First Impressions of a “Pope of Firsts” (part 1)

Cardinal Bergoglio
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 2008 – Creative Commons (Aibdescalzo)

Even for a Protestant like myself who belongs to a church that has gone so far as to do away with an episcopate altogether, the election of a new bishop of Rome is innately interesting and even a bit exciting. Like almost everyone out there, I knew next to nothing about Jorge Bergoglio except that he’d been rumored to be the runner-up the year Benedict XVI was elected. So among other things, I’ve appreciated how quickly various media and blogs have pulled together helpful profiles of Pope Francis I and analyses of the significance of his election.

(It’s going to take me a while to get used to “Francis I.” Not so much because it’s the first time a pope has had that name — more on that in the sequel to this post — but because “Francis I” to any French historian is a Renaissance monarch who had complicated relations with Catholicism and the Papacy.)

Today and tomorrow I want to spotlight a couple of themes I’ve noticed in the coverage of this “pope of firsts.”

The First Non-European (in more than a millennium) and First Latin American Pope

Medallion of Gregory III
8th century medallion featuring Pope Gregory III – Creative Commons (ASKI)

The parenthetical addition is not just a historian being nitpicky. There have actually been something like ten non-European popes (including the apostle Peter himself, of course), but the last was St. Gregory III, the third of three Syrians to be pontiff in the early 8th century. So this is a good point at which to remind everyone that the demographic center of Christianity didn’t reach the mainland of Europe until the High Middle Ages (Sofia, Bulgaria in the year 1100, according to research by Todd Johnson and Sun Young Chung published in the April 2004 issue of the International Review of Mission). The last time a non-European was pope, the demographic center of the Christian world was the city of Side, on the southern coast of present-day Turkey.

The evangelization of Europe and the spread of Islam kept the center of gravity in the Balkans and then Italy for centuries before it started to inch west with the growth of Christianity in the Americas, but thanks to the explosion of global Christianity in the 20th century, the demographic center has been moving south at unheard-of rates of speed (10-20 km per year). The center of gravity in 1900 was Madrid; by 1970 it had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, to Western Sahara; in 2000 it was the ancient city of Timbuktu, with trends taking it deeper into the center of Africa.

Catholicism has been affected by the shift as much as (perhaps more than?) Protestantism. According to a 2011 Pew study on Global Christianity, only about 30% of the world’s Roman Catholics live in Europe or North America. As has been reported widely in the coverage of Pope Francis’ election, some 40% live in Latin America (and the Caribbean), giving that region a strong claim as the current bastion of Catholicism.

Indeed, “First Latin American” or “First Hispanic” has been almost as large a theme in coverage so far. In an article on how Francis’ election marks a shift away from Europe as Catholic center, the New York Times called the selection an “emphatic salute to the growing power of Latinos across the Americas” and quoted a Mexican bishop on the significance of an Argentine assuming the throne of Peter: “It fills us with joy because he is close to the Latin American people. He could be sensitive to economic conditions and the suffering, joys and hope of people in these lands.” The same bishop (Eugenio Lira) told the Washington Post, “For me it’s a sign from God, who is inviting us to commit ourselves to a continental mission. He will imprint his Latin American personality … He knows the joys, the pains, the problems and the opportunities of the people of Latin America and the Caribbean and that will create a very close relationship.” (Let me add one more in this vein that I just read in our local paper, from a priest serving a largely Hispanic parish in St. Paul: “It’s very reassuring that change will take place, and hopefully the recognition of the Spanish-speaking world and Spanish-speaking Catholics is now upgraded in a sense of the viability and the spirituality of the faith.”)

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, historian Philip Jenkins added helpful nuance to the “first Latin American pope” theme, pointing out that while Pope Francis is very much in a Latin American theological tradition, there are several reasons why Argentina stands somewhat apart from the rest of Latin America:

It is by far the most European nation on its continent, and specifically the most Italian. [Bergoglio was born to Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires, which historically ranks right up there with New York and other North American cities as a popular destination for such migrants]… Argentina is also notably European in its history and tradition. It is Latin American, yes, but emphatically not part of the third world. At least through the 1950s, Argentina was definitively part of the advanced West, the first world…. Moreover, unlike other Latin American countries such as Mexico or Brazil, Argentina has only a small surviving Native or Indian population, so questions of religious inculturation scarcely arise.

And as the Times, Post, and many other media suggested, the choice of a Latin American could also be read as recognition that Catholicism’s strength in that region is actually quite shaky. Like many historically Catholic nations, Bergoglio’s Argentina has a declining number of regular mass-attenders. Moreover, 15% of the population does not identify as Christian at all, and Bergoglio’s own battles with Argentine president Christina Kirchner over same-sex marriage suggest that church influence is not what it once was. (For better and for worse: accusations have resurfaced that Bergoglio and other Argentine clerics were too close to the military junta that prosecuted the country’s infamous Dirty War in the 1970s.)

Jorge Bergoglio and Christina Kirchner
Cardinal Bergoglio meeting with President Kirchner – Creative Commons (Argentine Presidency)

And Bergoglio’s election is being read as an attempt to reinforce Hispanic Catholicism in the face of the rising popularity of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. Take Brazil: the single largest Catholic nation, home to nearly one in eight members of that communion. In 1940 less than 3% of its population was Protestant, now that number is over 20%. Most of those are Pentecostals, and, according to an earlier Pew study, the majority of Brazilian Catholics identify with the charismatic movement. And Roger Olson (in a post expressing his muted excitement about yesterday’s news) is probably right to “suspect that millions of Latin Americans are counted as Catholics just because they were baptized into the church even though they attend Pentecostal churches.”

For more on Francis, see Anna Williams’ collection of links at First Thoughts. Tomorrow I’ll add a brief sequel reflecting on Bergoglio embodying two more papal firsts: first Jesuit and first Francis.

Read the next post in this series>>

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