The Catholic world got a surprise last week: Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, a Jesuit, was on everyone's short list to become pope in 2005, but, at age 76, most commentators assumed he was too old this year -- especially after Pope Benedict XVI resigned citing the effects of old age.
Then came the second surprise: Cardinal Bergoglio chose the papal name Francis, the first time a pope has chosen the name of Catholicism's favorite saint.
The choice of name makes sense in terms of the new pope's background and is, perhaps, a clue as to how he intends to lead the 1.2 billion Catholics spread across the world. St. Francis of Assisi embraced voluntary poverty and simplicity. As the world has learned, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the palatial residence his predecessors inhabited, and he dispensed with the chauffeur-driven limousine and took public transportation to his office.
His interest in poverty, however, runs deeper than his personal lifestyle. Latin American bishops have spent the last 50 years wrestling with one dominant question: What does it mean to exercise a preferential option for the poor?
In the United States, Catholics live in an affluent society and have grown tone-deaf to the essential understanding of the Christian Scriptures: The Gospels are good news for the poor. The Catholic church in America certainly provides many and varied social services to the poor, but it has only incidentally and sporadically questioned the roots of our market economy. In the United States, even the Catholics have been "Calvinized" over the years. To the extent that religion plays a role in evaluating the economy, it is as an add-on, encouraging people to give to charity once they make their millions.
In Latin America, where millions of Catholics go to bed hungry and live in slums, the cause of the poor is not only about providing social services. The church in Latin America, for historical and cultural reasons, plays a great role is shaping society in foundational ways. The question of providing for the poor in Latin America, and throughout the global South, has been asked at a deeper level, intellectually and practically, than one finds in the affluent West.
Many Latin American theologians in the late 1960s and '70s were attracted to "liberation theology," which started with a Marxist-inspired analysis of social structures and tried to craft a Christian response. But the liberation theologians strangely mimicked the neo-conservative capitalists they criticized, exercising an economic reductionism that equated the achievement of social progress with salvation.
The neo-cons suggest the market will heal human ills, and the liberation theologians thought Marxist analysis would achieve the same end. Both ended up diminishing the most obvious Christian doctrine -- original sin -- and collapsing their hopes for the end time into a political program.
Liberation theologians and neo-con American Catholics are loathe to admit it, but both committed the same mistake, reducing the mystery of man to a manageable problem capable of either Marxist or market manipulations. They approached the problem of the poor from different directions, but their relationship is strangely symbiotic.
Cardinal Bergoglio was never seduced by the promises of the liberation theologians. For Christians, salvation comes from Christ, not from rearranging social structures, and it must conquer death, not merely debt. Christians are called to love the poor, and to learn from the poor.
Cardinal Bergoglio and the other bishops in Latin America have been relentless in questioning and criticizing those who exercise power in ways that marginalize the poor. The criticism of capitalism is trenchant: He called the International Monetary Fund's efforts to squeeze interest payments out of a struggling Argentine economy "immoral." Here, he stands in continuity with Benedict, whose criticism of modern capitalism rarely made headlines but was there for anyone who cared to look. Catholicism does not propose any specific economic or political systems, but it must always criticize whatever systems insult human dignity.
The reports from Rome before the conclave said that the cardinals wanted reform in the church. This did not mean that any of them were looking to change church teaching on same-sex marriage, abortion or contraception. It meant they wanted someone to clean up the corruption that has infected the Vatican in recent years.
Pope Francis has never worked at the curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, and it remains to be seen if he has the chops to change a culture he must first learn if he is to change it. Certainly he has a mandate from the cardinals to clean house at the Vatican as well as an invitation to decentralize decision-making in the church.
Pope Benedict de-mystified the papal office by resigning it. Many Catholics today hope that Pope Francis will de-mystify it further by assuming the office.
To identify with the poor, ultimately, is not a mystery, it is a ministry. And Pope Francis has just become the most prominent minister in the world.
Michael Sean Winters, a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, writes the Distinctly Catholic blog for the National Catholic Reporter. This article first appeared in The New Republic and is reprinted here with the author's permission. First Published March 17, 2013 4:00 AM