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Many shades of grey

india Updated: Mar 15, 2013 02:44 IST
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio

By choosing Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as its 266th leader, the Roman Catholic Church has for the first time entrusted a cardinal from Latin America with the papacy.

With nearly 40% of the world's Catholic population living in the continent, the Vatican's election of a non-European pope is not surprising. But there is reason to believe that in Cardinal Bergoglio, 1.2 billion Catholics have finally found a pope with an expansive touch.

A man of humble taste - he gave up a palatial bishop's residence to live in a small apartment - Cardinal Bergoglio once washed the feet of 12 HIV-infected patients.

While there can be little doubt about his reformative outlook, there have been several questions raised about his and the Catholic Church's alleged complicity in Argentina's Dirty War in the 70s.

In 2005, a journalist accused Cardinal Bergoglio of aiding the country's military dictatorship, and then while he was head of the Argentine Conference of Bishops, a former chaplain was found guilty of complicity in homicide, kidnapping and torture.

Cardinal Bergoglio chose not to apologise or comment on the chaplain's conviction. If the cardinal chooses to carry forward this ostrich-like vision to Rome, the pressing problems plaguing the Catholic Church will unfortunately remain unresolved.

Accusations of money laundering and the clergy's abuse of children are only the tip of a larger iceberg.

The rise of Protestantism in Latin American countries and of secularism in the West, shrinking church attendance and a bureaucratic Curia - these are all issues that the new pope will have to urgently address.

But there is some reason for hope.

Even though Cardinal Bergoglio has dismissed Argentina's legalisation of gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples as a "war against God", the 76-year-old does concede that condoms "can be permissible" to prevent infection.

He has also publicly chastised priests who refuse to baptise the children of single mothers. The moderate yet conservative cardinal has chosen to be named after Francis of Assisi.

The Italian friar had once said, "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible." When drawing a roadmap for his tenure, Pope Francis should find comfort in his namesake's diktat.