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Pope Francis

Pope Francis


I am not a believer in Catholicism; I’m not even Christian. Nor am I in any sense religious. But I have always been interested in, and strive to be open to, those who are. In my youthful days as a rabble-rouser I learned to hold in high regard the great currents of social change rooted in religious traditions–Latin American liberation theology such as that practiced by Paulo Freire, Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Leonardo Boff; Christian anti-Apartheid activism in South Africa, in particular that practiced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Allan Boesak and Rev. Dr. Colin Jones; the social gospel and civil disobedience of the American civil rights movement; Buddhist and Islamic anti-colonialism, the Jewish anti-fascist tradition, and so on.

I still do.

In the 1980s I was fortunate to have first-hand experiences with Christian ‘base-communities’ in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. I joined a United States Delegation to Central America sponsored by Witness For Peace in 1985 (I was 19 years old then) and later volunteered with Peace Brigades International in Guatemala. Both of these programs were (are) rooted in the social justice traditions of Christianity represented by the interdenominational journal Sojourners and the dissident National Catholic Reporter.

As a student radical during the 1980s I helped raise money and awareness to sponsor the Reverend Dr. Colin Jones, then an assistant to Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Anglican church, for a post in Portland, Oregon. In this endeavor I was influenced by a New Zealand Church of Christ pastor, Jim Stuart, who helped guide my understanding of faith and social justice.

In the 1990s I would have the opportunity to meet with such American civil rights champions as Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree Rev. C.T. Vivian, and the legendary Georgia Representative John Lewis.

I evaluate any religious tradition by its dogma (what it asserts, or says) and acts (what it actually does), the two together forming what liberation theologians refer to as ‘praxis’, the ongoing reflective process of combining theory and practice. What the praxis is of a given religion in relation to social inequality–and secular ideologies should be subjected to this same rigorous treatment—-constitutes my litmus test.

To this end I offer my impressions of the unfolding Papacy of Pope Francis.

All Atwitter Over The ‘Barefoot Pope’

The earthly ascension of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, to lead the Catholic Church has been heralded as both ground-breaking and a significant rupture with the past. He is the first non-European pope in 1300 years, the first pope from the Americas (Argentina) and the first pope who hails from the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Even his chosen name, ‘Pope Francis’, in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, the much beloved spiritual icon for the poor and dispossessed, is unorthodox.

Within days of his election, the Argentinian iconoclast initiated his first Twitter account: @Pontifex.

The very act of electing Pope Francis while the outgoing head of the church, Pope Benedict, was not yet dead, was also out of the ordinary–the office has not changed hands from one living pope to another in six hundred years. Reflecting the world’s most entrenched and enduring patriarchal institution, a sitting pope is always ‘Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church’ for life. He never resigns, nor is ever removed, for any reason, while living. That pope Benedict resigned and has been supplanted while still in earthly form undoubtedly reflects an institution attempting to contain, and thereby ameliorate, what are several, often interlocking, scandals.

Any early assessment of Pope Francis must take into account these trends.

Schisms and Scandals

First, there are the persistent and very widespread incidents of child sexual abuse that have been alternately ignored, tolerated, occasionally encouraged and often covered up. Secrecy has been at the core of this drama and will remain at the forefront of Vatican troubles. Criminal convictions of church officials and accompanying secret settlements intended to silence victims appear to continue apace with no sign of a break with church dogma or practice in the offing. Without a change in the culture and practices of the church–in particular some rather 19th century views on gender–we are likely to see recurrences.

The so-called ‘Vatileaks scandal’ that erupted in 2012 has centered on Vatican financial and moral corruption. Then Pope Benedict’s butler compiled and later released secret accounts of a ‘gay lobby’ active within the Vatican hierarchy together with other salacious material. Some of those reputedly gay church officials were being blackmailed for financial gain; there was rampant embezzlement and corruption ‘discovered’ within the Vatican Bank as well. All this was taking place within a Vatican culture of other-wordly exceptionalism anchored within the real-world of all-too human desires and failings.

It seems disingenuous not to refer to the church’s policies of priestly celibacy and opposition to birth control and abortion in this regard; but we rarely hear these items linked in reporting or analysis.

Three longer-term trends bode ill for the Vatican.

Protestant Evangelicals–pentecostalists in particular–have been outflanking the Catholic church in Latin America for decades through an aggressive theology of ‘prosperity through piety’ (The Economist August 3, 2013) and partnerships with the region’s most repressive political movements and governments. (I will not cite The Economist for that second point; that’s my own).

Free Market Capitalism (Neo-Liberalism)–free-wheeling consumer capitalism undermines the church through its emphasis on faithless individualism and acquisitiveness. While such ideology obviously does not prohibit the coexistence of Catholicism and capitalism–they often go quite well together–they remain in competition with one another in a ruthless, winner-take-all system.

South/North. A continuing rift between the church of the South (third world) and the church of the North (first world) perhaps goes to the heart of the identity of the Catholic church. Much has been made of cultural splits, especially along gender lines, but the deeper, more significant divide is around issues of inequality.

So this pope has a great deal on his plate.

We might speak of two contradictory currents within the Catholic Church: that of the followers of St. Francis of Assisi (but not necessarily Pope Francis) and the Saint’s commitment to the poor; and, those who uphold a dictatorship of privilege, deception and inequality.

Much of the sparkle, excitement and easily digestible ‘talking points’ reflected in mainstream press coverage of Pope Francis reflect the tension between these two currents; if only unconsciously.

Pope Francis and his Social Manifesto.

On his trip to Brazil Pope Francis issued his first social manifesto, telling politicians that more was needed to be done to wipe out social inequalities and a “culture of selfishness and individualism.” (Catholic News Service, July 25, 2013). “No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world” he said, and “no amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself.” (Vatican Radio, July 25, 2013).

During a mass in Brazil he urged Catholics to “resist the ‘ephemeral idols’ of money, power, success and pleasure.” (The Guardian, July 25, 2013). Earlier in his papacy Pope Francis used the terms “savage capitalism” and the “dictatorship of the economy.” (Reuters, May 21, 2013). His visit to Brazil came on the heels of massive, populist protests throughout the country, many centered in Brazils ‘favelas’, or slums, and aimed at opposing lavish funding for the upcoming Olympics and Soccer World Cup, as well as pricing for public transportation, among other pocket-book issues. Pope Francis’ tour also included a stop in a ‘pacified’ favela.

In Italy the new pope highlighted the plight of refugees who died fleeing poverty.

An Al Jazeera column described him as a “humble son of a railwayman.” His populist bonafides are reinforced when we consider that he was not on anyone’s short list to be elected pope prior to the cardinal conclave this past March.

We continue to be transfixed by media reports of Pope Francis washing the feet of the downtrodden all the while scolding political and economic elites for their callousness.

Finally, this pope has refused to be housed in that cradle of opulence known as the apostolic apartments within Vatican City and has chosen more modest accommodations nearby; he eschews the fashionista trappings of his predecessors, preferring simple robes to lavish vestments, and is an outspoken proponent of public transportation–no pope-mobile here.

The Vatican Press Corps was all atwitter as the new Pope inaugurated an open-ended, free-wheeling chat session aboard his private jet en route to the Vatican, fresh from his wildly successful World Youth Day in Brazil. Previous popes had been exclusive and restrained with the press, hastily announcing press conferences that were scripted with pre-planned questions and short, controlled exchanges. This Pope fielded twenty-one questions over a period of more than one hour and addressed, at least in part, and in some respects ‘off the cuff’, the most serious issues facing the church.

The most covered segment of his chat concerned his response to a question about the ‘gay lobby’ within the Vatican and the church’s policy on homosexuality. His response is deliciously clever, and worth quoting in full, so I’m going to reprint conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s summary of the exchange (July 30, 2013); Douthat in turn relies on a transcript from the Catholic News Service (July 29, 2013).

“… Pope Francis said it was important to ‘distinguish between a person who is gay and someone who makes a gay lobby,’ he said. ‘A gay lobby isn’t good.’

‘A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will — well, who am I to judge him?’ the pope said. ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn’t this (homosexual) orientation — we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.’

Three items jump out here.

First, the pope’s “…who am I to judge…” response suggests an opening on the subject; but it is an opening that can be slammed shut by the simple answer “Well, you’re the Pope!” According to church dogma, in the final instance, the Pope is perhaps the only one who can judge.

So he invites an opening by saying, in effect, “gay Catholics are fine, so long as they don’t organize for their rights.” Pope Francis also suggests an acceptance of gays and lesbians seeking salvation in the Catholic church, but says nothing about gay people seeking it elsewhere, or not at all. An economical position, if there ever was one.

Second, the distinction between ‘sinful’ acts and ‘the sinner’ smacks of a familiar, and disingenuous, parsing of language meant to deflect charges of homophobia and, at a deeper level, misogyny.

Third, by closing his remarks on this subject with a reference to a ‘Masonic lobby’, Pope Francis gives an undeniable shout-out to the reactionary wing of the Catholic church, Masons being a familiar bogeyman of the Catholic right.

Is Pope Francis signaling that he is navigating a treacherous path between reform and reaction?

The Dirty War

This triangulating, or balancing act, may be the most salient character trait of this pope. His legacy could be undermined by the historical pope Francis–the actual past of the flesh and blood Jorge Mario Bergoglio–and what he did, or did not do, during a blood-stained period of his country’s history.

I don’t know if Pope Francis has something to confess regarding his time as a Catholic cleric and leader of Argentina’s Jesuits during the military dictatorship (1976-1983), but the terms ‘collude’ and ‘collaborate’ offer up a rich catalog of sins–of omission, of commission, from ignorance, in word, and in deed, such that I have to wonder: did Pope Francis do all he could to protect human life during those terrible years? Is there, or should there be, a ‘mea culpa’ forthcoming? What was it like meeting with officials of the dictatorship knowing the counterinsurgency war underway against ‘subversives’ was devolving into a murderous urban pacification program so despicable as to force us to rewrite our vocabulary of repression?

Any list of the morbid neologisms contributed to the world by the Argentinian dictatorship would include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • ‘Los Desaparecidos’ (The Disappeared)–Victims of the dictatorship made to vanish through anonymous torture and murder. The term is a nod to Hitler’s ‘Nacht und Nebel’, (‘Night and Fog’) policy of vanishing all human resistance to the Nazi regime, even down to the sites of graves of its victims.
  • ‘Operacion Condor’ (Operation Condor)–a regional strategy of repression aimed at the left, pursued by southern cone nations with help from the United States, that culminated in tens of thousands dead in half a dozen South American countries.
  • ‘La Guerra Sucia’ (The Dirty War)–self-named by the dictatorial generals who led it. A war of urban counterinsurgency warfare that left perhaps 30,000 dead; the term was echoed by Vice President Dick Cheney when he referenced torture and assassination as the necessary ‘dark side’ of U.S. foreign policy.
  • ‘La Parilla’, (BBQ Grill)–“By gruesome analogy, the metal frame used in the torture was given the same name because of its appearance and because the victim was placed on top of it like the meat on a barbecue. The parrilla is both the metal frame and the method of torture that uses it.” (Wikipedia “Parrilla-torture”)
  • ‘Escuadrones de la Muerte’ (death squads), secret, state-sponsored groups of assassins who target ‘subversives’ for elimination.
  • “Secuestro Bebes”: (Baby Kidnapping)–The pregnant kidnapping/murder/adoption program where female prisoners were forced to bring pregnancies to term, the mothers subsequently murdered and, with the collusion of elements of the Catholic church, the babies bundled off to be adopted by elite military families–a secret ‘baby rat line’.

I have not found a word or phrase that quite captures the horror of that last contribution, “secuestro bebes” is my own rendering.

Even with the successful conviction of the Argentinian dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in 2011 the implications of this policy continue to be debated, as does the role of the Catholic church. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have discovered the identities of at least 100 of the stolen babies; there remain hundreds more as yet unidentified.

I have not read a definitive account of the role of the Catholic church in this diabolical program. It seems likely there was an organic connection between this policy of selective murder of pregnant subversives (who were, in the eyes of certain Catholic priests, presumed guilty of crimes punishable by death) and the sparing of their offspring. In other words, this policy has a distinctly religious, and in this context, Catholic, character. It’s hard to imagine such a policy in another situation of state-sponsored eliminationism–in Nazi Germany, for instance. In fact, given the church’s positions on abortion and birth control, it’s possible the policy is uniquely Catholic.

There are many forms of collaboration, and this word, when unpacked, can carry with it a truck-load of negative connotations. As some Christians often refer to levels of sin, we can think of degrees of collusion, or collaboration. It is important to know who Jorge Mario Bergoglio was then, and what he did or didn’t do during the executions, disappearances, illegal adoptions, torture sessions and murders.

What’s Next

The two general issues this Pope seeks to ameliorate are the charges from Argentina (that originate from the left) of his collaboration with the dictatorship; and, the more general issue of clerical pedophilia. Some of the reporting on these issues has been largely supportive of these efforts, e.g., The Economist, no friend of the poor, is only too happy to bury the first and perhaps display a certain deference to power through its omission of the second (August 3, 2013).

So is this pope different?

Yes and no.

My sense is that Pope Francis may be able to use a more populist theology of the poor to overcome the various scandals that have rocked the Vatican of late, and that progressives should be both encouraged by and wary of this.

Will Pope Francis seize the opportunity for an historic dialogue on issues of economic inequality in the Americas? Any discussion between Pope Francis and President Obama in this regard would have to take into account the region’s left-of-center governments–from Cuba through Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Equador, Argentina, and Chile. The very fact that the Pope is so engaged on issues of economic inequality suggests that the fulcrum of debate could move more to the left. The very act of having the discussion seems promising.

Anyone for a Third Vatican Council?