Prints of Pope Francis are seen in a newspaper kiosk near the Vatican March 15, 2013. Reuters/Max Rossi

Does the election of the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as pope portend significant changes in the Roman Catholic Church? Pope John XXIII’s election in 1958 to succeed the politically cynical and spiritually conventional Pius XII was not expected to bring large changes. But the new pope initiated the Second Vatican Council, opened the church to the world and opposed war and injustice. When he died in 1963, some months before his ally John F. Kennedy, a newspaper noted “A Death in the Family of Mankind.” 

The present new pope has taken the name of Francis, in recollection of Saint Francis of Assisi and his mission to the poor. That has occasioned considerable comment on his modest lifestyle, on his frequent pronouncements in favor of the dispossessed. Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit to hold the office, and the Jesuits are often socially engaged and intellectually cosmopolitan—and not afraid of modernity or secularism. In addition, Francis is the first pope in 1,300 years to come from outside Europe, even if he is from the most Europe-like of Latin American nations and the son of northern Italian immigrants. 

A Jesuit colleague reminded me, wearily and warily, that Pope Francis is “very conservative.” He is very unlikely to reconsider clerical celibacy, allow women a larger and more independent role in the church, or encourage more autonomy at the base. He has been in fierce political conflict with the present Argentine government over its policies on abortion and same-sex marriage. A previous Argentine president termed him the leader of the opposition to the government now in place, successor to the civilian regimes that, after the military dictatorship of 1976–83, restored democracy and human rights to the nation. The admirals and generals who tortured and murdered thousands (and abducted scores of their children) were ideological siblings of European authoritarian movements like those of Franco and Pétain, which gave the Catholic Church sovereignty in culture and education. They were equally close to the Catholics who served Hitler and Mussolini in a common front against liberalism, secular modernity and “communism.” The pope will be haunted by his relationship, as senior Jesuit in Argentina, with its former dictators. When Bergoglio was appointed archbishop in 1998, he apologized for the failure of the church to oppose the dictatorship. 

There is still a dispute as to whether the former cardinal’s sins were more than those of omission. In 2005, Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky published El Silencio, a book containing specific charges against Bergoglio that he, in turn, denied. It is difficult to believe that the matter will rest. Whether it will permanently or profoundly impair the pope’s moral authority is an open question. This aspect of the pope’s past is, decidedly, at least as important as his penchant for cooking for himself, using public transport and abjuring ostentation. We will be hearing more of it in the weeks and months to come. 

The pope has never served at the Vatican, which may command the portals to heaven but is situated on earth. It is saturated with corruption, hypocrisy and nepotism, which have recently become so evident that the churchmen situated in Rome have had to confront the criticism, even revulsion, of the faithful. Demands for reform are loud in the church. The cardinals and senior clerics commanding the Vatican’s utterly untransparent collage of commissions, courts, directorates and offices are in effect heirs to a centuries-old tradition of delaying or blunting or negating reform. They are, above all, interested in retaining their privileges and powers—which are inseparable from the papal absolutism the reformers contest. They could not install one of their own as successor to the exhausted octogenarian who has left behind him a church in crisis, so they chose instead a septuagenarian with obvious political skills, a pleasing public persona, one lung—and no obvious passion for transforming the church. It is quite unclear what Francis will do when, in God’s slow time, he succeeds in deciphering the Vatican’s table of organization. It is even more unclear, on the uncertain supposition that he sympathizes with the divided and dispersed party of reform, what he can do. What we have experienced in the first days of his pontificate is baroque street theater. After the play, the characters withdraw, put on their customary garb, and life goes on as before. 

Bergoglio has written books, one with Pope John Paul II and another with a rabbi. He has already sent a friendly letter to Rome’s chief rabbi, and his reign has been blessed with an endorsement from Abe Foxman, our omnipresent if self-appointed successor to the Prophets. The difficulty with Abe’s affirmative answer to the question “Is it good for the Jews?” is that the Argentine dictatorship, which the pope so definitely did not oppose, was ferociously anti-Semitic. There is perhaps some consolation in the fact that Jesuits more than occasionally criticize their own church and generally take the long view, weighing our small lives sub specie aeternitatis. The problem is that, immersed in eternity, we still have to live day by day.

The pope, as cardinal, insisted on the priority of faith. In his interpretation, it requires service to the poor and rejection of the indifference of the prosperous to the poverty around them. He was a vocal antagonist of the International Monetary Fund’s punitive conditions for aiding Argentina when it was in debt crisis. Were the pope a Western European of the past half-century, he would certainly be a classical Christian Democrat, a strong supporter of a large welfare state. But Christian Democracy, rather like its half-sibling, Social Democracy, has little to say about the new conditions of the global market and the new ravages of capitalism. Perhaps the pope’s striking lack of programmatic specificity is due to the historical bewilderment he shares with many of the rest of us. 

Without a belief in Christ, the pope has just said, the church is only another nongovernmental organization. The question is whether the pope thinks of the social mission of the church as one of expressing solidarity with the afflicted rather than seeking to transform their conditions of existence. I am reminded of the passage in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father in which a young Obama expressed his admiration for the pastors he had met in Chicago’s African-American community. They knew they could do little to improve the situation of their congregations, but they could offer a measure of hope and a great deal of consolation. In one sense, the pope is right: for all its internal disputes, the Roman Catholic Church has a specific doctrine of salvation and is not hesitant to draw consequences from it for the conduct of life. It has well over a billion adherents. However, there are almost as many Christians who are not Catholic. There are 1.6 billion adherents of Islam and 1 billion Hindus, as well as a half-billion Buddhists. In the sight of God, the Roman Catholic Church is no doubt important—but, equally, one of many nongovernmental organizations.

The new pope was chosen as an articulate evangelist in a world where the resistance to the Catholic message has been pronounced. In Latin America itself, large numbers of Catholics or nominal Catholics have chosen to join rapidly expanding Protestant fundamentalist or Pentecostal groupings. In Africa, Islam has been making large gains. Middle Eastern Christians have been hard-pressed to maintain themselves, despite their descent from the original Christian sects. There is a Catholic foothold in India and another, smaller one in Indonesia, but virtually none in China or Japan. The Philippines remains Catholic, but there the church faces inroads by Islam, Protestantism and secularism. The difficulties of the church in Eastern and Western Europe are too deep to be overcome by a new face. In the absence of a specific project of reform, that is what, for the moment, the new pope presents. 

Our fellow US citizens who are Catholic have two great advantages. They have memories of dealing with prejudice—and can, if they choose, draw upon these to develop an ideology of solidarity that served them well in the period of the New Deal. (Of course, there are figures among them, like Justice Antonin Scalia, who have ostentatiously forgotten their own past.) They are Americans, and appreciate the values of choice and pluralism that made possible their families’ integration, not so long ago, into the nation. The recent survey data about American Catholics are unequivocal: a majority are in favor of an open church in an open society. Their clerical leaders, selected by a Vatican remote from our own society, have for the past generation chosen to ignore the alliances of the past. They have aligned themselves with the most rigid forces in American Protestantism, dropped Catholic doctrines of social solidarity into the memory hole, and concentrated on issues of abortion, contraception, homosexuality and opposition to women’s rights. They have done so with passions worthy of Old World churchmen. In that sense, they will find the new pope an ally. There is nothing in his record to suggest that he can readily sympathize with the Americanism of American Catholicism. As I write, I read that the Vatican press spokesman has termed questions about the pope’s role in the period of Argentina’s dictatorship the work of “the anti-clerical left wing.” Turbulence lies ahead.

Frances Kissling writes that if the Catholic Church is to change,  first it needs to do without a pope, and certainly an infallible one.