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
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT