Marcos Brindicci / Reuters
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected to lead the Catholic Church following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
Known as a compassionate Argentine archbishop who eschewed the trappings of his role to live amid his flock and who focused on the poor, Pope Francis will likely keep to Catholic teachings that reject abortion and same-sex marriage, experts said Wednesday.
Francis washed the feet of 12 AIDS victims living at a hospice in 2001, an action filled with symbolism in the Roman Catholic Church since it was reminiscent of Holy Thursday and the washing of the apostles’ feet by Jesus.
But in 2010, while Argentina was debating same-sex marriage legislation, he was quoted as calling the bill that ultimately passed “a plan to destroy God’s plan,” and said it was a “move by the father of lies to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
He has also said gays and lesbians should not be allowed to adopt, according to Bernard Schlaeger of the Pacific School of Religion.
“The pope will be Catholic,” Professor Christopher J. Ruddy, an expert in church theology at the Catholic University of America, said of how he expected Francis to respond to some of the controversial social issues. “He speaks and he teaches what the Catholic church teaches on these issues.”
Nonetheless, gay and lesbian advocacy groups called on Francis to embrace LGBT people and their families.
"For decades the Catholic hierarchy has been in need of desperate reform. In his life, Jesus condemned gays zero times. In Pope Benedict's short time in the papacy, he made a priority of condemning gay people routinely,” the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said in a statement.
“This, in spite of the fact, that the Catholic hierarchy had been in collusion to cover up the widespread abuse of children within its care. We hope this pope will trade in his red shoes for a pair of sandals and spend a lot less time condemning and a lot more time foot-washing," the GLAAD statement continued.
NBC News Vatican analyst and papal biographer George Weigel says Cardinal Bergoglio was the right choice, a man whose simplicity, austerity and gentleness can put the church on the road to a new future. Not a "maintenance guy" that merely oversees the status quo, Cardinal Bergoglio is expected to teach the Church how to be missionary again.
Michael D’Antonio, author of the upcoming book “Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal,” thought there may be some opening for Francis to revisit the issues of contraception and mandatory celibacy for ordained priests, but he too felt that the new Catholic leader was not going to “change course in a substantial way” on the social issues that have at times put the religion in an uncomfortable spotlight.
“The name that he chose signals to people the most earthy, the most populist kind of Catholicism, but whether that’s going to translate into greater respect for the voice of the average Catholic has yet to be seen and I think that the symbolism may be good but I really don’t expect real change,” he said.
“We’ve been through decades and decades of scandal and crisis, and this is a man who has been at the highest level of the church through much of it, and he has never said or done anything that indicates that he’ll take a different approach,” he added.
Decline in morale
Meanwhile, the church's teachings on contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage, and its refusal to allow women to be ordained as priests, are blamed by some for the decline in morale among Catholics.
Forty-six percent of U.S. Catholics surveyed think the new pope should “move in new directions,” while 51 percent say he should “maintain traditional positions,” according to a Pew Research Center Poll conducted last month.
Media reports after Francis was named pope talked about him riding the bus with his compatriots, rather than using the chauffeured ride he had as part of his post. He also gave up his stately residence for a simple apartment, where he cooked his own meals.
Francis was known to be a pastor close to the people, who is traditional on matters of faith and morality, “keeping the status quo on moral issues,” said Schlaeger, associate professor of cultural and historical studies at the Pacific School. He said he didn’t expect any major moves from Francis on the social issues, though his being from Latin America and the first Jesuit priest was a “sea change” that could lead him to surprise people.
“They think they know who they have in that he’s not going to make radical change — he could — but I think he (would) have to show probably a very new side of himself to his brother cardinals,” Schlaeger said.
NBC News’ Becky Bratu contributed to this report.