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Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio in 2008. Photograph courtesy presdiencia.gov.ar (CC by SA 2.0).
On March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio was chosen by the College of Cardinals to succeed Benedict XVI as Pope. The 76-year-old Archbishop of Buenos Aries is the first non-European and the first Jesuit to be chosen as Pope. He will be known as Francis I. Athough many Roman Catholics had hoped that the new pope would be progressive on sexual issues, Francis I has a long history of intolerance.
Bergoglio has a reputation for personal humility and a simple lifestyle. As Archbishop, he rejected most of the opulent trappings of his office, preferring, for example, to live in a small apartment rather than in the ornate Archbishop's palace and to use public transportation rather than a chauffeured limousine. His choice of Francis as his papal name may be a nod to the poverty and love for the poor embraced by Francis of Assisi, though it may also be an allusion to Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits.
However, Bergoglio has been criticized for failing to protest Argentina's military dictatorship, which ruled the country from 1976 to 1983, when torture, kidnappings, "disappearances," and murders of political opponents were rampant. The Church's support for the junta and its silence as democracy was destroyed and citizens murdered and tortured have been widely interpreted as complicity.
The Argentine Church's shameful behavior during the dictatorship contributed to the lessening of its influence in the country. In 2000 Argentina's Episcopal Conference publicly apologized for its failure to take a stand against the generals. "We want to confess before God everything we have done badly," the bishops said.
In addition, Bergoglio strongly opposes marriage equality. When the Argentine government introduced a marriage equality bill in 2010, the Archbishop called it a "real and dire anthropological throwback." He also referred to same-sex marriage as "a destructive pretension against the plan of God. . . . a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God." Comments like these have about as much intellectual and moral authority as those from the Family Research Council and other hate groups.
In addition, Bergoglio described adoption by same-sex couples as a form of discrimination against children. This position provoked a rebuke from Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who said his tone was reminiscent of "medieval times and the Inquisition."
Despite Bergoglio's opposition, on May 2010, Argentina's House of Representatives approved a marriage equality law. On July 15, after an impassioned debate that lasted almost 16 hours, the law was ratified by the Senate.
The victory in Argentina was widely seen as a rejection of political meddling by the Roman Catholic and Mormon Churches. When the marriage equality bill was passed, Evan Wolfson issued a statement pointedly hailing "the historic vote as a measure of how far Catholic Argentina has come, from dictatorship to true democratic values."
Some observers, such as J. Lester Feder at BuzzFeed, have expressed cautious optimism that the new pope may have learned something from the Church's disastrous intervention in the marriage equality debate in Argentina. Feder writes that "His militancy in the campaign against Argentina's 'Equal Marriage Law' in 2010 was so tone-deaf that many observers credit him with helping the law pass. But the mistakes his church made in combating the law--and the tack it has taken since--may suggest the new Pope Francis will be savvier about guiding the church in opposing marriage in countries headed in that direction."
Still, the choice of Bergoglio to succeed the conservative Benedict XVI should be read as a sign of continuity rather than of change. Although his personal warmth and humility will likely make him more popular than the austere and charmless Benedict, he is unlikely to lead any major reforms in the Roman Catholic Church.
Blogger John M. Becker responded to the election of a man who "thinks our families harm children and our loving marriages are Neolithic tools of Satan" yet "has the audacity to say that he believes gays and lesbians should be treated with 'respect'" as follows: "Sorry, sir, but if that's your definition of 'respect,' you can keep it."
In a press release, Herndon Graddick, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, also responded to the news of the election of Pope Francis.
"For decades the Catholic hierarchy has been in need of desperate reform. In his life, Jesus condemned gays zero times. In Pope Benedict's short time in the papacy, he made a priority of condemning gay people routinely. This, in spite of the fact, that the Catholic hierarchy had been in collusion to cover up the widespread abuse of children within its care. We hope this Pope will trade in his red shoes for a pair of sandals and spend a lot less time condemning and a lot more time foot-washing."
Graddick added, "The National Catholic Reporter said Pope Francis called adoption by gay and lesbian people a form of discrimination against children. The real discrimination against children is the pedophilia that has run rampant in the Catholic Church with little more than abetting from the Vatican."