Pope Francis: A conservative who sides with the poor
Although somewhat unexpected, the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to succeed Benedict XVI has the air of a safe, compromise decision. At age 76, he does not have the physical vibrancy and personal dynamism that a younger man might have brought to Rome. Vatican watchers did not consider Bergoglio a front-runner and his name was not considered in speculation, even as the previously unimaginable selection of an American was widely discussed in the Italian media.
Pope Francis, as Cardinal Bergoglio, was known as a doctrinal conservative. His emphasis on solidarity with the poor is in line with a turning away in some respects from structural criticism, favored by some in the church. His selection represents an obvious reorientation of the church to the global south, but it does not signify the possibility of doctrinal change related to contraception, abortion or same-sex marriage -- and within the church itself on matters of priestly celibacy or women's ordination. These issues have increasingly set the church in conflict with a rapidly secularizing West.
Pope Francis hails from the church's growth regions in the developing world, and he can be expected to be attuned to the concerns of developing nations and their problems of inequity and human deprivation. Pope Francis is of Italian stock and was raised in a thoroughly Europeanized culture. That should put some of the cardinals, fearful of an overly thorough reform, at ease, despite the widespread feeling that "something" dramatic had to be done to reform the management of the Vatican and reduce the opacity of its financial infrastructure and sputtering bureaucracy.
During his papacy, Pope Benedict urged the establishment of a global governing institution that could mitigate the worst excesses of economic and political globalization. The choice of the name "Francis," after St. Francis of Assisi, suggests this pope will make it a priority to attend to the crying need of the global poor, those left behind by the free market's genius for wealth creation and its unfortunate tendency to deposit that wealth in a diminishing number of hands. No fan of Latin America's experiments with liberation theology, he has nonetheless proven to be a staunch defender of Latin American poor against the powerful economic and political forces that have assailed them.
He'll likely offer a more pastoral face to the papacy even as, based on his past criticism of the global economic order, he is likely to continue Pope Benedict's skepticism of unrestrained free market policies.
"We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most, yet reduced misery the least," Bergoglio said during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. "The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."