Commentary
9:45 am
Mon December 30, 2013

New World Pope Challenges Old World Church: Francis Is Top LatAm Story in 2013

Pope Francis wears an indigenous Pataxo headdress during his visit to Brazil last July for World Youth Day.
Pope Francis wears an indigenous Pataxo headdress during his visit to Brazil last July for World Youth Day.
Credit L'Osservatore Romano

They say Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it. But even gringos couldn’t ignore the noise next door in 2013.

Seemingly overnight, Brazil experienced violent anti-government unrest – then just as quickly it became the spokesnation for a world outraged by the U.S. surveillance overreach exposed by Edward Snowden.

Venezuela’s socialist and anti-U.S. firebrand, President Hugo Chávez, died of cancer. Mexico allowed the private sector to enter its oil industry for the first time in 75 years, while Cuba allowed citizens to leave their communist island for the first time in more than 50 years. Uruguay stepped up as the first nation to legalize marijuana.

But the most important Latin American story of 2013, and not just for Roman Catholics like myself, was the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. Here’s why:

The fact that Francis is the first pope from the New World is only half the reason. What matters more is that he’s actually made the title "First Pope From The Americas" mean something. He’s brought a refreshingly New World sensibility – a more independent, pro-underdog ethos that I would like to think defines the Americas – to a Vatican steeped in Old World severity.

The 77-year-old Pope has, in fact, raised expectations that he can change as well as challenge the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church, not just its entrenched bureaucracy but – and millions of Catholics believe this should be his most important endeavor – its controversial doctrine too.

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In a remarkable September interview with La Civiltá Cattolica, Francis warned that the church can’t remain an institution worn down by petty clericalism and “small-minded rules.” Nor can it stay fixated, he said, on “issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” when there are so many other and more urgent concerns it needs to prioritize instead. “We have to find a new balance,” he argued.

In his November papal document “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), the Pope made it clear where that balance should shift. A Jesuit priest who follows a humble lifestyle compared to most prelates, Francis urged Catholics and the world to take a harder look at this century’s widening chasm between rich and poor.

He caught hell from the right wing, which branded him a Marxist for criticizing “the absolute autonomy of markets.” But his call for renewed focus on Jesus’ commitment to the poor and suffering resonated worldwide.

RHETORIC AND REALITY

All of which is positive and hopeful stuff. Still, as a Catholic journalist – especially one who covered the clerical sexual abuse nightmare – I can’t let go of this question:

Can Francis really achieve his aim of a church that better aids the poor and suffering, that is more inclusive and compassionate, and that places children’s welfare above that of its priestly fraternity, if he doesn’t also revise a host of doctrines that affect the realization of those goals?

Can the new pope's rhetoric meet reality?

Consider the first objective. Eliminating poverty often means removing obstacles, especially for women. In regions like Francis’ home continent, Latin America, Rome’s ban on contraception, and its refusal to acknowledge abortion rights even in cases of rape and incest, often exacerbate the poverty and suffering the Pope wants to alleviate.

In the hemisphere’s poorest nation, Haiti, where the church all but writes reproductive legislation, scarce access to condoms is widely blamed for an inordinately high pregnancy rate and, in turn, an outrageously high maternal mortality rate: 630 per 100,000 live births, according to the Pan-American Health Organization, compared to as few as five per 100,000 in some Western European countries. Ditto in Nicaragua, where teens account for an astonishing 45 percent of all pregnancies.

Meanwhile, it's hard to see how Francis can make the church more inclusive and compassionate by simply declaring love for people whom official church doctrine continues to condemn, like homosexuals and the divorced.

It was certainly encouraging last summer when the Pope said it wasn’t for him “to judge” gay persons. But his tolerant tone could ultimately ring hollow if he doesn’t renounce the church’s codified assertion that homosexuality is a “disorder” that Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, called an “intrinsic moral evil.”

The same holds for Francis’ desire to reform church administration. He has to see that there are darker concerns here than shoddy Vatican bookkeeping. Reformers say the church’s refusal to ordain women, and its insistence on priestly celibacy, has led to an insulated and overweening clerical culture whose default response to the pedophilia scandal was self-preservation and cover-up. To change that, they argue, the church needs to do more than put Mary on a pedestal; it needs to put her in priest’s vestments.

Yes, that will require courage as well as common sense. But Francis himself said that Catholic thinking doesn’t mean “only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.” That’s what we hoped to hear from a New World pope. And we hope to hear much more.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.