Second, the choice of a Latin American makes a great deal of sense on paper, since Latin America is in many ways the place where the different experiences of global Catholicism converge. The region shares a New World experience with North America, a long record of church-state entanglements with Western Europe, a history of colonial exploitation and stark extremes of wealth and poverty with sub-Saharan Africa. The Latin church faces the same challenges from secularism and sexual liberation as the church in the developed world, and the same explosive growth of Pentecostalist and prosperity-oriented Christian alternatives as the church elsewhere in the global South. A pontiff from the region is thus a natural choice, in ways that an African or Asian pope might not have been, to move the church’s focus away from Europe and North America (and especially Europe) in some ways without cutting the Vatican off from the trends, issues and crises facing the church in a secularizing West.
In some ways, Francis was a typically canny choice by the oldest electoral college in the world. The choice of a Latin American, and the first non-European pope in more than a thousand years, made headlines around the world and galvanized many Catholics in developing countries where the Church is strong. But behind the drama is the cautious intelligence of an institution whose traditions stretch back to the times of the Caesars; with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, Latin America is the most European region in the whole global South. Argentina is the most European of Latin American countries, and Pope Francis, whose parents emigrated from Italy in the last century, is one of the Argentinians whose European roots are as strong and deep as they get.
It appears that, among other qualities, he is a compromise between those still nostalgic for the long Italian stranglehold on the papacy (Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian Bishop of Rome since 1523) and those who want a more globalized leadership in the Church. He is as Italian as a foreigner can be.
With all this, though, comes political baggage. Most Cardinals from Europe these days have not had to cope with the political monsters running loose in much of the world. The selection of Benedict XVI, who came of age in Hitler’s Reich, raised some eyebrows, but generally speaking most European prelates these days haven’t had to exercise their ministries in countries run by murderous thugs.
That isn’t the case with people from much of the developing world. Cuba’s bishops must somehow work with the Castros; the bishops of Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and many other countries have had to make choices that people from stable and democratic places know little about. In Pope Francis’s case, he lived under the horrible Argentine military government of the 1970s when disappearances and torture were business as usual. Those of us who haven’t had to navigate those treacherous waters should be careful how we judge those whose experience has taken them through trials we cannot comprehend. Nevertheless, Pope Francis must expect that his record under Argentina’s dictatorship will be carefully combed through, and it is not impossible that a Buenos Aires government with little use either for him or for the Church will engage in selective leaks.