took power in 1976 and triggered the so called “Dirty War” during which up to 30,000 opponents— including Jesuits and militants from the worker class movement–were kidnapped and disappeared.
These accusations were never cleared up in a trial. Evidence against Bergoglio was not presented and he continued to vehemently declare his innocence. Given the timing of these allegations, it is believed that it was merely a campaign to discredit Bergoglio’s run for the papacy.
Bergoglio accepted the position as archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, and served as a critical voice during the political and economic crisis in Argentina from 2000 to 2002, calling for mediation, moderation, and consideration for the needs of different sectors in the Argentine society. Criticizing the government using forceful language, he supported the cause of the voiceless poor and left little doubt of his commitment to this group.
However, he criticized the decision of President Nestor Kirchner in 2004 to bring to trial members of the military dictatorship of the past, affirming that the government was engaging in “exhibitionism.” He had also in the past said Kirchner’s government policies were “immoral, unjust and illegitimate.”
At the time Pope Francis I added:
“There are approximately 150,000 million Argentine dollars abroad, without taking into account those that are outside the financial system, and the media tells us that they continue to leave Argentina, approximately, another 2,000 million dollars more every month… What can be done so that these resources are put in the service of the country, in order to pay off the social debt and generate conditions necessary for essential development?”
Ideologically, Bergoglio is considered close to the Comunione e Liberazione movement, lead by father Luigi Giussani. The group was founded in 1954 with the goal of combating Marxist ideals among the Italian youth, but with time evolved and focused more on works of charity and social assistance.
Finally, the new pope brings a set of mixed beliefs, in which his concern for the underprivileged does not stop him from being conservative in questions concerning “morality and family.” He is opposed to abortion, contraception and gay marriage, but strongly supports help for HIV victims and baptism for illegitimate children.