When the papal conclave had concluded and the smoke ran white on Wednesday, 13 March, the Vatican had finally chosen a new Church father—Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The 266th pontiff has a reputation that will stir up mixed feelings in Universal Life Church ministers. Although Bergoglio has enjoyed admiration for his humility and service to the poor and sick, his feet remain firmly planted in traditional views about sex, marriage, and family.
Overcoming deep theological divisions, the cardinal electors selected their new pontiff in a surprisingly quick five-ballot decision. The overall mood of the Bergoglio’s initiation was one of calm graciousness and reverence. Bergoglio—who chose the name Francis to commemorate the humble 13th-century Italian minister who exhibited a similar penchant for living a life of uncluttered simplicity—asked his new followers to pray for him and for the retired Pope Benedict XVI who preceded him. In his first remarks as leader of the largest church in the world, he said “[b]rothers and sisters, good evening” to the wildly cheering crowds, adding, “[y]ou know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome. It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth, but here we are. Thank you for the welcome.” The words were an allusion to the fact that Francis was the first pontiff from the Americas, and the first from outside Europe in over a millennium.
There would seem to be good reason for the throng of devout Catholics to cheer to wildly for Francis, and even good reason for Universal Life Church ministers. Perhaps the most oft-cited example of the man’s Franciscan roots in humility and simplicity is the fact that he gave up his chauffeured limousine and started commuting by bus. He also has a solid reputation as a servant of the sick, poor, and underprivileged, which is perhaps most apparent in his compassion for victims of HIV and AIDS—he visited a hospice in 2001 where kissed and washed the feet of twelve AIDS patients. It is hard for any minister ordained online to dispute these practices.
But these praiseworthy virtues exhibited by Francis, the world’s new most powerful religious leader, are tempered by his disapproving views on women and LGBT people. According to John L Allen Jr. of The National Catholic Register, “Bergoglio is seen an unwaveringly orthodox on matters of sexual morality, staunchly opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. In 2010 he asserted that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children, earning a public rebuke from Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.” Thus, for ordained ministers in online churches like the ULC, the new pontiff’s compassion extends only so far, as he steadfastly refuses to recognize the same, nontraditional concepts of equality as ULC ministers do.
Pope Francis I has an impressive curriculum vitae pertaining to the preservation of a culture of compassion toward the sick and poor, and this deserve commendation, but unfortunately it does not go far enough. The world needs a pope who will eschew traditions which institutionalize oppression by standing up for the right of gay people to marry and raise families, as well as the right of women to hold equal leadership roles and control their own bodies—for women’s empowerment is a proven vital tool to fighting the very poverty people like Francis seek to eliminate. If such changes are not made, we may see the Church begin, gradually, to slip away into irrelevance.
The National Catholic Register