Habemus Papam! Argentine Pope Francis I

White smoke was seen coming from the chimney over the Sistine Chapel minutes ago. A new pope has been elected. Photo: Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis I/ Associated Press

WASHINGTON, March 13, 2013 — White smoke has just come from the Sistine Chapel chimney. There is a new pope: Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the first non-European pope, is now Pope Francis I.

The new pope may be another placeholder, but it would be unwise to bet on that. He’s a strong social conservative, and he is not listed among the ranks of the reformers. He took a strong stand against legislation in 2010 to permit same-sex marriage in Argentina, writing, “Let’s not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.“ 

His election suggests the inability and unwillingness of the College of Cardinals to elect a strong or younger pope, and the jockeying for position for the next conclave will begin almost at once. However, Francis has strong pastoral credentials, something that many cardinals wanted in the new pope, and he has a much more formidable background as an administrator than did Pope Benedict, serving as Jesuit provincial of Argentina in the 1970s during extremely dangerous political times (e.g., the “dirty war” in which some Catholic clergy have been implicated), and later as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. There is additionally no guarantee that Francis will depart the scene quickly, and John XXIII, also supposedly chosen as a placeholder, turned out to be much more influential than expected. 

Because the color of the smoke can be a bit ambiguous, bells also rang to announce the election of the new pope. The crowds waiting at the Vatican erupted in cheers and applause, and a line of Swiss Guards carrying the yellow Vatican colors marched up the basilica steps.

The news comes on only the second day of the conclave. Benedict XVI was elected on the fourth ballot, and he went into the conclave that elected him as the clear front runner. Reports are that the new pope was elected on the fifth ballot.

Because this was a quick conclave, the odds were excellent that one of the half-dozen or so “papabili,” or possible popes that had been widely discussed beforehand, would be the new pope. The election of Bergoglio is thus a complete surprise, his name not mentioned among the papabili.

While conclaves over the last century have not run longer than five days, and most have lasted only two or three, this is still a quick result because there was no single, clear front runner going into the conclave. The days of caucusing that preceded the conclave probably had an impact. The new pope had to be elected by a supermajority of two-thirds, or 77 of the 115 voting cardinals. The first ballots were almost certainly used to weed out the marginal candidates, leaving the cardinal electors to discuss two or three strong candidates. The biggest question was whether they would opt for a pastoral pope - one who can lead the church to a resurgence of faith - or for a strong leader who can clean up the scandals that beset the church, including sex scandals and a mess at the Vatican bank.

They went with a pastoral pope. Pope Francis was born in Argentina in 1936. He taught literature and psychology at the Colegio del Salvador in Buenos Aires, them became a professor of theology at the Theological Faculty of San Miguel. He later completed a doctoral dissertation in Germany, was made Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, and was elevated to a cardinal in 2001.

Cardinal Bergoglio is known as a humble man. He eschewed the palatial bishop’s residence in Beunoes Aires in favor of a small apartment. He gave up his limousine in favor of public transport, and is said to prepare his own meals. 

The papacy of Benedict XVI was marked by scandal and drift. Benedict was chosen as a caretaker. John Paul II had hit the church and world politics like a storm, and after his 26-year reign, the cardinals may have felt that they needed a calm break. What they didn’t know was that the scandals that would hit the church would demand a strong manager, which Benedict was not. 

Benedict’s reign was marked by missteps and miscommunications - with Jews, with Muslims, and within the Vatican itself. His butler released information about internal crises and was imprisoned for it until pardoned by Benedict. The sex abuse scandal rocked not just the United States, but Ireland, the Netherlands, and other countries in Europe, indicated a much more profound problem than misconduct by American priests. The initial inclination by bishops and cardinals to cover up the scandals indicated a leadership completely out of touch with the climate of the times and incompetent to lead a major world institution. 

The Vatican bank remains mired in corruption and poor accounting standards. The lack of transparency at the bank has been a scandal for decades. The banks involvement in currency trading was a disaster for the bank and for Italian partners as well. 

Franciscus took his name upon accepting his election. The pope often chooses a name to send a signal about the type of pope he would like to emulate. John XXIV, for instance, would have suggested a pope who wanted to be a reformer as John XXIII was. Franciscus carries with it the strong suggestion of a pastoral emphasis, and Cardinal Bergoglio has indeed been named among those cardinals with a strong pastoral emphasis and skill.

Pope Francis will probably be installed on Tuesday, on the feast of St. Joseph, who is the patron saint of the church.

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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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