We have a new pope! Pope Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, is the first Latin American pope, and indeed the first pope not from Europe or Northern Africa.
He also has one of the more interesting political records of any of the papabili. When Argentine president Cristina Fernández Kirchner fought successfully to legalize same-sex marriage, he vehemently opposed the move, stating, "This is no mere legislative bill. It is a move by the father of lies to confuse and deceive the children of God."
According to National Catholic Reporter's John Allen, the new pope steered clear of liberation theology — a branch of Catholic social thought which emphasizes the importance of reforming capitalist structures that disadvantage the poor — even as many of his peers in Latin America were embracing it. (Allen also notes that in 2005, Francis was accused by a human rights lawyer of helping the ruling junta in Argentina of kidnapping two liberal Jesuit priests who were subsequently "disappeared" as part of the government's "Dirty War" against leftists in 1976. Francis denied the charges.)
But Francis also seems to be an opponent of austerity, most notably during his time as spiritual leader of Argentina when the country defaulted on its debt in 2002.
A paper by Thomas Trebat, "Argentina, the Church, and Debt," details the church's role in the crisis's resolution. Argentine bishops, including Francis, had long criticized the laissez-faire policies of Carlos Menem, who was president from 1989 to 1999. "The bishops were critical of the economic model as a generator of poverty and unemployment, notwithstanding the stability it had brought to the country," Trebat wrote.
And when the debt crisis hit in 2002, the church called in strong terms for a debt restructuring to take place which privileged social programs above debt repayment. They argued that the true problems in the Argentinian economy were, in their words, "social exclusion, a growing gap between rich and poor, insecurity, corruption, social and family violence, serious deficiencies in the educational system and in public health, the negative consequences of globalization and the tyranny of the markets."
Trebat thinks this influenced the eventual outcome of the crisis, wherein the country's creditors accepted a less devastating austerity package than many expected. "Civil society, of which the Church is a part, has a clear role to play in demanding that debt service not take precedence over human development once reasonable efforts have been expended to pay the debt," he concludes.
Trebat studied the whole church's response, rather than just Francis's, but comments by the new pope suggest he held similar views. Allen quotes a later speech in which then-Cardinal Bergoglio declared, "We live, apparently, in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."
How involved Pope Francis will be in the austerity debates in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere remains to be seen. But if the record of him and other Argentine leaders is any indication, he won't look too kindly to cuts in social spending.
Update: The first version of this post stated that Francis is the first non-European pope. However, three early popes — Gelasius I, Miltiades, and Victor I — were born in North Africa. We regret the error.