Let's talk Latin America

Is the first Latin American Pope substance or symbolism?

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Bristolatino joint editor-in-chief Rosanna West discusses whether the election of the first Latin American Pope marks any real change for the Catholic Church

The man who cardinals chose to take over from ‘exhausted’ Pope Benedict XVI marks a number of firsts: Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first Pope from Latin America; he is the first Jesuit Pope; and he is the first Pope to name himself ‘Francis’. The necessary question to ask is whether these ‘firsts’ are a genuine step forward for the increasingly outdated institution, or whether Bergoglio’s election to Pontiff is simply a superficial gesture to maintain support.

Latin America’s position as the home of almost half the world’s Catholics means that the election of 76-year-old Argentine Bergoglio as the first Pope from the Americas has, initially at least, been greeted with joy, and indeed surprise by Latin American believers. Until this historic event, the sheer number of Catholics in Latin America seems to have gone ignored when the Vatican has been faced with the task of appointing a replacement Pope, with European after European taking on the top job since 741 AD. Surely the significance of Pope Francis’ election is that Christianity is becoming a non-European faith. Yet it must be noted that, like most of his countrymen, Bergoglio is of European (Italian) descent, so in his case he brings Latin America and the Italian-dominated Church administration closer together.

Since his appointment, Francis I has been hailed as something of a modern saint. The humble lifestyle of the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires has been the order of the day in the media, with the common examples of ‘He still rides the bus,’ and ‘He cooks his own meals,’ being used to emphasise his affiliation to the hardships of his continent’s common people. Pointed statements such as ‘Debt is unjust, immoral and illegitimate,’ express the Argentine’s criticism of capitalism and his Jesuit devotion to the poor – yet he is not a liberal. As far as controversial social issues such as homosexuality, contraception, priest’s celibacy and female priests are concerned, Bergoglio remains uncompromisingly conservative. In 2010, he led the movement against Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s bill to allow gay marriage, claiming it was ‘an attempt to destroy God’s plan.’ This means it would be unrealistic to suppose that his election signifies any major changes in the Church’s archaic policy.

However, Latin American believers, who make up such a substantial presence within the Church, are being represented for the first time. There has been some concern recently about the institution’s decline in Latin America, so this development perhaps comes just in time for the Church; the increasing influence of evangelical Protestantism and the continent’s economic and social disparity have been taking their toll. Pope Francis I is expected to address the latter issue explicitly, which could serve to counteract the influence of the former to some extent.

It is impossible to know whether the election of Pope Francis I is any more than just a rallying gesture, but for now we can only take it as a step in the right direction. The new Pope’s outspoken commitment to the poor and marginalised could well have a positive influence, especially within the now represented Latin America. However, at the moment it seems like wishful thinking to suppose that Pope Francis could make any real changes to the Church on issues such as abortion and women in the priesthood.

Header photo: AP photo Natalia Pisarenko.