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How Pope Francis can reinvigorate the church

Newly elected Pope Francis represents change in many respects. He is the first pope from the New World (and the first from outside of Europe in 1,200 years), the first Jesuit and the first Francis. But for American Catholics, who in poll after poll in recent weeks have expressed disagreement with the church's stances on the ordination of women or the requirement of celibacy for priests, he may seem like more of the same. Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, is a doctrinaire conservative in those matters, as were Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II before him. Given the views of the College of Cardinals — all of whom were appointed by John Paul or Benedict — it could hardly have been otherwise.

That said, his selection could portend more than a symbolic gesture toward the growing base of the Catholic Church in the Southern Hemisphere. Then-Archbishop Bergoglio famously eschewed the lavish residence and limousine afforded to his office, instead choosing to live in a modest apartment, cook his own meals and take the bus. He may not subscribe to the liberation theology that has its roots in South America — he has denounced it as Marxist — but he has demonstrated a consonant focus on the plight of the poor and marginalized. He expanded social services and spoke out against the dangers of globalization. He washed and kissed the feet of patients suffering from AIDS and chastised priests who would not baptize the children of unwed mothers. It is no coincidence, certainly, that he took the name of St. Francis of Assisi, who rejected material wealth to live among the poor.

Pope Benedict also devoted considerable attention to issues of social and economic justice; his third encyclical, "Charity in Truth," included a critique of unfettered free market capitalism, a call for redistribution of wealth and a condemnation of those who seek profits for their own sake rather than to do good for society. Though he is generally thought of as a conservative, his economic views would put him far left of center in an American political context.

However, those teachings formed far less of an impression on the public than Pope Benedict's views on doctrinal matters and questions about his role in the church's sex abuse scandals. As prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger worked to stamp out dissent on issues like homosexuality and birth control. And beginning in 2001, he centralized the church's investigations into allegations of sexual abuse by priests under his office, earning praise from some and condemnation from others. As pope, he suffered under the weight of intra-Vatican scandals and missteps, including the removal of excommunication from a priest known for anti-Semitic views and Holocaust denial.

Pope Francis is certainly no stranger to the church's role in the culture wars. He is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, gay adoption and abortion, but even in Argentina, he was on the losing side of those battles. Argentina was the first Latin American nation to legalize gay marriage, part of a trend toward social liberalism in South America. Argentina's progressive President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner described his views as "medieval." And although he has not been linked to the church sex abuse scandal, he has been dogged by questions about his response to Argentina's Dirty War, in which 30,000 opponents of the nation's dictators were killed or went missing.

But he also comes to the Vatican as an outsider, in as much as is possible in the closed world of a papal election. He may disappoint those who were looking for a young pope who would have the vigor and potential length of tenure necessary to reform the Vatican bureaucracy — Francis is 76, nine years younger than the man he has replaced — but his mere selection represents an endorsement of change in church administration, if not doctrine.

Pope Francis' humble, simple introduction to the world from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday brought forth an overwhelming outpouring of good will from around the globe. After a difficult period, much of the world is looking with hope at a new face for the church, and Francis could have a profound influence if he makes the focus of his papacy issues of social, economic and environmental justice — his namesake is, after all, the patron saint of ecology. Francis now has an unparalleled opportunity to transform an institution that has too often seemed to be fighting modernity into one that can shape it.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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