National Geographic News
Jorge Bergoglio gives mass in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected to be pope on Wednesday.

Photograph by Natacha Pisarenko, AP

Dan Gilgoff

National Geographic News

Published March 14, 2013

In announcing Wednesday that it had selected the first ever Latin American pope, the Catholic Church's cardinal electors sent a handful of bold messages about church geography, including that its future lies outside Europe and that the hierarchy wants to repair ties with the Americas.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a 76-year-old who will be called Pope Francis, hails from Argentina.

"My first reaction is that it's a symbolic move to ease the papacy out of Italian hands," said Philip Jenkins, an expert in global religion at Baylor University. Many of the cardinals on the short list to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned last month, were Italian. (Watch: A look inside the Vatican.)

"It's the first shift beyond Europe, and so it's historic," said Jenkins. (Related: Science Behind the Vatican's Smoke.)

At the same time, the choice of Bergoglio—who is of Italian descent and who is from what is likely the most Italian country outside Italy—represents a safer and more traditional choice to lead the church than someone from the United States or Africa.

"He's a bridge figure," said Jenkins. "If you're Italian you can look at this guy and say he's from an Italian family that made good in another country. But if you're Nigerian or Sri Lankan, you can see it as the church's unprecedented move outside Europe.

"In that case, whether or not this is a good or bad guy, it looks like a decisive break."

Jennifer Hughes, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, is more dubious of how the new pope will be received in Asia and Africa, where the church is experiencing rapid growth.

"I don't expect worldwide celebration of a non-European pope because he is of European heritage," she said. "He's still a white pope with an Italian name."

Though he is likely to be embraced in South America, Jenkins said that Argentina is more similar to Europe in many ways: "It's basically a European country that is close to Antarctica."

Indeed, unlike much of South America, where Catholicism has been giving way to newer religious traditions like Pentecostalism and evangelical Christianity, in Argentina the Roman Catholic Church has been competing with a rising secularism, just as is happening in Europe.

In Argentina, Bergoglio railed against the legalization of gay marriage in 2010.

And yet Hughes said Bergoglio's selection is more a gesture toward Catholics in North and South America, many of whom have become disillusioned with the church over its handling of the sex abuse crisis and over its emphasis of conservative stances on hot-button issues like homosexuality.

"The church is in crisis and there's a growing chasm between the American church and Rome," said Hughes. She called Benedict "a hardliner, which did not go over well with Americans."

The hope seems to be that Pope Francis will go over better, even if he's very much at home in Europe.

Peter Jansen
Peter Jansen

Many people say that the Church is in 'crisis,' especially in the Americas; 'crisis' really implies that the system is in immediate danger, because there's some larger underlying problem. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to say that's the state of the Church right now. The simple fact of the process of papal election, and the subsequent celebration by the Church AROUND THE WORLD is evidence enough that the Church can calmly and joyously pass on its authority without issue. 

A 'growing chasm' doesn't so much mean that the Church has problems of doctrine, as it does getting people to properly understand that doctrine. Often, in the Church's past, individuals' persistence in misunderstanding a teaching has led to their separating themselves from the Church because they think they know better than all the theologians and Church officials who came before them. If Catholics believe that something is the truth given by God, should they change it just because a small number of people don't understand?

Also, the implication that a native-born European pope is somehow disconnected from the world of today, because he is stuck in the Middle Ages, is also without foundation. Just look at the writings of the last two popes on various current and perennial issues, their encouragements in faith to people of every kind, and the extensive effort they've made to visit Catholics on every continent, and it's plain to see that they were the heads of a unified, global church that speaks with one voice of belief in many and beautiful ways. This voice speaks firmly and confidently, because even though it has faltered in the past (due to human nature), it believes wholeheartedly that the real Head of the Church is Christ, who can never be overcome.

Al Martin
Al Martin

All comments that have been made about the Pope being of Italian decent clearly don't have an understanding of Argentine culture. Immigrants in Argentina do not see themselves as "Italian", "German, or etc but rather as Argentinian. Although people of Italian descent make up a good portion of the country, almost every ethnic group is present in Argentina. One of their presidents was even of Middle Eastern ancestory. Every country in the Western Hemisphere is en essence a nation of immigrants.

John C.
John C.

"The church is in crisis and there's a growing chasm between the American church and Rome," said Hughes. She called Benedict "a hardliner, which did not go over well with Americans."


Calm down...The Church is the oldest continuously operating institution in history. It has survived every crisis since the Roman persecution two thousand years ago. It will survive the huffing and puffing of modern American liberals.  

Isabella Kwon
Isabella Kwon

@Al Martin I absolutely agree. Being Korean-American myself, I first and foremost identify myself as being American, rather than Korean (not to say that I don't respect my Korean heritage.) Pope Francis is an Argentinian, and I'm sure he is proud to be and call himself an Argentinian regardless of what people say about his descent. People will never be pleased...if an Asian or African pope was elected...for all I know someone might go and dig up his past and find out he's 1/64th German, then start accusing him of being of European descent!


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