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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT