New World Pope, Same Old Church

Sorry, Philippines, sorry, India, sorry Ghana, sorry Brazil. You thought it was your turn for Pope. But the clever insiders at the Vatican have blindsided everyone and got their own man, albeit but disguised as a non-European.

Pope Francis, aka Jorge Bergoglio, was nobody's choice as a front runner, lacking charisma, a non-white skin, relative youth, a reputation as a theologian or tough administrator.

So why was this man chosen to lead the billion-plus global followers of the Rome-based church - and after a remarkably small number of ballots? In retrospect it is now rather obvious, but the most important single factor has been passed over by almost all the international media coverage.

One reason is that he is a doctrinal conservative who appears to offer nothing new on the issues of contraception, priestly marriage and gay rights - and hence condemns the church to ongoing scandals as priests (not least in the Philippines) naturally find ordinary sexual urges stronger than priestly vows. Almost all the cardinals voting in the election (those under 80 years) were appointed by two notoriously conservative popes. So they could hardly be expected to vote for a reformer.

The second reason is that Bergoglio comes from outside Europe, and perhaps naturally from the continent with the largest number of Catholics. Thus the cardinals could been seen both to acknowledge the needs for a geographical shift while avoiding more radical ways of addressing the issue by voting for an Asian or African - and avoiding a Brazilian who might have been controversial in other ways. Meanwhile the only viable Europeans available looked likely to be far too liberal for the majority's liking.

Bergoglio's trump card for the organized voters was rather different - he is the nearest thing to an Italian that exists outside Italy. Like one third of Argentina's population he is of Italian descent and speaks Italian fluently. Hence he can probably be relied upon to avoid any root and branch reform of the Italian-dominated Curia - the church's bureaucracy - in Rome. Yes, he will make a few changes but this is a man not known for confrontations but rather for being able to compromise - as with the Argentine military regime in the 1970s and 1980s which was responsible for large numbers of disappearances.

The notion that Bergoglio is somehow representative of the developing world is laughable. Argentina is actually the world's most conspicuous example of a de-developing nation. It is a nation of European immigrants with vast natural resources at their disposal as well as easy access to Europe and North America, Yet, from being as rich as Australia and not far behind the US 100 years ago it has for decades mostly been governed either by thugs or incompetent populists like the current incumbent Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, successor to her late husband Nestor Kirchner, and the Peron clan.

Like most of Latin America, Argentina is a country which is nominally Catholic but where the vast majority of the adult population in practice reject the church's condemnation of contraception which Bergoglio (a virgin one assumes) strongly supports.

Once all the official cheering has subsided, when all the public relations guff dies away about the pope being a man of the people who goes to work on a bus, the realities of the rather shoddy compromises which pushed him into this position will become clear. As for the cheering elsewhere in Latin America, it is instructive that the loudest came from Venezuela, where followers of the late President and man on horseback Hugo Chavez are claiming his influence on god had a part in the election result. Francis knows his friends.