First Take: Cautious optimism for Pope Francis I

Tonight, the chimney of the Sistine Chapel emitted white smoke, signaling that the College of Cardinals has finally picked a successor to Benedict XVI. The Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected as pontiff, becoming the first Latin American and Jesuit to assume the papacy. He has taken the pontifical name Francis I.

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This particular choice of pope is somewhat surprising. It has been widely speculated since Benedict XVI stepped down that a Cardinal from South America would be chosen, considering that there are more Catholics who live there than anywhere else in the world. However, Francis is 76 years old, the same age Benedict was when he was elected. Considering that there has been some concern over choosing an elderly pope, plus the fact that he is a Jesuit, this suggests that there may have been a compromise between the liberal and conservative factions of the College of Cardinals.

What does this mean for the future of the Catholic Church? Francis is both a Jesuit and reportedly a self-proclaimed follower of the teachings of Pope John Paul II, which suggests that he will be both an intellectual in the mold of Benedict XVI and also a potential reformer of a Church rocked by scandal and corruption.

However, Francis may not be as liberal as some may be hoping for. Even though he is from Latin America, like Pope John Paul II, Francis is a critic of liberation theology. He adheres to the traditional church teachings on abortion and opposes gay marriage, calling it an “anthropological throwback.” He wrote, “Let's not be naive, we're not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

In addition, Francis has also referred to adoption by gays and lesbians as a form of discrimination against children, a controversial remark that prompted a harsh rebuke from the Argentine President, who likened Francis’ comments to the Inquisition.

Ultimately, the election of Francis will most likely energize the faithful in Latin America. As almost 30 percent of Catholics live in South America and this population only continues to grow, this is where the Church needs to be focused in particular. As the traditional territorial bastions of Catholicism, like Europe, are weakening due both to declining faith and population, the Church now depends on Latin America in order to thrive and remain relevant.

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