The 115 voting members of the College of Cardinals moved with great alacrity to send a signal that they meant to shake up the church. With the election, in a speedy, two-day conclave, of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, they’ve done just that, at least for the sake of appearances, electing the first South American ever to grace the papal throne. In fact, he’s the first pope not to come from a European country.
But it doesn’t end there. Unlike past popes, Bergoglio hails from the Jesuit order of priests, regarded as the intellectual backbone of the church’s academic instititutions, and known as rebellious despite its members’ vow of obedience to the pope. And Bergoglio has chosen a name never before used by a pope: Francis. While we don’t yet know his reasons for choosing that name, it calls to mind the beloved Francis of Assisi, whose mission to the poor, and reverence for animals renders him an honored figure even to those outside of the Catholic faith.
Yet, despite his Latin American origins, the election of Bergoglio does not break the tradition of the papal chair as a white man’s throne; the new pope’s parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina.
It’s no secret that the Vatican likes its mystery and drama, a fact brought home as watchers of the Roman Catholic Church awaited the big reveal of the new pope, as white smoke is spilled out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. The smoke is the signal sent by cardinals assembled inside the chapel that they have chosen a man to lead the world’s largest Christian denomination.
After making the media, as well as the faithful assembled in St. Peter’s Square, wait for 40 minutes, the hordes are given what they crave: the appearance of the new pope on the balcony of the famous basilica.
Looking for a Savior
It was apt, perhaps, that the princes of the church should choose to elect their new boss on the very day that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed topay $10 million  to four victims of a priest who abused them as children, another chapter in the church’s worldwide child sexual abuse scandal. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papal throne in 2005, hopes were high that the former Vatican enforcer would crack down on the many archbishops, like L.A.’s Cardinal Roger Mahony, who moved abusive priests from parish to parish without reporting their crimes to authorities.
Instead, the man who became Pope Benedict turned a blind eye as the scandal continued to unfold.
And then there was the VatiLeaks scandal , in which the pope’s butler was charged with leaking the pope’s private correspondence to an Italian journalist, who revealed a curia (akin to a presidential administration) riven with internecine battles and backbiting, as well as corruption at the Vatican Bank .
Meanwhile, Benedict had his henchmen crack down on U.S. nuns  for their ostensibly “radical feminism.” The fact that those nuns are champions of the poor was not lost on American Catholics, throngs of whom supported the sisters with street demonstrations  last year.
American Catholics also favor the ordination of women, and see their church as “out of touch,” according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll .
So when Benedict announced his nearly unprecendented abdication, many in the church breathed a sigh of relief, fingers crossed that the conclave of 2013 would yield a pontiff who could bring the church back into the good graces of the world.
But given Bergoglio’s doctrinal orthodoxy and hints of a dark past, he may not be quite the messiah the faithful had hoped for.
Compassion for the Poor, But No Progressive
News reports are making much of Bergoglio’s personal humility and belief in compassion for the poor. When named archbishop, he gave up his limo, opting to ride the bus. He’s said to live in a simple apartment where he cooks for himself. He’s viewed as a truly pastoral figure, devoting his career to his home country of Argentina, where he is known as an educator of the priests who work at the parish level.
But when liberation theology, born of the theological notion of a preferential option for the poor, was sweeping his continent, Bergoglio backed away, and a frequent criticism of his term as archbishop is that, despite his simple lifestyle, he speaks little of social justice, stressing individual spirituality.
In fact, he’s theologically closer to the last two prelates, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, than to the liberal and beloved Pope John XXIII, whose legacy leaves many Catholics yearning for someone similar. But Bergoglio campaigned against same-sex marriage in Argentina, and said that adoptions by LGBT people discriminate against children .
Yet he has called for LGBT people to be treated with dignity, according to the National Catholic Reporter, and has shown compassion toward AIDS patients. “In 2001,” writes  NCR’s John L. Allen, Jr., “he visited a hospice to kiss and wash the feet of 12 AIDS patients.”
On matters pertaining to the rights of women, including their reproductive rights, Bergoglio holds to the orthodox line. He even sought to prevent the distribution of free contraceptives in Argentina.
Hints of Dark Past and Troubling Association
During Argentina’s “dirty wars,” which took place under a military dictatorship, 1976-1983, political opponents of the regime were routinely disappeared  while American aid dollars rolled in to the junta. Throughout it all, most of Argentina’s bishops remained silent, including Bergoglio.
But Hugh O’Shaughnessy, writing two years ago in the Guardian, suggests  that Bergoglio may have been more complicit than merely silent:
The extent of the church’s complicity in the dark deeds was excellently set out by Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina’s most notable journalists, in his book El Silencio (Silence). He recounts how the Argentine navy with the connivance of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, hid from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights  Commission the dictatorship’s political prisoners. Bergoglio was hiding them in nothing less than his holiday home in an island called El Silencio in the River Plate. The most shaming thing for the church is that in such circumstances Bergoglio’s name was allowed to go forward in the ballot to chose the successor of John Paul II. What scandal would not have ensued if the first pope ever to be elected from the continent of America had been revealed as an accessory to murder and false imprisonment.
The cardinal’s spokesman denied the charges, and, according to  the U.K. edition of the International Business Times, “no evidence was presented linking him to the kidnapping” of the two priests he was accused of hiding.