It was raining in Rome when the pillar of white smoke rose from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel yesterday, but the many thousands of Catholics who flocked to the Basilica didn't mind getting wet. They were rewarded by sight of their new Pope, the 226th in his line, standing before them in his newly donned robes. His demeanor was described as "grandfatherly", genially thanking the people in the square for their enthusiastic embrace, wishing them all "a good rest" that evening before leaving the balcony and retiring to the Apostolic palace.
Since then, there's been a lot of talk about what a revolutionary choice the Papal Conclave made when they selected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Cardinal of Buenos Aires, to become the next Pope. It's certainly true that there are a number of unconventional things about Bergoglio's Popehood. He is the first non-European Pope in over a millenium (preceded by Syrian-born Gregory III, elected in 731), and the first Pope ever to come from the Americas. He is also the first Jesuit Pope, which is notable considering the history of tension between Jesuits and other Christian orders. These things are certainly and inarguably true.
There are, however, many things about the new Pope's history that are unfortunately conventional.
Take, for instance, his stance on homosexuality. Bergoglio hasn't simply maintained the Church's status quo position on homosexuality (i.e., that it is an abominable sin): rather, he has actively rallied against the rights of LGBTQ people. He has called the effort to attain equality "the Devil's work", and fought the legislation allowing same-sex marriage in Argentina tooth-and-nail. He even went as far as to call adoption by gay parents a form of discrimination against children (because, as we all know, no one has ever grown up happy, loved, and well-adjusted in the home of an LGBTQ parent. Oh, wait...that's a total fucking lie.)
Thankfully, Argentina's government has moved beyond Church control: in response to his allegation that the same-sex grant was "the machination of the Father of Lies" (no, I'm not kidding, that's an actual quote), Argentinian PM Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner rightly stated that Bergoglio's tone was "medieval", reminiscent of the Inquisition.
Like his predecessor, Bergoglio has (albiet very begrudgingly) stated that barrier-method contraception (i.e. condoms) may be used in order to prevent the spread of deadly diseases (i.e., AIDS). When it comes to abortion and pre-marital sex, though, he is just as stubborn and bull-headed as the Cardinals who elected him. Arguably, he may be even more dangerous for reproductive rights than his colleagues. It is not enough for him to attack the people whose bodies are directly involved in these issues as murderers and sexual sinners. He goes beyond them (as if he could further negate their agency), and focuses on Catholic politicians and health practitioners. According to Bergoglio, no one who facilitates--or even simply doesn't actively fight--any of the things he considers grievous enough should be allowed to receive the Eucharist. Abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality are listed among them. As Pope, in his positon of immense doctrinal power over one billion plus human beings, this stance very well might become a blatant attempt to manipulate politics worldwide, There are more than enough opponents to reproductive rights already, and the last thing we need is another old white guy telling us what to do with our bodies. So what if you're not Catholic? This guy knows what's best for you, sweetie. And if you don't like it, well, tough.
And that's not all. Bergoglio has left a very suspect political history behind him in Argentina.
During the 1970's, Argentina endured a period of violence that has since been dubbed the Guerra Sucia ("Dirty War"). During this time, a right-wing junta viciously oppressed all people who they considered dissident (read: varying degrees of leftist). They regularly abducted, tortured, and murdered Argentinian citizens en masse. From 1976 to 1983, it is estimated that over 30,000 people became Deseparecedos: The Dissappeared, fallen at the hands of their own countrymen.
During the Guerra Sucia, Bergoglio was the leader of the Argentinian Jesuit Order. Many of the priests he supervised came to him with stories of the Secret Police abducting, torturing, and murdering people, and some of them felt it was their duty to do something about it. Bergoglio was against radical action, advocating patriotism rather than fighting the state. This caused warranted dissension among the more radical priests.
In May of 1976, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, two Jesuit priests known for supporting resistance against the government, were kidnapped. They surfaced five months later, drugged, bound, semi-nude, and showing signs of severe trauma. Though Jalics went into seclusion and refused to talk about what happened, Yorio accused Bergoglio of basically endorsing the kidnapping and prolonged torture by not interfering on the priests' behalf. Yorio is not the only one who thinks Bergoglio is accountable for what happened to him: in 2005, just days before the last Papal Conclave, human rights lawyer Marcello Parrili brought criminal charges against Bergoglio for his implicit involvement in the kidnapping. Horatio Verbitsky, an acclaimed Argentinian journalist, has accused Bergoglio for going even further than just inaction. In his book El Silencio, he claims that Bergoglio hid political prisoners from visiting human rights delegations in his summer home on the River Plate (the same river, incidentally, where thousands of prisoners were stripped naked, bound together, and dropped from planes into the water to drown.)
So let me get this straight, Papal Conclave. First you elect an ex-member of the Hitler Youth who spent most of his career doing damage control for pedophiles, and to replace him you choose a man who has been accused of aiding and abetting one of the worst regimes in recent history in their kidnapping and torture of two of priests under his supervision (let alone the countless others who he did not try to stand up against the regime to save.)
So really, it seems like this Pope is actually standard Papal fare in some seriously essential ways. Even his origins outside of Europe, the most seemingly obvious differentiation of Bergoglio from his predecessors, is something of an overstatement. The fluent Italian in which the new Pope traditionally addressed the Catholic people is actually his mother tongue: Bergoglio is the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, born shortly after their arrival.
This is a time of crisis for the Church, in which sex abuse scandals, internal Vatican power struggles and corruption, and global modernisation have loosed its hold on the world. It is not inconsequential that Bergoglio's predecessor retired under the strain, the first time a Pope has retired in over 600 years. (The last Papal retiree was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 to end the Western Schism). It would seem that the last thing the Church needs--if it is to survive--is more of the same old shit.
But let's try, for a moment, to find some silver lining to this seemingly dark cloud. There are some things in his past that might indicate some sort of change ahead.
Despite his alleged complicity with nefarious military regimes and his vehement opposition to LGBTQ and reproductive rights, Bergoglio has been known for his commitment to (some) social justice, specifically to the needs of the poor. He has openly criticized "economic structures that give rise to great inequalities". He has openly criticized social and national debt, calling them unjust and immoral, sinful.
This might all be extremely vague talk without action, the posturing of a politician. Though his personal humility and simple lifestyle have been stated as ways to vet his beliefs, it's kind of hard to talk about economic injustices from the gold-plated pomp of the Papal throne. In any case, social justice--true social justice, is systemic. It is hypocritical to talk about creating economic social justice while actively creating social injustice elsewhere by rallying against the rights of sexual minorities and women. And if he really was complicit or even actively involved in the horrors of the Guerra Sucia, he has no right to talk about social justice at all.
Beside his origins outside Europe, one of the major things considered different about the new Pope is his choice of name: no pope has ever taken the name Francis before. It is my sincere hope (though I have my very serious doubts) that this means he might intend to live up to being truly different in a significant way. Perhaps it means that he will not focus on his oppressive beliefs and will instead focus on his liberating ones. The Pope has immense potential power to affect change. Hopefully, he will choose to use it differently than his predecessors...though I'm not holding my breath.