But even some Argentine priests admit that the church has lost credibility since the dirty war -- which may explain why it has lost so many public debates on issues as diverse as abortion and the right to die.
"The faith of the people is in God, not in priests. Argentines consider themselves Catholic if they pray to the Virgin, baptize their children, celebrate feast days. Compliance with certain ecclesiastical norms? No. They'll say, ‘what does it matter what the priest thinks?'" Father de la Serna told me.
And as much as the new pope has come to be known in recent days for his compassion and humility, the church Bergoglio led from 1998 to 2013 maintained its orthodox, conservative positions on the major social issues of the day, pitting him against President Kirchner, with whom he tangled bitterly over social issues. Amid a fierce same-sex marriage debate in 2010, Kirchner described the then-cardinal's views, expressed in a private letter lambasting same-sex marriage legislation as "a destructive claim on God's plan," as "medieval and reminiscent of the Inquisition."
The church has also alienated itself from women parishioners with its inflexible stance on reproduction. As archbishop, Bergoglio publicly opposed sex education, the free distribution of condoms, and a law passed in Buenos Aires last year permitting abortion in the case of rape. Mabel Bianco, head of the non-profit Foundation for Women's Study and Research, says that some Catholic women are turning to Protestant churches with less vocal views or simply ignoring church doctrine on reproductive issues. "The fundamentalists tend to be the high society, with incomes that afford them private services, but the poor women, they are completely alone. If they are leaving the church it is because it is not meeting their needs," she says.
Fellow bishops describe Bergoglio as always seeking dialogue and consensus, and church workers who have long known him say his private behavior and positions were different than the conservative face he showed the public. But even in public, he once washed the feet of HIV patients and spoke out against the "mafias" running human trafficking rings. He held a mass each year in the gritty, open-air plaza of the ill-reputed neighborhood of Constitución, where he once described the city's levels of poverty as "scandalous."
And poverty may be the issue Bergoglio really cares about. Father José Juan Cervantes, 42, the ebullient director of the archbishop's social outreach program at the Mother of Immigrants church in La Boca section of Buenos Aires, says Bergoglio was much more focused on working with the poor and speaking about their plight than defending church orthodoxy: "He said what he had to say, but the challenge to him wasn't about being confrontational; it was about working with the poor to build justice."