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New Pope 'A Fresh Start,' But Old Problems Are Waiting

Crowds at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican celebrate Wednesday after seeing white smoke billow from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, indicating the election of a new pope. The new pontiff, Francis, is the first from Latin America, a reflection that the Catholic Church is now strongest in the Southern Hemisphere.
Oded Balilty
Crowds at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican celebrate Wednesday after seeing white smoke billow from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, indicating the election of a new pope. The new pontiff, Francis, is the first from Latin America, a reflection that the Catholic Church is now strongest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church made history twice Wednesday, electing the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first Jesuit.

In choosing 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio of Argentina, now Pope Francis, the College of Cardinals signaled the growing importance of Latin America, Africa and Asia in the church's fortunes.

But they also affirmed their commitment to traditional church doctrine.

"Cardinal Bergoglio has been a staunch defender of orthodoxy," says the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit and editor-at-large at America, a national Catholic magazine. "He is also someone very devoted to not only the poor, but to living simply."

That the new pope chose the name Francis, the first pontiff in church history to do so, appeared significant — revolutionary, even — to many church-watchers.

"He took it from St. Francis of Assisi — a saint who's hard not to like," says James O'Toole, author of The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America. "St. Francis had a radical commitment to the poor, and this might signal where he would like to put his emphasis."

Says Timothy Matovina, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame: "Francis was a very humble saint. And that [Pope Francis] came out bowing, asking the people to bless him and pray over him was telling."

"His whole demeanor was humble, approachable — a servant-type leader," said Matovina, who directs the university's Institute for Latino Studies.

But how that demeanor, and his dedication to a simpler life — the new pope famously took public transportation back home in Buenos Aires — will translate to how he will direct the church, and especially the powerful Roman Curia ensconced in the Vatican, is not at all clear.

No one expects this new pope, older than expected, and conservative, to put forth new initiatives on celibacy or women's roles in the clergy.

But will he attempt to decentralize the church, shift some policymaking authority out of the Vatican, where in recent decades it has been consolidated, back to national bishop conferences or diocese or churches?

Will he encourage his bishops to be less involved in heated political debates, including same-sex marriage, and more focused on service and the poor?

The answer is elusive, and largely for reasons encapsulated by David O'Brien, professor emeritus at College of the Holy Cross and author of American Catholics and Social Reform.

"This is a statement about making a fresh start," O'Brien said. "Maybe the church will get back to the Vatican II sense of decentralization."

"But I don't know a lot about this fellow," he said.

The Global South Imperative

Pope Benedict XVI's resignation was only moments old when speculation took flight about whether Catholic leaders would make history and look outside Europe for a new pontiff.

David Gibson, who has covered the Vatican since the 1980s, told NPR that it was the Catholic Church's "Obama moment."

More than 28 percent of the world's 1.19 billion Catholics now reside in South America; and more than 15 percent live in Africa. Asians make up 11 percent of church members worldwide, but are the second-fastest growing demographic.

As the church becomes less Europe-centric and less concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere, choosing the 76-year-old cardinal from Argentina made sense strategically.

"I think they chose him for his personal attributes," says Martin, author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. "And I think it's clear they wanted someone from the Southern Hemisphere, where the center of gravity has shifted."

The region is also where Protestant Pentecostalism has been making significant inroads in traditional Catholic strongholds.

"It's a very significant challenge," Martin says. "But rather than looking at it as a threat, we should look at it as an opportunity — what can the Protestant Pentecostalists teach us about evangelism?"

Says O'Toole: "The shift toward Latin America from Europe is important, in terms of both energy and symbolism — that this is, indeed, an international institution."

Addressing Scandal, Preventing More

It's too early, and the new pope is too unknown to most, for any predictions to be made in how he will address the church's ongoing international sexual abuse crisis.

Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, says he was struck by the name chosen by the new pope.

"St. Francis was the greatest reformer in the history of the church," he said. "I hope that the pope is signaling that he's going to follow that — protect children and bring accountability to the church."

Isely, assaulted by a Franciscan priest while at a boarding school, says he wants to see Pope Francis "decree zero tolerance for the sexual abuse of children worldwide, which is not the case today."

He notes that the places where the church is growing most rapidly, including in South America, are often places where there are fewer protections in place for children, and more secrecy surrounding abuse.

"Having a pope from South America could go either way," he said. "It could make it more difficult for victims to come forward and be seen as criticizing the church, or he could make a personal appeal and give permission to abuse victims to come forward, and for Catholics to embrace those victims."

A Bigger Voice For Laity

A victim of the growing centralization of power and decision-making in the Vatican has angered some church members who have seen their roles greatly diminished.

"What we have is a church structure appropriate for the Holy Roman Empire, for a medieval kingdom in Europe," says Donna B. Doucette, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a group of Catholic lay activists.

"God," she said, "is perfectly happy in the 21st century."

Doucette and activists like her would like to see the new pope allow lay people more say in guiding the church, and more transparency in spending by church officials, including its bishops.

"Restore meaningful lay input, address the financial scandals, the sexual abuse cover-up and the very clear second-class status of women in the church," she said. "That's a huge prescription — we're asking for Superman."

But, she added, "It's the first day — everything is possible. In a year we'll know if it's the same old, same old."

Pope Francis is not a young man, and if he is to make a mark, he will have to move aggressively, church-watchers say.

He has already made history on a day that filled many Catholics with hope, and more.

"This fills me with joy and as much pride as a Jesuit is supposed to have," the Rev. Martin said. "It's a day of firsts."

"Pope Francis will not change the doctrine of the church," he said. "He will deepen it, and I imagine he will turn our attention more to the poor."

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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