Pope Francis – global centrist
March 17th, 2013
08:02 PM ET

Pope Francis – global centrist

By Stephen Selka, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Stephen Selka is assistant professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at Indiana University. The views expressed are his own.

That one of the biggest hopes for the new pope’s tenure is that things will change goes without saying. No one needs to be reminded of all of the challenges that the Roman Catholic Church is facing, including declining membership and the mishandling of sex abuse scandals. At the same time, the church has maintained a conservative stance on Church doctrine for decades, and that is not likely to change anytime soon under Pope Francis.

For many, especially the approximately 40 percent of Roman Catholics who live in Latin America, what is most obviously appealing about the new pope is that he is from Argentina. South America, of course, is part of the broader global south, a region that Andrew Chesnut, professor of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently referred to as “the future of Christianity” in an interview with the BBC.  Indeed, the southern hemisphere is where the majority of Catholics reside – around 70 percent, in fact. Beyond that, however, it is a place shaped by very different religious currents than those in Europe and North America. In the north, since the middle of the twentieth century, for example, Catholicism and Christianity in general have had to contend with a proliferation of new religious movements and a growing skepticism towards religious authority. In the global south, the major challenge that the Catholic Church has faced during that same time period has been the growth of Pentecostal Christianity.

Conversion to Pentecostalism is the biggest single factor in accounts of the Church’s lost influence in Latin America.  In the 1960s, more than 90 percent of Latin Americans identified as Catholic, a number now down in the range of 70 percent in many countries. In Brazil, the country with the largest Catholic population in the world, 22 percent of the population identified as “evangélico” on the 2010 census. In this context, the Catholic Church has had to struggle to maintain or re-establish its appeal and relevance.  The Catholic Charismatic Renewal – a movement that centers on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, healing, and deliverance from evil forces – has been central to this struggle. Centuries ago, during the Reconquista, the Spanish and Portuguese came to see the Americas as new areas of colonization and conversion. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the selection of a Latin American pope are both part of the struggle to win back hearts in minds in the Americas and the rest of the global south: The Reconquista Redux.

More from CNN: Pope calls for church for the poor

Besides his nationality, observers often highlight the new pope’s conservatism. On the political side, he has been accused of remaining silent during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s, and some have even claimed that he was complicit with the military dictatorship against his more left-leaning Jesuit brethren who embraced liberation theology. More recently, his doctrinal conservatism strained the relationship with President Cristina Kirchner when he opposed her efforts to provide free contraception and to establish Argentina as the first country in Latin America to recognize gay marriage.  Kirchner likened the Cardinal’s stance as from “medieval times and the Inquisition.” Whatever his relationship with the military regime, Bergoglio has consistently opposed liberation theology throughout his career. Before becoming Pope Benedict, of course, Cardinal Ratingzer officially denounced liberation theology as a “threat to the faith” and an “error.”  Now his successor is someone who has opposed liberation theology in the trenches but embraces its emphasis on the “preferential option for the poor.” Partly for that reason, at least one prominent liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, said that he was “encouraged” by the selection of Bergoglio.

This concern with the poor is of course reflected in Bergoglio’s choice to take Francis as his name. This renewed emphasis seems to be in lines with the Church’s recognition of where its future lies – in regions where poverty is a serious problem. Pope Francis, sort of like his namesake, has gained a reputation for living simply; while in Buenos Aires he lived in a humble apartment, took the bus to work and avoided flying business class to Rome. Indeed, as Cardinal of Argentina he was witness to abject poverty and widespread downward mobility that resulted from the global financial crisis of the early 2000s.  During this time, although he always opposed the country’s liberationist hard line, he publically criticized neoliberal economic policies and the International Monetary Fund. But how will Bergoglio’s having been on the front lines during a spectacular failure of neoliberal capitalism affect the stances he takes as pope?

Ultimately, many will be wondering what changes we are likely to see under Pope Francis. The most immediate will probably best be described as “house cleaning,” including tackling inefficiency and corruption in the Curia and the Vatican bank. These are urgent but mundane issues, and dealing with them was clearly not Benedict’s strong suit. The more critical and more pressing issue, of course, is the sex abuse accusations that the Church is perceived as not yet having properly addressed. This was also a challenge that Benedict also appears not to have been up to, the speculation about his own sins in the wake of his resignation notwithstanding. Victims of abuse around the world are calling for the new pope to address this head on, so his early moves on this front will be crucial.

Many were surprised at Bergoglio’s selection, some calling him a dark horse. But in many ways he is the right man for his time and place.  Although his views on social issues appear reactionary, from a global perspective he is something of a centrist.  And while in his first address he said that his brother cardinals had chosen one “from far away,” few others are so in the middle of where the Church’s future seems to lie.

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Topics: Religion

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    CHRISTIAN IS CHRISTIAN.

    It is not like what Jewish hardily tried and still trying to manipulating US.
    They always tried to divided US.
    The Jewish news network stated that, "Jewish are the friend of Catholic".
    Well, wasn't Adolf Hitler Catholic?

    March 18, 2013 at 1:58 am | Reply
    • Patricia

      THE BEST POPE – HOPE FOR ONE BETTER WORLD! ... No, "Adolf Hitler" was no Catholic.

      March 18, 2013 at 7:44 am | Reply
      • Patrick

        Yes Patricia, Adolf Hitler was in fact a Roman Catholic as well as Benito Mussolini of Italy.

        March 19, 2013 at 7:28 am |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, Pope Francis has already won hearts and minds of most of his faithful, by breaking previous papal traditions and getting off his high horse. No doubt he would encounter resistance within the reactionary circle of the Vatican. His sense of social justice and his previous record in Buonas Aires hint that he would deal with various scandals with a firm hand and "clean the house" with an iron broom.

    March 18, 2013 at 5:18 am | Reply
  3. Kyle Suchy

    The problem with much of the West is that to the layperson Buenos Aires is in Mexico, as is Caracas, Managua, etc. And since the Pope is from this blanket region, he must be the stereotypical dark-skinned Mestizo. If one can even find Bolivia on the map, they'd still be hard pressed to even imagine the disparity in the quality of life between the average citizen of La Paz and that of one from metro Buenos Aires. My point is that Pope Francis' Catholic Church has just as much goodwill work to do in Bolivia's near racially-based caste system society as he does in Africa or China's fledgling Christian community. But while he does so he needs to communicate to the uniformed European and North American Catholic the global situations that mandate attention.

    March 18, 2013 at 10:42 am | Reply
  4. Joseph McCarthy

    Is the Pope really a Centrist? Judging by his complacency during the horrific reign(1976-1983) of those brutal military leaders in Argentina, it doesn't appear that way!

    March 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      On the other hand Joseph, had the Pope not been complacent at the time, he most probably would have been arrested, tortured and eventually murdered by those same butchers in Buenos Aires like so many others have. It still makes me mad about how those filthy creeps who ruled Argentina(1976-1983) literally got away with murder and are still free to this very day!

      March 19, 2013 at 7:26 am | Reply
  5. andy Odonnell

    Seems to me that most dictators in south america have been financed by the likes of Oliver North and the US government.

    March 20, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  6. gerelid

    El papa no podrá contra el movimiento pentecostal, el catolicismo no es una buena iglesia

    March 21, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Reply

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