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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT