Pope Francis Elected as Leader of Catholic Church

By Oliver Griffin

Despite being famed for its prevailing orthodoxy and general resistance to all things new, the Catholic Church yesterday turned a corner. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, now known to the world as Pope Francis, is both the first Pope from Latin America and the first Jesuit to be elected as supreme pontiff.

His election, however comes as a surprise for more reasons than these; many had thought that the College of Cardinals would seek to elect a younger pope in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. Pope Francis, who at 76 is no spring chicken, has spent the last fifty years living with only one fully functioning lung, having lost most of the other to an infection. With his predecessor’s decision to stand down grounded in claims of ill health, many will wonder why a younger and perhaps, more physically able, Cardinal was not selected. Perhaps, with 40% of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics living in Latin America, it is not so surprising that the newly elected pope should come from outside Europe.

As Pope Benedict XVI, previously Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was surrounded by controversy when he was elected, Pope Francis is not without his own share. As the leading Jesuit and a high ranking church official in Argentina during the country’s brutal military regime, many have questioned his stance during that period. There are even some reports to suggest that he paved the way for reactionary Jesuits to be kidnapped and imprisoned by the then rulers, as well as collaborating with the military government to facilitate the ‘theft’ of children from political prisoners. While these accusations are strongly denied, he is an uncompromisingly staunch adversary towards homosexuality. He fought fiercely against a proposed law that would see same-sex marriages legalised in Argentina, describing it as ‘a destructive pretension against the plan of God.’ He has also been quoted as saying that ‘adoption by homosexuals is a kind of discrimination against children.’

Medieval attitudes towards homosexuality aside, Pope Francis is more lenient than previous popes in terms of the use of condoms. He has apparently said that he could support their use if it was to stop the spread of infection – no doubt a result from his experiences in developing countries.

Looking past the criticism, Pope Francis does seem to be a sort of ‘every man’s’ pope. He has frequently been praised for his humility and rejection of the luxury afforded to men of his status; his life as Archbishop of Buenos Aires was decidedly austere as he chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the Archbishop’s palace, cooked his own food and even took public transport over the option of limousines. His main focus is without doubt concern for the poor, chiefly exhibited by his work in Argentinian slums. When he was made a cardinal in 2001, he told his supporters to spend money on the poor rather than fly to Rome, a message he has repeated on the eve of becoming the new pope.

Deeply worried about the world’s social inequalities, he drew further attention in 2001 during a visit to a hospice where he washed and kissed the feet of 12 patients dying of AIDS related diseases.

It is too early to say or even suggest what sort of pope Francis will be. While obviously not a progressive theologian, he has spent considerable time with the poor and has, on several occasions, criticised the International Money Fund. Being difficult to typecast politically, we will have to wait and see how he will begin what can only be described as a tricky papacy, having inherited a disillusioned and scandal ridden church.

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