What Does Pope Francis’ Election Mean for Nevada Catholics?

UNLV political science professor Ted Jelen on new priest-in-chief Jorge Mario Bergoglio

Following the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February, Catholics worldwide were met with another stunner Wednesday when cardinals chose as his successor 76-year-old Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio—the first Latin American and first Jesuit to occupy the church’s highest post.

Pope Francis, who as a Cardinal reportedly lived in a humble apartment and took public transportation, comes from a religious order known for emphasizing education and service to the poor. He spoke out against unequal distribution of wealth during Argentina’s economic crisis, while holding fast to the church’s traditional opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Vegas Seven talked to UNLV professor Ted Jelen, who studies the intersection of politics and religion, for his take on the new pontiff.

Pope Benedict was known as a doctrinal conservative. How does Pope Francis compare?

The selection of Pope Francis represents a clear recognition that the center of gravity in the Catholic Church has moved south to the Third World, that it’s no longer a North American, Eurocentric organization. It also shows an awareness of the competition that the church is receiving in Latin America, primarily from evangelical Protestantism.

He is in many ways a compromise candidate: an ethnic Italian who is a native of Argentina, an economic liberal but a theological conservative. There is something in this for everyone—except perhaps women.

So we’re not going to see women being ordained anytime soon?

I really don’t see a move towards feminism or female ordination in the near future. You’re not going to see a reversal on same-sex marriage, birth control or any of the other things of which American Catholics tend to be quite critical.

What does all this mean for Catholics in Nevada?

It’s possible this might have a very positive effect among Southern Nevada’s Latino Catholics, and there might be an identification [with Bergoglio]. There has been an erosion of Catholic devotion in that population, especially younger people rejecting more traditional kinds of worship. It’s conceivable that the selection of Pope Francis might affect that in a way that is favorable to the institutional Catholic Church in this part of the country.

Besides the obvious fact that Bergoglio is Argentinian, what other appeal does he have for Latinos?

Mostly the concern for economic justice. I think the Catholic Church in the United States for a long time has been accused of being less than diligent about its support for the poor and more concerned about things like condoms and gay marriage. If in fact Pope Francis emphasizes a progressive economic message, that might have a strong effect on adherence and participation of Latino Catholics.

So has Bergoglio’s commitment to the poor been overhyped, or do you think that will be an important part of his papacy?

I think it’s absolutely essential. This is a guy that both by theological tradition and by instinct roots for the underdog.

After the sex scandals of recent years, does the selection of a candidate with a reputation as a reformer mean that the church is ready to clean house?

Whether they’re ready or not, they’re going to have to deal with it somehow. It is a horrible black eye and absolutely inexcusable. What lay Catholics seem to think about in sex scandals is they are actually fairly understanding of the priests themselves, but they are furious with bishops and cardinals for their lack of a coherent, strong response.

It’s hard to know how radical any reforms are going to be. My sense is not very. One obvious thing would be to relax or eliminate the requirement for celibacy. But I honestly don’t see that happening.

What other policy changes could we see Pope Francis make?

One of the things Francis could do that could enable national churches to address issues of economic justice would be to allow them to have a little more autonomy. He might rejuvenate the national bishop’s conferences. Those were created … during the mid-‘60s and the idea was that the Catholic Church stands for universal eternal truth, but applying that might be quite different in different parts of the world.

They also apparently need a CFO. There are standards of transparency in international banking that the Vatican Bank has not met. If the church is going to continue being a player in international economics, they have to comply with international organizations, which under the last couple of popes they’ve been reluctant to do.

Readers, what’s your opinion of the new pope? Tell us in the comments section below.

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