The general expectation when the cardinals filed into the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday afternoon was that it was likely to be a long conclave. The assumption was that it would take some time for the various groupings—Italian/non-Italian; European/non-European; Northern/Southern, Western/Eastern hemispheres—to assess the relative scale of support for each, and to order and re-order their priorities.
In fact, however, many elector cardinals had been thinking hard about the matter and communicating with one another since February 11 when Pope Benedict announced his intention to abdicate. Also one would have had to be a hermit-monk not to be aware of the issues facing the Church, and anyone who had immediate sight of Benedict in the last year or so would have known that he was ailing. In short, a good deal of thinking and talking had gone on long before the conclave began.
Watching a live feed from the Vatican, I was reminded of the previous papal election in April 2005 when again we were caught unexpected by an early decision. I was up at San Giovanni in Laterano, the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome, and ran the three miles down towards St. Peter’s, arriving like so many others hot but happy to be there before the new pope emerged onto the balcony.
The mood then was one of inevitable change after the long pontificate of John Paul II, and again on Wednesday the sense was of a new beginning after the troubled times of Benedict. An early decision was thought to favor an Italian, and when I saw the smoke billow out unmistakably white I assumed the cardinals had chosen either Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, or Gianfranco Ravasi, who holds several prominent positions in the Vatican and was chosen by Pope Benedict to lead the Lenten meditations.
In the event, however, in voting for Jorge Bergoglio Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the electors chose to create the first ever “new-world” pontiff. Who is he? Why was he chosen? And what does this mean?
Cardinal Bergolio is an interesting figure and hard to place within the favored framework of “conservatives versus liberals.” That is in any case an ill-conceived opposition since it imports political or cultural categories into a religious context where they really do not fit. It also is especially ill-suited to Bergoglio, for seen from one perspective he appears to conform to the “progressive” profile, being a strong advocate of economic justice and compassion for the poor; but viewed from another he appears a stout defender of traditional Catholic teachings on sexual ethics and beginning- and end-of-life issues, opposing same-sex marriage and adoption, and abortion and euthanasia.
He is a Jesuit, a member of the Society of Jesus founded in the mid-sixteenth century by St. Ignatius Loyola to lead the counter-reformation, and subsequently seen as constituting the Catholic avant-garde, or in modern military parlance “God’s Marines.” Jesuit training is long and rigorous and Bergoglio studied philosophy and theology before himself becoming a professor, and thereafter serving as head of the Jesuits in Argentina. As a religious leader his emphasis is pastoral and he is evidently a spiritual and humble figure. His choice of “Francis” as his papal name may refer either to Francis of Assisi, the great medieval advocate of Christ-like holy poverty, or to Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits and a missionary to Asia, or quite likely to both of these saints.
Having said that, his election early in the conclave is a surprise. It needs to be added first, that it has been reported, though by the rules of the procedure it ought not to have been, that he was a close second to Cardinal Ratzinger in the 2005 election. Second, in saying that he is the first “new world” pope, it has to be added that he is also a bridge figure to Europe and more precisely to Italy since his father was an Italian immigrant to Buenos Aires and he is a member of several Vatican “congregations” or departments which have brought him to Rome many times. He is also the first ever Jesuit pope.
Having held the papacy for most of its history, and watched it go first to a Pole and then to a German, the Italians wanted it back; but they had the problem that much of the recent trouble suffered by the Catholic Church is seen to have arisen, or at least not to have been properly managed, within the Vatican which they dominate. On that account the tide turned against them, but it could have reversed had there been no prospect of timely agreement on a figure from elsewhere.
Another non-Italian European was always unlikely in part because Western Europe is seen to be the site of greatest secularization, and no European cardinal has shown much capacity for dealing with that. At the same time a North American would have been unpalatable to Europeans who dislike the USA’s global power. It was too early for an African or Asian, and so an Italo-South American, with a clean record, high intelligence, evident virtue, and pastoral commitment, who also knows (but is not enamored of) the Vatican, evidently commanded wide-support.
Finally, what will the papacy of Pope Francis be like? He knows he needs to get a grip on the internal governance of the Church and to do so quickly, so I would expect to see subtle but determined changes in the Vatican. He also knows that the Church needs to get back to the work for which it was founded: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is unlikely to see much to be gained from trying to compromise traditional moral teachings but he will present them in a spirit of care and generosity rather than as an ethical cold warrior.
One last thought: At seventy-six, he is likely to have been seen as something of a short- to mid-term pontiff who can embark on a task that will then fall to another figure of a generation younger than him to carry forward. While praying for a long pontificate the cardinals may also be thinking that there may another conclave within the decade, and that it may occur in times made more propitious for the Church by Pope Francis.
John Haldane is professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews and consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture. This piece is reprinted from the Scotsman with permission.