Pope of many firsts gives hope to church

The following editorial appeared in the Kansas City Star on Thursday:

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who had been the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is the church’s first pope from the Americas. He is also the first pope to hail from the order of the Jesuits, known for intellectualism and, sometimes, a free-thinking streak. In one more first for the church, Bergoglio chose “Francis” for his papal name.

At 76 years old, Francis has his work cut out. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, had difficulty managing conflicts within the Vatican itself, and was seen as weak in his handling of the church’s great challenges. Those include a worldwide priest shortage and sex abuse scandals involving the clergy.

Liberals of any faith should not expect the new pope to waver from the church leadership’s strident opposition to abortion, gay marriage and even contraception. Three years ago, he offended many Argentineans, including the nation’s president, by declaring that same-sex marriage is a form of discrimination against children.

More positively, Francis has spoken out forcefully against income inequality and unjust distribution of wealth.

“The unjust distribution of good persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers,” he told Latin American bishops in 2007.

Inequality is a worldwide problem that is growing more acute in the United States. For the leader of the Catholic church to take it on as a cause would be monumental.

Though some popes have been criticized for being too insular, Bergoglio eschewed the archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires, choosing to live in a small apartment and cook his own meals. His preferred mode of transportation was the public bus.

Many Catholics in America and elsewhere are yearning for their church to modernize on issues such as birth control, marriage for priests and the ordination of women. Francis seems unlikely to embrace radical reform on those issues. But as a leader known for straddling the divide between liberals and conservatives, he may move the church forward on contentious issues.

That would be more cause for celebration.

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