For the first time in history the Papacy is to be run by an Argentinian Pope. Today Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the top position in the Roman Catholic Church becoming Pope Francis I. This was truly a historic election. Not only is Francis the first Latin American Pope but he is also the first Pope from the Southern hemisphere, the first non-European Pope for over 1,200 years and the first to take the name Francis.
But the election means more than just statistics; it appears to suggest the Church is recognising the new frontiers of Catholicism (see my article on the New Frontiers of Catholicism for more detail). By selecting an Argentinian Pope they have recognised that it is here in Latin America that the greatest concentration of Catholics exists and where the future of the Catholic Church may rest. Brazil has the world’s largest Catholic population, Mexico the second largest and Argentina (the home of Pope Francis) has the ninth largest population of Catholics. These are clear indications of the dominance Latin America is achieving in global Catholicism.
As Latin America and the wider world celebrates the election result I want to explore what impact Pope Francis’s election could have on Latin America and in particular his home nation of Argentina.
An Argentinian Pope will cement the power of Latin American Catholicism. Over the last century or so, the importance of the Catholic Church in Europe has been in decline. Rising secularism and a reduction in the number of individuals becoming ordained has threatened the Church. In addition the Catholic Church has received much criticism in recent years as a result of several high-profile scandals, such as the sex abuse scandal and the Vatileaks incident, and its continued stance against issues such as homosexuality and contraception has further distanced many in Europe.
To reinvigorate the Church, Conclave needed to elect a Pope who would push Roman Catholicism forward and they needed a figure who could spread the Church’s political message globally. Pope Francis could indeed be the one to achieve this. As an Argentinian Francis has the ability to bring life to the Vatican and Roman Catholicism through integrating the vast Catholic populations of Brazil, Mexico etc closer into the heartland of Catholic power.
Very few expect the new Pope to shake up the theological foundations of the Catholic Church. He is a Jesuit priest and has already proved himself to, during his period as Cardinal, to be a conservative figure. However he has two core principles that will see great reform in the Papacy. He wants to bring about real change to the Curia in Rome in an attempt to end the corruption that has recently been the focus of outside criticism and he stands by a belief in social equality, living a humble life and doing all that is possible to alleviate poverty for the world’s poorest. This strong stance on social equality will prove popular in Latin America, a region in which the wealth gap between the country’s richest and poorest appears to be growing.
But for Latin America and Argentina the political role of the Pope as head of one of the largest global communities is likely to have the greatest impact. Just as Poland received far greater attention when Pope John Paul II became the Pope in the 1970’s, Argentina’s global presence will likely increase as a result.
Argentina has several globally recognised figures; Evita, President Juan Peron, Maradona and the current President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. However none of these figures will have the global reach of Pope Francis and although only time will tell if his Pontificate is to be remembered through the ages, it is likely that he will become known as the world’s most famous Argentinian. This figure will boost the Latin American state’s profile and help it to achieve the international economic and political superiority that its current President has been driving for.
There are those in Argentina who will not welcome the election as the Pope has previously been accused of involvement with the military junta that ruled Argentina and caused the disappearance and death of many individuals. He has also clashed with the Kirchner family over many political issues including same-sex marriage and these could threaten to overshadow the Pope Francis’ election in Argentina.
However, despite these issues, Pope Francis can be used as a global voice for the concerns of Latin America and for the poor of the continent. In the wake of Hugo Chavez’s death this is cause without a leader and Pope Francis may have stumbled into that role through the election. If he is to play the role of social advocate he may achieve more than the vocal Venezuelan leader ever could. Unlike Chavez, who made as many enemies as friends in international politics, the Papacy, by virtue of its status and history, commands greater respect and support from the international community.
Ultimately Pope Francis could represent the face of Latin America. His election to the Papacy symbolises the great advancement the region has made, both politically and economically in the world. These advancements have seen it emerge out of the shadow of Europe and the USA and today Latin America is a region of rising powers; Brazil, Mexico and Argentina are all nations knocking on the door of global dominance. In addition they, today, are all nations that will likely form a new centre of power within the Catholic Church.
Although we know little of the new Pope and little of what his leadership will be like, we can say with certainty that the election was a landmark occasion not only for the Vatican but for the world. This week there will be celebrations across Buenos Aires, Argentina and Latin America all in support of the ‘Man from Buenos Aires’; the Argentinian Pope Francis I.
By Peter Banham
Cover Image: Pope Francis, The Telegraph