March 13 marked the fourth anniversary of the white smoke – the fumata bianca – leaking out of the top-most chimney in the Sistine Chapel; Jorge Margio Bergoglio had been named pope, the first non-European since the Syrian Gregory III reigned in the 8th century, and the first South-American to ever hold the title. The new pope would be the first to adopt Francis as his name, in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the founders of the Franciscan order, renowned for his austerity and ascetic lifestyle.
As the choice of his name evinces, from the moment of his election Bergoglio made it clear that his style would be drastically different from the tradition that preceded him. Not only did he announce his intentions to bring institutional reform to the Roman Catholic Church, pushing it to consider more populist concerns, but he would lead by example in his own lifestyle. One of the Pope’s earliest decisions was to shun the official papal residence of the Apostolic Palace for the much simpler Santa Marta House, which in his words, would allow him to live a ‘normal life’. The Pope’s radical austerity and progressiveness, which so drastically broke away from the Vatican’s traditional opulence, catapulted him to a status of global popularity which institutional Catholicism had not seen since at least Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. Four years later, however, it is worthwhile to assess whether or not the Pope’s professed changes have been consequential, to what extent the utmost figurehead of the largest Church in the world has truly enacted a progressive agenda, and what his role amongst international political actors might be.
Bergoglio’s style long precedes his appointment to the papacy. In Argentina, throughout his public life and especially during his service as Archbishop of Buenos Aires between 1998 and 2013, he garnered popularity for his humility, deep concern for poverty, and espousal of populist causes. As he held this position – the most important in the Argentine church – Bergoglio had also renounced the official residence in exchange for a small apartment, commuting everyday to work on public transportation. Although this fomented a mythical image of him in the popular discourse, Bergoglio was not one to shy away from the headlines or political controversy. In 2005, a failed lawsuit claimed Bergoglio had helped the Argentinian Navy kidnap two priests in May 1976, when Argentina was still under the rule of the military dictatorship, but did not specify the nature of his involvement. Although the allegations were found to be largely false, several critics of the Pope still voice their concerns over his role during the period. Bergoglio was a superior in the Society of Jesus of Argentina and, although the two priests kidnapped belonged to his order, he did little to stand up to the military regime, with some claiming he removed protections to facilitate the Navy’s actions. Critics point to his silence as a sign of a worrying complicity just as grave as the kidnappings themselves.
More recently, the Pope has been involved in further political controversy due to his tense relationships with former Presidents Nestor and Cristina Kirchner. The husband and wife’s presidencies were both marked by a strong populist revolutionary rhetoric, representative of the prevailing political narrative of Latin America, led chiefly by Hugo Chavez. In Bergoglio, then, the Kirchners perceived a natural foe – a well-liked and somewhat populist figure who stood at the head of the classically reactionary force of the Catholic Church. Although after his appointment Cristina cozied up to him, turning him into a supposed friend and proclaiming him a companion in the fight for a patria grande (grand homeland), for years she had labelled him “chief of the opposition” and “accomplice of the dictatorship.” Nestor Kirchner thought of Bergoglio as one of his chief political opponents up to his death in 2010.
Despite Bergoglio’s long-standing reputation as a humble figure espousing populist views, he didn’t always support a progressive agenda, especially during Kirchner’s presidency. The two figures clashed heavily in 2010 over gay marriage: The then-archbishop sent the president a letter deeply condemning the impending approval of same-sex marriage. He wrote, “let us not be naive: this [referring to legislation over gay marriage] isn’t merely about a political fight; it is a pretension to destroy the plan of God.” Later Cristina and Bergoglio would become closer allies, reaching consensus on several social issues, and meeting several times for lengthy discussion over both their tenures. After Kirchnerismo’s loss in the past presidential elections, Francis’ relationship with the Argentine political leadership once again hit the rocks. The Pope is somewhat at odds with current center-right president Mauricio Macri, whose 2015 election was a resounding rejection of Kirchnerismo, as Latin America turned away from the populist left which had prevailed in the last decade.
The concrete reasons as to why the Pope reacted tersely to Macri’s win – and why their relationship is so rocky – is unclear. Some claim that it rises purely out of political differences: Bergoglio embraces populist economics and is somewhat of a Peronista, while Macri embraces market economics and presents himself as an ‘entrepreneur’ who rejects the Argentine political status quo. Others date the strained relations back to their clashes over city politics, when Bergoglio was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and Macri the city’s mayor. Early into Macri’s presidency, Bergoglio turned down a hefty donation on behalf of the Argentine government to an educational foundation backed by the Papacy, quoting the presence of the number 666 in the sum.
Yet it is more likely that the rejection came from the fear of political overtones stapled to the donation, with the Pope wanting to distance himself as much as possible from the Macri administration. The tense relationship between the two was further demonstrated by the mere 22-minute reception Bergoglio gave to the Argentine president in his visit to the Vatican last year; Macri was received in the official palace, a marked difference from the lengthy receptions offered to Kirchner in the papal residency. It seems as if the Pope is wary of endorsing a president who represents a shift away from social programs and towards economic austerity and welfare cuts.
In spite of Bergoglio’s back and forth relationship with the political leadership of his own country, many have praised his efforts throughout his four-year papal tenure to mediate conflict between political actors; the most notable being his role in the attempted rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. After the surprise reconciliation, it was revealed that the Pope had played a key part in thawing the decades-old detente between the Caribbean nation and its neighbor in the north; he allegedly hand-wrote letters to then-President Obama and Raul Castro asking them to end the stand-off, and hosted secret talks in the Vatican between US and Cuban officials.
The Pope’s success in brokering international deals and diffusing tension between state actors, however, is eclipsed by the internal turmoil he now faces. For all his professed progressiveness and drive to reform the Vatican church, Bergoglio has achieved little – though not entirely due to his own fault. His four-year anniversary as Pope is marked by increasing defection, tension, and even alleged rebellion within the confines of the Church. His attempts to codify 21st century progressive values into the Vatican’s dogma have been met with fierce backlash amongst the traditional cardinals.
One of his earliest attempts of reform was the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014, which sought to investigate claims of sexual abuse within the Church. However, Bergoglio’s attempts to mitigate the epidemic of abuse within the highest echelons of the Church was dealt a significant blow last Ash Wednesday, March 1. Marie Collins, the last sexual assault survivor on board the Commission quit, citing frustrations with the Commission’s lack of independence and inability to take true action. In her letter of resignation, she blames the “lack of resources, inadequate structures around support staff, slowness of forward movement and cultural resistance” as the main factors of her decision. Furthermore, she writes, “The most significant problem has been reluctance of some members of the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations of the Commission despite their approval by the Pope.” The Pope’s recent call to allow for divorced men to be able to hold communion has led to a similar backlash. Not only is the conservative backbone of the Church frustrating all of the Pope’s attempts at reform, but some reports also suggest that high-ranking bishops are drafting a petition for his abdication.
Although only four years into his tenure, Bergoglio’s initial flair and passion for change have been largely quelled by a status quo which refuses to concede any ground. The Pope’s initial drive to broker peace and social justice within the Church and across the globe has been stalled. Both internal ruptures – which he has been unable to handle – and external escalating tension between political actors – which lay beyond him – have put a significant halt to a narrative of change which gave hope to so many four years ago. Although this might be attributed to Bergoglio’s own contradictions and failures, his inability to affect profound, concrete change places a cynical question-mark for other progressives of the 21st century. Is it impossible to roll out real reform when it comes at the expense of the status quo? Although it is still too early in his tenure to make a definite judgement, it seems as if not even the attempt of minimal reform by the highest religious figure in the world has been successful; what hope is there, then, for those who face similarly conservative and deeply entrenched institutions, and for those attempting to effectuate change from the bottom? Cynicism shouldn’t overpower the continuing fight for social justice and change; however, the Pope’s narrative so far should make us conscious of where we still are and what challenges lay ahead of us.