The election yesterday of the very first Latin American pope left me stunned and hopeful and I've been eagerly scanning the Net for all the information I can find on this man who apparently came very close to becoming pope during the last papal election. The 2013 election of the 266th pope is interesting on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin.
As I talked about a few days ago in this post, The Papal Election and the Nationality Question, country of origin is an important factor in the choice of a new pontiff. It sends a message to the world and, yes, it is of general interest because this is the man who will be leading an international organization with over 1 billion followers. In that context his nationality and cultural origins are not and probably never will be neutral attributes and this has an impact on global and local politics.
The new pope is from Argentina, a country in Latin America (a region that has a Roman Catholic majority.) These countries, like the ones in North America, are what has been described as "settler colonies." The modern nation-states in the Americas are the creation of immigration (colonization) from Europe. The differences between them today can still be traced back to the cultures of the original sending countries. The United States became an English-speaking Protestant country while Argentina is a Spanish-speaking Catholic country. Centuries after these countries became independent these differences cause cultural tensions. When people in the U.S. think about immigration/integration in 2013, they are primarily focused on migrants from Latin America. Language is one issue (Spanish speakers moving into an English speaking area) but so are religious differences. I think it's less true today than it was in my youth but just see Samuel Huntington's recent book Who Are We? for the argument that traditional American values are fundamentally Protestant and that is one reason why he thinks that America is a better place than Mexico (or Brazil).
Add to this the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin American affairs and you'll start getting a good idea why the reaction of the people of the Americas to the election of a Spanish speaking pope from Argentina might be framed a bit differently as you go from north to south. This is not to say that North Americans aren't wildly enthusiastic about the election but the cultural and political contexts around the election of a Latin American pope is particular and I'm sure that Americans are wondering what the impact will be on domestic politics. For the Hispanic community in the U.S.: “Knowing that we have a new pope whose first language is Spanish is a source of pride” and “The College of Cardinals know that the hope of the Catholic Church is in the Hispanic Catholics, even here in Chicago.”
With that in mind will the new pope, for example, speak out on behalf of Latin American migrants in the U.S.? It's entirely possible and Pope Francis is in a good position to do this since he is the child of immigrants himself. Or what about his strong views on social justice and his criticism of globalization - the “demonic effects of the imperialism of money.” That word "imperialism" is loaded with meaning in the context of the relations between the peoples and governments of North, South and Central America.
It's not just the people of Argentina who are thrilled by the news, it's all of Latin America. Le Monde reports celebrations from Mexico to Cuba, Brazil, Ecuador. The President of Mexico is said to have twittered his approval. Again, the frame is important here. This a region that has traditionally been Roman Catholic but has seen a rise in membership in evangelical Christian churches. The Catholic Church has been accused of supporting authoritarian regimes in the region but it has also been instrumental in movements against them. This area was the birthplace of a political movement called Liberation Theology which took the Christian message and applied it to poverty and social justice issues. The new pope is not a supporter of that movement but he has made it crystal clear that social issues (poverty, development, human rights) are at the top of his agenda and not issues of doctrine.
The choice of a Latin American over North American, African and European candidates is being seen as a sign that the center of gravity in the Church has moved out of Europe and they have high expectations. Here is a round-up from Le Monde of some the comments and reactions of people in the region:
Brazil: "Nous pouvons espérer beaucoup du fait qu'il soit latino-américain" (we are expecting a lot from that fact that he is a Latin American) from the "continent de l'espérance" (continent of hope).
Chili: "Le fait que l'Amérique a en François le premier pape de l'histoire de ce continent qui mène une vie chrétienne depuis plus de 500 ans, reflète la maturité de l'Eglise en Amérique Latine"(The fact that American has in Francis the first pope in history from this continent that has been Christian for over 500 years, shows the maturity of the Church in Latin America).
Cuba: "Le fait qu'il soit latino-américain signifie que l'Eglise est entrée dans un monde dont l'Europe n'est plus seulement le centre, l'axe, mais bien une société qui comprend tous les pays du monde" (The fact that he is Latin American shows that the Church has entered a world where Europe is not only not the center, the axis, but is now definitely an organization that includes all the countries of the world).
So how are the Europeans taking the breaking of their monopoly on the papacy? Quite well. You could see him a kind of bridge between Europe and the Americas. He was born in Latin America but his parents were immigrants from Italy. Everything I've read in the French press has been pretty positive. The media seem to really like his stand on globalization and social justice issues. Criticism has been pretty mild and limited to pointing out that he is not a "progressive." It will be interesting to see if his election has any impact on the "mariage pour tous" (gay marriage) debate still raging here in France Given that the leaders of the French church have mobilized against it, will he publicly give them his support?
I spent the entire morning thinking about the election (and writing this post) and my conclusion is that the choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) was absolutely brilliant. I don't think they could have done better.
My only disappointment so far? He's a soccer fan.
Ah, well, "De gustibus non est disputandum."