Decades ago, devotees of the counterculture were clad in flowers and tie-dye, but today they are donning clerical robes and crucifixes.
The conclusion of the Catholic Church’s 2013 conclave saw the election of a new pontiff, Pope Francis. A native Argentinean, he is the first non-European pope in over 1,200 years and the first Latin American ever to lead the church. However, Francis represents something even more unique. He is the first pope from a country that has nationally recognized same-sex couples’ right to marry.
The sociological shockwaves of the 1960s that spawned the sexual revolution, feminism and the ascension of the gay rights movement have carried social conservatives, like Pope Francis, away from the mainstream and into an entirely new realm of identity, counterculture conservatism.
The traditional values of the Church, which Francis has vowed to pontificate, are no longer widely accepted or practiced by the vast majority of Catholics living in the developed world. The widespread acceptance of birth control, casual sex and women in the workplace are an anathema to the archconservative values propagated by the Holy See.
As one of Argentina’s top bishops, he led the conservative opposition during the country’s heated 2010 debate over same-sex marriage.
In a letter to a group of nuns, he explained the Catholic Church’s vehement opposition to the bill, stating, “This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal, but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
The impact of this bruising, bitter battle on the new pope remains unclear.
Predicting Pope Francis’ future actions would be a fool’s errand, but it is not unreasonable to assert that this experience will affect the way he will tackle gay rights issues as pope.
Progressive Catholics probably will not find much solace in the conclave’s selection. It is unlikely that any of the items on the liberal wish list, like the ordination of female priests, a greater toleration of birth control or a softer tone on gay rights issues, will be fulfilled.
Theological conservatives, however, may have reason to celebrate the choice of a counterculture conservative. Francis has been battle-hardened over the years. In his home country, he confronted an odious, right-wing military dictatorship and left-wing cultural liberals. His record is demonstrable evidence of his commitment to the Church and its traditional values.
The Catholic Church’s coronation of a counterculture conservative might just breathe new life into the traditionalist wing of the Church. The playing field is tilted against the pontiff, but that has never stopped Francis before.
Max Reinhardt is the Secretary of the UMW College Republicans.