Since Pope Francis’ historic visit to the U.S., states have executed three death row inmates. The White House has promised further arms sales to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Our military has continued daily airstrikes in Syria. It has bombed a Doctors without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. Yet another mass shooting facilitated by out-of-control arms manufacturers and their government servants has shocked us all. At the same time, preliminary work on the Keystone XL pipeline has continued unabated.
In his congressional address, the pope condemned all such actions in no uncertain terms.
Meanwhile, defying all expectations, the pontiff chose not to address specifically abortion, contraception and gay marriage. Those matters, he has said, have been over-emphasized while the essence of Jesus’ Gospel (Good News to the poor) has been correspondingly downplayed. In fact, Francis has described the Church’s pelvic concerns as “obsessions.”
Nonetheless, since the pope’s departure virtually the only lasting conversation has circled around two words spoken to Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky, who has refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Apparently at the invitation of the conservative Vatican Nuncio (ambassador), Ms. Davis appeared in a reception line, had her case briefly explained to the pope, shook his hand, and heard two words: “stay strong.” Those two words have overshadowed the thousands of sentences spoken by the pope in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.
“Stay strong” was enthusiastically embraced by the mainstream media (MSM) as if it were the most significant papal utterance between September 22nd and September 25th. Apparently, it relocated commentators on familiar, comfortable ground far from the decidedly annoying “bold cultural revolution” advocated by the gentle visitor from the Vatican.
Later while on the plane back to Rome, the pope was pointedly asked about government officials who refuse to discharge a duty if they feel it violates conscience. In keeping with church tradition, the pope replied, “Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right.”
The MSM seized upon that pronouncement as a further expression of papal support for Kim Davis.
Only a few applied the pronouncement’s logic to Kim Davis herself, who has been divorced three times and married four. Following the logic of “conscientious objection,” it would be much more consistent for Christian administrators in Rowan County to refuse all of Ms. Davis’ petitions for divorce which Jesus condemned as adulterous. (He said absolutely nothing about homosexuality.)
Much less did the MSM bother to apply the pope’s words about conscientious objection to whistle blowers in general or in particular to Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, the work of WikiLeaks, or to military personnel refusing orders. Once again, that would have moved the discussion into decidedly uncomfortable territory. It would have been too “political.”
In the meantime, national leaders, led by the United States, largely refuse to “become strong,” much less “stay strong” on matters of capital punishment, and weapons of mass destruction. They’ve continued our headlong plunge towards the abyss represented by climate chaos – the lion in the room that threatens to devour us all.
According to Pope Francis, it’s towards taming that lion that focus and concern should be directed — instead of towards meaningless sideshows.
In a recent interview, Chris Hedges criticized Pope Francis for not being radical enough in his criticism of capitalism. He said that in the end, the pope was merely advocating charity and not real systemic change.
Hedges is an award-winning journalist, activist, author, and Presbyterian minister. He is one of our culture’s most courageous writers and prophetic critics. He is always worth listening to. So I was surprised by his remarks.
The interview gave the impression that the pope not only should have been stronger in his criticism of capitalism; he should have denounced it as such, and offered some alternative.
My personal response is that the pope actually has done all three – during his six-day trip to the United States, and especially in his landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’. During his visit here, he offered an extremely harsh denunciation capitalism. He scathingly criticized its “American” embodiment as violent and a form of gangsterism. And finally, in Laudato Si’, he offered a workable alternative.
Think about the pope’s criticism of capitalism-as-we-know-it.
Begin by understanding that it is historically short-sighted to argue that something called “capitalism” actually exists and needs reformation. The system has long since been reformed. In the midst of the Great Depression, it became clear to everyone that capitalism in its pure form (private ownership of the means of production, free and open markets, and unlimited earnings) was simply not workable.
So under the influence of John Maynard Keynes and others, the New Deal in the U.S. and the more extensive welfare states of Europe incorporated elements of socialism (public ownership of the means of production, controlled markets, and limited earnings). In other words, economies became mixed (some private ownership and some public, some controlled markets and some free, and earnings limited by progressive income tax).
The problem is that the new mixed economy was blended in favor of the rich. The theory was “trickle-down.” If the rich prospered, the rising tide of their prosperity would lift all boats.
Another problem surfaced with the Reagan and Thatcher counter-revolutions during the 1980s. Reagan called the New Deal a “fifty-year mistake.” So he focused on eliminating or shrinking the elements of socialism that had crept into economies everywhere since the emergence of the welfare state. It’s that counter-reformation that Pope Francis has criticized in polite terms as the excrement of evil personified.
He elaborated his point during his address to the U.S. Congress on September 24th when he referred to economic system we know as “filthy,” “rotten,” and “putrid.” He called the Wall Street speculators “hypocrites.” Moreover, the pope directly confronted the members of his audience by calling the system they represented “the greatest purveyor of violence” in the world today. And he called the politicians seated before him a bunch of gangsters.
Yes he did.
Of course the polite, soft-spoken, and gentle pontiff was a gracious enough guest to do none of those things directly. He did so instead by offering Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton as embodiments of our country’s greatest values.
It was Dorothy Day who is remembered as saying, “We need to overthrow . . . this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”
It was King who called the United States itself, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
And it was Thomas Merton, the apostle of non-violence, who classified U.S. politicians and military leaders among the world’s gangsters when he said, “The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle . . .”
Moreover, Pope Francis did not leave his audience merely reeling from such heavy blows un-complemented by clear systemic alternatives to the filthy rotten arrangement he addressed. Instead, the pontiff called for a deep restructuring of capitalism-as-we-know-it. This would involve turning the present system’s preferential option for the rich precisely on its head, replacing it with his favorite guideline, the “preferential option for the poor.” Even more particularly, restructuring would require a central international legislative body endowed with power to override national economic practices judged to be environmentally unsound.
Both recommendations are found in Laudato Si’ which the pope cited in his congressional address. Both have already been implemented world-wide.
To begin with, the New Deal, the Great Society and (even more so) Europe’s introduction of the welfare state already represent arrangements which forefronted the needs of the working classes and poor. The reform measures were at the very least strong gestures towards economies mixed in favor of the poor rather than of the Wall Street rich. Such reforms demonstrated that another economic order is indeed possible.
As for the world body with power to enforce environmental legislation, the World Trade Organization (WTO) already has it, though perversely in its present form. According to the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (and of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership), multinational corporations (MNCs) now have the power to sue before the WTO and invalidate U.S. environmental protection standards if those laws can be shown to diminish a corporation’s expected profits.
What the pope is proposing is an international body that turns the WTOs mandate upside-down. The body the pope proposes would have binding power to protect the environment from the depredations of MNCs – i.e. is to eliminate their profits if they result from environmental destruction.
So I respectfully suggest that Chris Hedges is mistaken when he says Pope Francis pulled punches in his address before the U.S. Congress. And the pontiff has offered an alternative. As an honored guest, he gently delivered knock-out blows clearly observable to attentive listeners.
It remains for prophets like Hedges and others to highlight and reinforce them and in this way to advance us towards the Other World Pope Francis would convince skeptics is possible.
Readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: NM 11: 25-29; PS 19:8, 10, 12-14; JAS 5: 1-6; JN 17: 17B, 17A; MK 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48
Since the pope’s arrival in the U.S. last Tuesday, it’s been all Francis all the time on television and in the newspapers. He’s charmed us all, and even somehow inveigled Republican lawmakers to applaud ending capital punishment, protecting the environment, opening borders to immigrants, and ending arms sales of all kinds.
Washington Post columnist, George Will, however is holding out. On the eve of the pontiff’s arrival, Will called the pope an over-the-top consumer, distant from the poor, flamboyant, sanctimonious, unscientific, wooly-headed, reactionary, and un-American. He isn’t smart or honest enough, Will suggested, to know that the capitalism he criticizes has pulled the masses from their poverty, extended life expectancy, and has the power to clean up the environment without burdensome regulations. Fossil fuels have saved the world. Without it we’d all be starving. The wealth is indeed trickling down.
So the pope is wrong when he speaks of “the excluded.” Capitalism-as-we-know-it is blameless and excludes no one. We need do nothing but forge ahead (like lemmings), intimated Will, an ultimate Beltway insider.
I bring all of that up because this week’s readings are about insiders and outsiders and how the Judeo-Christian tradition, like Pope Francis, stand firmly on the side of those insiders feel compelled to protect themselves against. Unlike Will, the readings say, the Jesus tradition stands against the rich, and on the side of the poor – especially children. The tradition calls us to transformation, not defense of the status quo.
In Will’s defense, however, it must be said that he stands in good company. Like him, the very disciples of Moses and Jesus were exclusivists. As they show in today’s readings, they too felt compelled to protect their privilege and turf and to turn away those they perceived as threatening interlopers.
On the other hand, both Moses and Jesus are like Pope Francis. They take a Big Tent approach to matters of the Spirit, wealth distribution and protection of the vulnerable. Both recognize the Divine Spirit of prophecy and healing wherever they are effective. Where that Spirit works, the rich are denounced as in today’s reading from the Letter of James. Meanwhile, the poorest of the poor are defended in uncompromising terms – as happens at the end of today’s Gospel.
Consider the content of the readings themselves.
In today’s first selection from the Book of Numbers, Moses’ chief of staff, Joshua, is jealous when he hears that Eldad and Medad claimed Moses’ Spirit. They did so even though they had “missed the meeting” where that spirit was conferred. “Tell them to stop!” he demands of Moses.
“What are you talking about?” Moses replies. “They’re on our side. No one can control the gifts of God. I wish everyone could share my spirit of resistance to oppression.” (That’s what the Spirit of Moses is in the Jewish Testament.)
Evidently, Mark has the Numbers account in mind when, in today’s Gospel reading, he structures a dialog between Jesus and his “beloved disciple,” John. (Only, John doesn’t come out very loveable in this story.) Mark parallels Joshua and John, Moses and Jesus perfectly.
John complains to Jesus that an exorcist who “does not follow us” is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He wants Jesus to stop the fraud.
(John’s remark itself proves interesting. That is, by Mark’s account, none of Jesus’ inner circle really “follows” Jesus. Actually, they understand almost nothing of what Jesus says. They just don’t get it. They argue about who is the greatest, completely missing Jesus’ point about leadership “from below.” And they even prove themselves unequal to the task of casting out evil spirits.)
Like Joshua, John is jealous of an exclusive position and of powers that don’t really belong to him – certainly not in Jesus’ eyes.
So, like Moses, the Master replies “Let them be,” he says. “Whoever is not against us is with us.”
Other contents of today’s readings clarify the polarities Jesus refers to. According to the selection from the Letter of James the rich are against Jesus; exploited agricultural workers and little children are with him.
As a result, James predicts that the rich will soon be reduced to tears and misery. Their crime: living in the lap of luxury and pleasure while building up personal retirement funds at the expense of the defenseless field workers the landlords have underpaid.
For their crimes, the wealthy will see their gold and silver rot away. It will devour their flesh like a searing fire. They’ll end up wearing moth-eaten rags worse than those of the people they’ve exploited.
In the Gospel reading Jesus has even worse things to say about those who mistreat the absolute lowest of the low in the first-century Mediterranean hierarchy, viz. children. As scripture scholar, Ched Myers, points out, for Jesus’ contemporaries children were victims of a “circle of contempt” within the family. They were treated as worse than slaves – as absolute non-entities.
Mark has Jesus contradict that culture in shocking terms. In fearfully poetic language he says that those who mistreat children will be treated worse than James’ exploitative rich. Jesus talks about amputated hands and feet and plucked-out eyes. His words cannot contain his rage.
In the end, George Will’s words barely contain his own rage in the face of Pope Francis embodiment of the Spirit Jesus exhibits in today’s gospel. In this the columnist mirrors would-be “followers” of Jesus — churchgoers who understand nothing of what their masters taught them. They are the rich who would have us ignore and despise the cries not only of children in general but of their own grandchildren and of their own Mother Earth.
In the end, it is they who are the over-the-top consumers, distant from the poor, flamboyant, sanctimonious, unscientific, wooly-headed, reactionary, and un-American.
George Will was more correct than he knew when he finished his screed about Pope Francis saying, “Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”
Yes, we are called to change!
It was a fabulous speech by the world’s leading spiritual and thought-leader, who has just produced our century’s most important public document, Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical on the environment.
Pope Francis addressed not just the dignitaries in the Senate chambers, but all of us – parents struggling to support families, social activists, the elderly and the young.
The pope emphasized communitarian values: dialog, the common good, solidarity, cooperation, sharing, and the Golden Rule.
He held up for emulation four counter-cultural heroes he understood as embodying the most admirable of “American” values. They weren’t Rockefeller, Reagan, Jobs, or even FDR. Instead they were:
- Abraham Lincoln: the champion of liberty for the oppressed
- Martin Luther King: the advocate of pluralism and non-exclusion
- Dorothy Day: the apostle of social justice and the rights of the poor
- Thomas Merton: the Cistercian monk who embodied openness to God and the capacity for inter-faith dialog.
Of course, Lincoln and King were victims of assassination for championing the rights of African Americans.
Day and Merton vigorously resisted what Dorothy Day called “this filthy, rotten system.” (As is well-known, she was also an unwed mother whose first pregnancy ended in abortion.)
Following the examples of The Four, the pope called for the end of:
- Fundamentalisms of every kind – including economic fundamentalisms
- Political polarizations that prevent opposing parties from dialog and cooperation
- Exclusion of immigrants by a nation of immigrant descendants
- Capital punishment and its replacement by programs of rehabilitation
- The global arms trade and arms sales in general along with the wars and violence they stimulate
- Violent conflict and its replacement by difficult but essentially diplomatic process of dialog
- The human roots of climate chaos and the related problems of poverty
- Unlimited and directionless development of technology
Throughout this gentle but radical speech, the audience seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop – i.e. for the pope to mollify his conservative critics by addressing their favorite “religious issues” contraception, abortion, gay marriage. But the shoe never hit the floor.
At two points the pope about to untie his footwear. In mid-speech, he stated that we must protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This lured his audience into a standing ovation.
However, the illustration of his point was not abortion, but capital punishment. Punishment for crime, Francis said, must never exclude hope and rehabilitation. We must end the death penalty, he asserted, since every life is sacred.
Then towards the end of his address, Francis spoke of his anticipated presence at this weekend’s Philadelphia Conference on the family. Families, he said, are threatened as never before, both from within and without.
But then, instead of addressing gay marriage, the pope spoke of the “most vulnerable” in this context – not the unborn, but “the young” threatened by violence, abuse and despair. Many of them hesitate to even start families, he lamented – some because of their own lack of possibilities. Others demur because they have too many possibilities. “Their problems are our problems,” the pope said. We must address them and solve their underlying causes.
It was a masterful speech. It continually lured conservatives into standing ovations for issues they constantly oppose: the end of the capital punishment, protection of the environment, openness to immigrants, the end of arms sales of all kinds. The address summoned legislators to their real responsibility – pursuing the common good, the chief aim, the pope said, of all politics.
The pope’s basic message was be daring and courageous – like the counter-cultural activists, Lincoln, King, Day, Merton, and (I would add) Pope Francis!
(My Alma Mater: the Atheneum Anselmianum, Rome)
So there I was, last July 24th returning to my old haunts in the Holy City. As mentioned in previous postings, Peggy and I had returned to Italy with our family – with my daughter Maggie, her husband Kerry, and their four children, with our youngest son, Patrick, one of our nieces, and with my brother-in-law and his family of five. Late in the trip, a friend of Maggie also joined us. In all we were 17 people!
It was hard to believe that so much time had passed since those halcyon days when I was studying in Rome. I had actually spent five wonderful years there from 1967-’72. It was a time of unprecedented personal growth for me as I passed from my late 20s to my early 30s.
The Second Vatican Council had just concluded (1965), and the city was still electric in the aftermath. Everything I cared about was under question – the nature of God, Jesus, morality, the church, papal infallibility, the priesthood, and mandatory celibacy.
After 12 years of being cooped up in highly regimented seminaries in Silver Creek, New York; Bristol, Rhode Island, and Milton Massachusetts, I had at last been ordained. In Rome I found myself living in a community of 20 priests also involved in their graduate studies. Our home was a sprawling house belonging to the Society of St. Columban, of which I was a member. It was located on Corso Trieste 57, right next to the Russian Embassy. I can still smell the fumes of the city busses that passed our front door.
Only two of us in our community were from the U.S. The others came from Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand. I was studying systematic and moral theology. Others were similarly occupied or focused on Canon Law, liturgy, or Sacred Scripture. Daily meals around our huge refectory table were usually raucous affairs as we bantered over the new theology or political questions – often surrounding “the troubles” then afflicting Ireland or the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements in the United States, or the youth revolution sweeping Europe especially in France. The times couldn’t have been more exciting.
Every couple of weeks we’d have special guests at table (bishops, theologians, politicians, intriguing women). All of them were passing through Rome on business or vacation. Those, I remember, were special feasts. The guests enriched our table-talk. And the elaborate dinners were always followed up by “retiring” to our community parlor for cognac and cigars. Then the guitars would come out, and everyone would do their party-pieces. It was all great fun. Unforgettable.
So on July 24th I was trying to recapture some of that. On that day, our daughter, Maggie, had arranged for a tour of Rome in long “golf carts” to accommodate that family party I mentioned.
I begged off saying I’d rather revisit my old schools – the Athenaeum Anselmianum (where I had gotten my licentiate in systematic theology), and the Academia Alfonsiana (where I received my doctorate in moral theology). Generously, Maggie and everyone else let me go. I had a great day.
Two years ago, when Peggy and I were in Rome, I had tried to do the same thing. But at both my schools, the portieres were so uptight that they wouldn’t let me in. This time was different.
At the “Anselmo” (pictured above) I met the same dour doorkeeper of two years ago. But this time, I somehow persuaded him to let me enter – though he stipulated “for one minute only!”
So I walked quickly around the monastery’s ample cloister where the main classrooms were located. I poked my head into the Aula Magna, where I recalled the life-changing lecturers of the great Magnus Lohrer. I had so admired him – that chubby red-cheeked German theologian (who I was told died about six or seven years ago). He was such a great teacher. I wanted to be like him – smart, committed, energetic, enthusiastic, interested and interesting. It was such a pleasure sitting at his feet – even when the lectures were in Latin!
Despite the portiere’s injunction, my personal tour took at least five minutes. Afterwards I went to the monastery chapel to do my day’s second meditation. I was slightly distracted by a couple whispering in a pew across from me. It turned out that they were celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary. They had been married in the Convento Church where the three of us were sitting. When we spoke outside, they told me of their wedding, their life together, their children and grandchildren. They seemed so happy to be in Rome. I was too.
Next, I took a cab to the Alfonsiana, just down the Via Merulana from Santa Maria Maggiore. The portiere there let me in with no stipulations. I explored the rambling set of attached buildings at my leisure. I recalled lectures by Bernard Haring and Francis X. Murphy (who mysteriously had reported on Vatican II for The New Yorker under the pseudonym, Xavier Rynne). In theological terms, Haring was a giant. I didn’t really hit it off with Murphy though. That was probably because he gave me a lower grade expected on a paper where I argued that Vatican II represented the Catholic Church finally catching up with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. I remember appealing that grade to no avail. I still think I was right.
As I left the Alfonsiana, I spoke with a very pleasant 45-year-old Polish woman who directs maintenance there. (She had been a librarian in Poland.) She asked me about my impressions of the school after so many years. I told her it all seemed renovated, shiny and up-to-date.
Finally, I took another cab to Corso Trieste 57. There I had a most interesting conversation with Fr. Robert McCullough, the Procurator General of the Society of St. Columban and the rector of the house that now has a much-reduced population. Fr.McCullough had a lot to say about Pope Francis.
I’ll tell about that in a future posting.
I woke up this morning to a promising Washington Post headline. It read: “Pope Urges Europe’s Catholics to take in Syrian refugees.” There he goes again, I thought.
The article described how Pope Francis “has called on ‘every’ parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary to take in one refugee family – an appeal that, if honored, would offer shelter to tens of thousands.”
Of course the vast majority of such migrants are “illegal” in the eyes of governments where the invited parishes, etc. are located.
The pope implied that Jesus’ attitude towards “the stranger” overrides such legislation. The Master’s words in MT 25:35 have him identifying with immigrants (and the hungry, naked, homeless, and imprisoned) and basing the entire final judgment on the way we treat such people. He says: “. . . I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,”
The pope’s appeal comes at a time when immigration along with climate change is a hotly contested issue not only in Europe, but here in the United States.
Of course, the entire panoply of Republican candidates (including the six of them who claim to be “devout Catholics”) consists not only of climate change deniers, but of candidates trying to outdo one another on the issue of excluding immigrants from our borders. Catholic candidates include Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio and George Pataki. Now they specifically diverge from the Pope not just on climate change, but on immigration as well.
Just yesterday, another ardent Christian, Sarah Palin, brought climate change and immigration together in typical GOP fashion. She told CNN that refugees from Mexico not only “better be legal,” but should be made to speak “American,” rather than “Mexican.” She sides with Donald Trump’s plan to build an exclusionary wall along the border. She also aspires to be Mr. Trump’s Secretary of Energy – a position she would embrace enthusiastically “because energy is my baby – oil and gas and minerals, those things that God has dumped on this part of the Earth for mankind’s use. . .”
Of course, Pope Francis words yesterday put him on the side of immigrants and against exclusionists. He invites his flock of 1.2 billion to follow suit. He also expressly rejects Palin’s reading of God’s mind about why the Creator “dumped” gas, oil, and minerals on Earth.
According to his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, using the narratives of Genesis to encourage “the unbridled exploitation of nature” is an incorrect interpretation of the Bible (67). “Clearly,” the pope adds, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism that would encourage the “drill, baby, drill” approach regardless of its effects on the planet (68).
But the pope’s words about welcoming immigrants struck even closer to home. For years I’ve been wondering what it might take to awaken Catholics to the revolutionary power of the Gospel.
In my own Catholic parish, we find ourselves mired in a detached, decontextualized version of faith that ignores the world’s real problems.
Pope Francis represents the exact opposite trend. Yet despite his invitation to “change everything” issued in The Joy of the Gospel nearly two years ago, and in spite of the urgency of Laudato Si’, nothing at our local level changes.
Yesterday’s papal invitation shows us how to get off the dime. He suggests something practical for every parish to do: welcome at least one immigrant family from the detention centers on our own borders. House and feed them. Be a prophetic example to the exclusionists. Join with other (non-Catholic) churches to do the same.
The infrastructure is there: churches that are used for just a few hours each week, parish basements and halls that are similarly idle most of the time. Also, many of us have space in our own homes – or own second houses – that might similarly provide housing for Jesus presenting himself to us as an immigrant.
Our little parish of St. Clare in Berea, Kentucky has a Peace and Social Justice Committee of 20 highly committed people. We’re meeting next Sunday to plan our gala “Watch Party” on September 27th to see the Pope’s address our Congress and the U.N.
Now in the light of the pope’s invitation to open our buildings to immigrant families, we have something else to discuss and act upon.
Accepting Pope Francis’ invitation could move our parish to truly begin “changing everything.”
Can you imagine what would happen, if the families we accepted were Muslim instead of Christian?
Thank you, Pope Francis.
“Why the New Pope Must Resign.” That was the title of an article I wrote just after the election of Pope Francis in 2013. In it I joined Argentina’s Horacio Verbitsky and others questioning the role of Jorge Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-’83).
Since then, friends have asked me about that. “What do you think now – in the light of the fresh spirit of reform the pope has introduced – in the light of his tremendous popularity? Surely you were mistaken in your original, hasty judgment.”
That’s the typical question and observation.
My answer has been that I’m delighted with Pope Francis and the direction his papacy has taken. Both his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, and especially his new eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ are magnificent. Their criticisms of capitalism-as-we-know-it as the structural cause of world poverty and environmental destruction couldn’t be a clearer endorsement of a form of liberation theology that is both spiritually moving and politically engaged.
I’m glad the pope didn’t resign. Pope Francis is great.
But in response to my friends, I also add that the issue of Father Bergoglio’s involvement with the Dirty War is not resolved. Nor should it be ignored. Recalling its elements holds lessons for us – about the Roman Church’s history of supporting oppression, about whitewashed historiography, and most importantly, about the possibility of repentance and deep personal change.
Consider the first point, the Church supporting fascist oppression. It happened in Argentina during the Dirty War as it happened in Germany under Adolf Hitler.
When Bergoglio was Jesuit Provincial, he was accused of turning over to the army two of his Jesuit colleagues and former teachers, Fathers Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics. Both had been pro-socialist clerics and members of the Third World Priests’ Movement (MSTM). Such membership was considered a capital crime by the country’s ruling junta.
Yorio and Jalics had been embroiled in a long-standing feud with their Provincial not so much about their MSTM affiliation, but about their activities in a slum community the two priests served and lived in. Bergoglio didn’t have much time for Jesuits in his province being associated with left-wing causes – nor for versions of liberation theology tainted with Marxist analysis.
Like John Paul II and his chief advisor Josef Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI), he preferred a strain of liberation theology that prioritized the poor, but apolitically without revolutionary aspirations. Bergoglio liked to call that strain the “Theology of the People.” It prioritized their reflections on the gospel, and popular devotion to images, novenas, etc. Other versions of liberation theology were too “ideological.”
After being arrested and tortured, both Yorio and Jalics accused Bergoglio of fingering them to the army.
Father Yorio died without retracting his accusation. Fr. Jalics at first didn’t want to discuss the matter, saying that he and Bergoglio had reconciled.
Beyond the case of Yorio and Jalics, there was that of Father Christian Von Wernich. He had been a police chaplain during the Dirty War. After its conclusion, during the process of national reconciliation, Von Wernich came under investigation for his direct roles in police tortures and murders.
In response, while Bergoglio was a member, the Argentine Bishops’ Conference protected Von Wernich by transferring him to Chile under an assumed name. That is, the Bishops Conference treated accusations of torture and murder in exactly the same way bishops throughout the world had often dealt with allegations of sexual abuse of children: transfer the offender and cover up the past.
So, the question becomes, was Jesuit Provincial Bergoglio, like the predominant leadership of the Argentine Catholic Church, somehow cooperative with the ruling junta?
This brings us to my second point about historiography.
In defense of the future Pope Francis (and of the church hierarchy in general), his biographer, Austen Ivereigh, offers explanations that end up sounding much like the defense of Pius XII vis-à-vis the Nazis and his failure intervene against the Holocaust. Ivereigh argues:
- When the military took over in 1976, Argentina (like Weimar Germany) was in a state of political and economic chaos.
- So virtually all segments of society welcomed the military take-over (as Germans and the German Catholic Church welcomed Adolf Hitler).
- The military’s brutal Dirty War was secretive about the extremity of its measures. (Fr. Bergoglio testified that it took him some time to realize what was happening.)
- So people like Bergoglio didn’t really know what was going on (just as Germans claim they didn’t know about the concentration camps and ovens).
- When he did find out (like Pius XII) Bergoglio “worked quietly” to help potential victims escape – while fulfilling his primary duty of protecting the Jesuits from suspicion, investigation and reprisals from the ruling junta.
As with Germany such reasons end up sounding like excuses that raise suspicions of cover-up and historical obscurantism. They evoke the following observations and questions:
- Bergoglio gives every indication of being on the same page with John Paul II and Josef Ratzinger who also largely “looked the other way” when confronted with evidence of government brutality in dealing with left-wing elements of the clergy and faithful, e.g. in Central America in general and in El Salvador and Nicaragua in particular.
- Bergoglio clearly shared their disdain for priests involved in politics.
- If (as Ivereigh suggests) Father Bergoglio was so well-connected and friendly with all factions (including government officials and military leaders on the one hand, and their opponents including MSTM members on the other) how could he not have at least suspected what was really happening?
- If Jalics had forgiven Bergoglio (as he originally had said) what had he forgiven?
- Why did Jalics apparently change his story a few days after Pope Francis’ election? On being repeatedly contacted by the media about the issue, Jalics said, “The fact is: Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio.”
- Father Yorio offered no deathbed recantation of his charges against Bergoglio.
And that brings me to my final point about repentance and its significance for Catholics today.
As Ivereigh indicates, the prevailing method of dealing with such contradictions is to reluctantly argue that Father Bergoglio perhaps did cooperate with the military – as did so many other churchmen in positions of authority during the Dirty War. However, in Bergoglio’s case, he also courageously helped many escape – at some risk to himself.
But then at some point, he underwent a kind of conversion and is now a progressive. At least at the administrative level, Bergoglio’s own testimony indicates that he experienced a profound conversion. He confesses that as a young Jesuit Provincial (he was only 36 when appointed), he was too headstrong, uncompromising and authoritarian.
Indications are, however, that the about-face went far beyond managerial style.
The exact turning point in the process remains unclear. It could have come after Bergoglio was virtually drummed out of the Jesuits by progressive elements which saw him as an impediment to the Society’s reform in the spirit of Vatican II.
Afterwards he spent two years in a kind of exile and deep introspection. Ivereigh reports that Bergoglio passed days hearing the confessions of simple shantytown poor people. He also spent hours in semi-depression, simply staring out his window. Colleagues worried that he was sick. Was it some type of breakdown?
Whatever the case, clear evidence reveals a subsequently changed man. Previously he was criticized by more liberal fellow Jesuits and others for failing to ask important questions about poverty. As they put it, “He’s great at ministering to the poor. But he never asks why they are poor.” (The criticism evoked the famous comment of Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”)
But as pope in Laudato Si’ Francis makes no bones about why the poor have no food, or jobs, or homes, or education. With observations worthy of the MSTM members he rejected, the pope says, all of those problems are connected by the invisible thread called deregulated capitalism. His encyclical says that poverty, environmental destruction and a whole host of other problems are caused by capitalism-as-we-know-it. (So, predictably and true to Dom Helder’s words, Rush Limbaugh and others call Pope Francis a communist.)
Evidence of radical theological change goes much further. Consider, for instance, that Francis has:
- Surrounded himself with liberation theologian advisers concerned with history and structural analysis.
- Rehabilitated and consulted pro-socialist theologians blacklisted by his two predecessors – most prominently among them Brazil’s Leonardo Boff.
- Identified Marxism as similar to the teachings of the early church fathers, claimed Marxists as his friends, and referred to them as “closet Christians.”
- Echoed Latin America’s liberation theology speaking of Christian faith as “revolutionary,” because it challenges “the tyranny of Mammon.”
- Peppered both The Joy of the Gospel and Laudato Si’ with frequent uses of the loaded word “liberation” contrasting the deleterious effects of “liberation” of markets (from government control) with the liberation of peoples proclaimed in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
- Has similarly made Medellin’s phrase “preferential option for the poor” the watchword of his papacy, even going so far as to identify it with “the gospel itself.”
- Beatified the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who is considered the patron saint of liberation theology. (Romero did, by the way, confront the ruling military and lost his life as a result.)
- Described the world’s dominant economic system as running “counter to the plan of Jesus.” He said the system now in place and Jesus’ hoped-for Kingdom of God have different aims.
- Worked with the Obama administration to open doors to Cuba which for more than 50 years has struggled to construct an economic alternative to capitalism-as-we-know-it.
- In keeping with the insights of liberation theology, the pope has turned working against capitalism-as-we-know-it into a moral issue. In Laudato Si’ he wrote: “working for just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor” – is a “moral obligation.” For Christians, he said, “it is a commandment.” Here the pope echoed what he said in The Joy of the Gospel where he identified the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation that is “inescapable.”
All of this represents not only a personal conversion for Pope Francis, but a summons to his Church to follow in his footsteps.
What he has written in “The Joy of the Gospel” indicates that he recognizes in a Church the same crisis he underwent. It is out-of-touch and in need of a complete overhaul. “Everything must change,” he has said.
For too long, he has written, the Church has been mired in an authoritarian judgmental paradigm and in viewpoint-narrowness that has focused on important but non-essential matters foreign to the focus of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom. So-called “pelvic issues” were of little concern to Christianity’s Great Master.
The pope implicitly calls Catholics resembling his former conservative, apolitical self to engage in the process of political, economic, and ideological change before it’s too late. Stop staring out the window at a world falling apart, he tells us. Emerge from denial and obstructionism and come to grips with climate chaos and changing the economic system that causes not only environmental destruction, but world hunger, poverty, high infant mortality, and war.
Those are statements Fathers Yorio and Jalics could fully endorse.