By selecting Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the next pope of the Roman Catholic Church, cardinals have sent an important signal to the Americas and particularly to Latin America, where 39 percent of all Catholics worldwide live.
Bergoglio, who will be called Pope Francis, was previously the archbishop of Buenos Aires. He is the first pope to be selected from anywhere in the Americas, and the first Jesuit tapped to be papal leader. While he may be more conservative than many American Catholics and Jesuits would prefer, it is significant that the Vatican has recognized the rise of Latin America, which for too long been overlooked by this and many other international institutions.
According to 2011 data from the Pew Forum, more than 425 million Catholics live in Latin America, with the largest populations in Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. After decades of dictators and repression, many of these countries, particularly in southern South America, are booming. Although the Vatican has too often failed to stand up to these dictators, the Roman Catholic Church is still the dominant religious institution in Latin America, where 72 percent of the population is Catholic, according to the Pew Forum.
Based on early news reports, Pope Francis may possess many of the qualities the church needs to confront scandals and conflicts involving clerical sex abuse and its bloated Curia, the Vatican's 4,000-employee administration.
The son of Italian immigrants, Bergoglio is said to lead an austere life. In Argentina, he worked to restore the church's reputation after a murderous military junta in the 1970s was allowed to "disappear" tens of thousands of leftists and people suspected of being opponents.
Yet it remains to be seen if the 76-year-old pope, the 266th pontiff, will be any more committed or effective than his predecessor in slimming down the Curia and moving the church into a modern age. Based on his past statements, it is clear Francis will continue to oppose gay marriage, birth control and the ordination of female priests. Will that help the church retain and convert adherents? Even in Argentina, a country where nearly 77 percent of the population is Catholic, the national government legalized same-sex marriage in 2010.
As columnist Kathleen Parker noted on our pages Wednesday, the Roman Catholic Church is an enormous force for good in the world its largest charitable organization and an important bully pulpit for the poor. By selecting the first pope from outside of Europe in 1,200 years, the cardinals have recognized the need to build stronger ties with the Southern Hemisphere.
Yet both of the hemispheres are rapidly changing and, on many issues, the church is decades behind. Will Francis work to change that? The answer, at this point, will await moments of clarity that have been absent during the closed-door conclave.