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New World Pope

An Argentinian Jesuit in the Vatican.

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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But, then, the first comments from New York’s Cardinal Dolan and others suggest he may have been chosen pope precisely for his personal sanctity. There are certainly odd elements in his election. Why would the conclave choose a 76-year-old man to replace a pope retiring on the grounds of age? Why would they select someone whose hidden life has left him so little known to the world, despite his managing of a large South American diocese? Initial news reports made much of the fact that Bergoglio was, by all accounts, the second-leading candidate in the conclave that elected Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005—but, as papal biographer George Weigel has repeatedly explained, Bergoglio’s candidacy was not a serious one at the time. He was an apparent conservative briefly backed by liberal cardinals in an effort to split the vote coalescing behind Ratzinger.

Then, too, he is a Jesuit, the first Jesuit pope, in fact—a member of a society that frowns on high church offices for its priests. Of course, he is also something of an outlier in the Society of Jesus, not just in his having been a metropolitan archbishop but also in his theology. In the days of Bergoglio’s young priesthood, South America’s Jesuits were almost entirely persuaded by Communist-tinged liberation theology, and Bergoglio remains far more in the world of traditional and socially conservative ethics.

Finally, Bergoglio is from the Third World, the first non-European pope in 1,200 years. And yet, with his Italian heritage and study in Frankfurt, to say nothing of his role in the Synod of Bishops, he is something of a safe Third World choice. South America holds the largest collection of Catholics in the world, but the church is weaker there than it appears, and Pope Francis will help shore up South American Catholicism. Still, the church’s most dynamic presence at the moment is in Africa, while its largest growth is taking place in Asia, and a pope chosen from those continents might have had a greater immediate impact.

It would be wrong to say that Francis was elected to serve as an interim pope. He’s too active for that, too holy, too smart, and too involved. But he’s also much older than most observers predicted the new pope would be, and he represents, in a way, the limits of what the cardinals were willing to accept.

Think of it this way: The ghost of John Paul II still haunts the church, and the good and the bad elements of his papacy still influence the cardinals’ decisions. They wanted someone who has John Paul’s kind of symbolic value, who shines above the age. They also wanted someone to dig in as an administrator and address the massive problems in the curia that John Paul swept into the wings in the grand drama that was his papacy. 

That combination may not be possible for anyone. Certainly it was not the strength of the intellectual Benedict XVI, whose great legacy lies in his writing. Will it be the strength of Pope Francis? By choosing a non-European, by reaching out to the world and refusing to elevate someone from the Vatican bureaucracy—by being moved by personal sanctity, for that matter—the conclave went as far as it could in the line of John Paul II. 

But by seeking out a quiet bishop, known to them for his skillful and courageous handling of accusations against priests and his willingness both to work with and work against national governments, the conclave also went as far as it could in the line of Pius XII’s sheer Vatican competence. And in selecting a 76-year-old, they also hedged their bets, understanding that the new papacy will not last as long as John Paul II’s reign of 26 years. Bergoglio may not have been chosen as an interim pope, but it would not be wrong to describe his election as having been for a compromise pope—and such compromises rarely work out well.

Still, having been elected as a compromise does not mean Francis will reign as one. He has that core of the thing—not medieval, not modern, but ancient—and it will not be confined to any age’s apparent limits. This may well be a papacy full of surprises, particularly in the evangelizing Francis undertakes and the changes he makes in the curia.

But, then, little could be as surprising as the sudden appearance of this holy man on the world stage. Asked for a toast at dinner after his election, he is reported to have raised his glass to the cardinals and said, “I hope God forgives you all.” If he has the strength to go with his humility, Pope Francis could well prove to be what the church needs as it moves through the coming years.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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