Skip to main content

Pope Francis' humble superiority

By Michael D'Antonio, Special to CNN
Before becoming Pope Francis, he was Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires. The announcement for the selection of a new pope came on Wednesday, March 13, the first full day of the cardinals' conclave in the Sistine Chapel. Before becoming Pope Francis, he was Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires. The announcement for the selection of a new pope came on Wednesday, March 13, the first full day of the cardinals' conclave in the Sistine Chapel.
HIDE CAPTION
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael D'Antonio: In Pope Francis' first days it's hard not to plumb meaning of his gestures
  • He says among them was a visit with disgraced Cardinal Law, implicated in sex abuse scandal
  • He says in this and other moves, he's shown commitment to orthodoxy of church hierarchy
  • D'Antonio: Pope embodies tension between Christian values, imperial church

Editor's note: Michael D'Antonio is the author of "Mortal Sins, Sex, Crime and the Era of Catholic Scandal." He is a former religion writer for Newsday.

(CNN) -- In just a few days, Jorge Bergoglio has shown that as Pope Francis he will be the kind of approachable, down-to-earth man that people yearn for in a spiritual leader.

Like the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu, he smiles easily and appears to walk comfortably through the world. He showed his humanity on his first full day in office as he suddenly left the Vatican to visit Rome's main church, the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica, and then stopped by the hotel where he had stayed before the recent conclave to pay his bill.

Like any major political leaders who communicate with symbols and gestures, Catholic hierarchs use style and stagecraft to reach their followers. The conclave and then the presentation of the new pope have been refined, as theater, over more than a thousand years.

Michael D\'Antonio
Michael D'Antonio

The secrecy surrounding the selection of the pontiff and the pomp accompanying the announcement from the balcony produce the kind of drama that rivets the world even in an age of technological distraction. Who isn't awed by the sights and sounds of a hundred-thousand people gathered in St. Peter's Square, awaiting and then greeting the man chosen to lead 1.2 billion people?

Opinion: A humble, authentic and credible pope

Just as we are meant to be affected by religious stagecraft, we are also practically hardwired to seek the meaning in a leader's every move. When Francis visited Santa Maria Maggiore he met briefly with Cardinal Bernard Law, who recently stepped down as archpriest of the basilica.

A decade ago, when he was archbishop of Boston, Law was a notorious figure in the scandal that arose around the sexual abuse of children by priests. As scores of victims accused him of failing to protect children from predatory priests, he became the only bishop to resign because of the abuse crisis; he then fled to Rome. But while many Boston Catholics consider Law a disgraced figure, his fellow bishops have continued to respect him and, in reaching out to him, Pope Francis appeared to echo this solidarity.

Opinion: Pope Francis is no herald of big changes

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This can be seen as a reminder to the world that the Catholic Church remains under the control of men who were appointed to high office by the archconservatives John Paul II and Benedict XVI and share a commitment to the orthodoxies that have alienated so many modern Catholics. On the status of women, priestly celibacy, contraception and sexuality, Francis is as firmly rooted in the past as his predecessors.

For example, during the debate that eventually resulted in gays in Argentina being allowed to marry, then-Archbishop Bergoglio mounted a fierce campaign against this equality. He argued that Satan himself was the author of a reform he called "a machinization of the 'Father of Lies'," and that children and families would be harmed by the change.

While he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio spoke often of the poor and called attention to the many ways that modern societies push people without status to the margins. In this way, he reflected Christ's affiliation with the outcasts of his time.

However, even as he spoke for the powerless, Bergoglio also consistently aligned himself with powerful conservative politicians seeking to oust the government headed first by Nestor Kirchner and later by his wife, the current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and which enjoyed wide support from the middle and lower classes. Time and again he invoked God in his political campaigns and suggested the other side was somehow less holy.

New pope's simple style shakes Vatican
Diaz: 'The name ... is very significant'

As he engaged in politics, Bergoglio emphasized the special status claimed by the church as an agent of his God, which, he implied, makes it superior to all other institutions. When he became Pope Francis, Bergoglio expressed the same sentiment in his very first formal remarks, delivered at the Sistine Chapel. There he warned that without emphasizing its religious base the church runs the risk of becoming "a pitiful NGO" (nongovernmental organization).

Navarrette: Pope pick a signal to Latino Catholics

For those who respect NGOs such as Amnesty International and the Red Cross, Francis' choice of words -- "pitiful NGO" -- was a stinging reminder that this man with the humble style cannot resist claiming superiority based on supernatural beliefs. This is the great contradiction of the new pope. On the one hand he criticizes hypocrisy in the church and shows his discomfort with the trappings of power. On the other, he shows disdain for social institutions and leaders that compete with the church for influence and authority.

The dichotomy represented by the values espoused by Christianity and an imperial church is what makes so many people uncomfortable with official Catholicism. Francis embodies this conflict. Stylistically, the world is getting a far more approachable, Christ-like man who understands the compassion and empathy people crave from spiritual leaders.

However, Francis' record appears to indicate there will be no real changes where it matters -- on the status of women, power-sharing, sexual ethics -- and thus huge numbers of Catholics will remain alienated. The biggest risk the Church faces today is irrelevance, and while the new pope's style means he'll get a hearing, what he has to say about issues that matter the most is unlikely to make the institution any more relevant than it was before him.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael D'Antonio

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT