Last Friday I published a blog calling for the resignation of the newly elected Pope. Of course, I had no expectation that the pope would resign. We can even hope that as Francis I, Jorge Bergoglio will undergo or has undergone a conversion since the days when his silence gave consent to the brutal military regime of Jorge Videla during Argentina’s infamous “Dirty War.”
Nonetheless Bergoglio’s election forces us to face up to the role of religion under imperialism. The ascendancy of Francis I trains focus on the way both the fundamentalist Catholic Church and its Protestant counterparts habitually lie comfortably in bed with the forces of politico-economic exploitation, war, kidnapping, torture, and murder. As bed fellows they share the guilt of their thug partners.
Put otherwise, religious fundamentalism can easily be seen as the most conservative force in the world. Exhibit #1 is Roman Catholicism. The vast majority of its leaders have always lain supine not merely for Constantine, but for a whole host of dictators who followed including Hitler and with Mussolini. On the whole, Protestant fundamentalists have been no better. To reiterate: fundamentalist religionists are the problem, not just their embodiment in an unrepentant Francis I. If their partners are thugs, where does that leave them?
You see, the pope’s defenders are wrong when they say that archbishop Bergoglio was merely another Argentinian cowed by the military and lacking in the heroic courage of a few bishops and many liberation theology priests during Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-’83). At the hierarchical level, I’m thinking of heroes whose faith moved them to defy the military governments the U.S. established throughout Latin America from the early 1960s till the fall of the Soviet Union.
I’m thinking of Brazil’s Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, Dom Helder Camara, or Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga — or of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, or of Mexico’s Samuel Ruiz. All of them recognized that their status provided them with a literal “bully pulpit” for denouncing the oppression of their impoverished flocks which did not enjoy the relative invulnerability their own ecclesiastical status provided for themselves.
Put simply, Bergoglio didn’t have the courage of those men.
Granted, you can’t fault someone for not being a hero. However lacking heroism was not Bergoglio’s problem as his apologists imply. Even if he was merely silent, he lacked the moral responsibility absolutely required for the Christ-like fulfillment of his office. After all, muted and/or compliant churchmen represent an essential ideological cog in the system of oppression. Since the time of Constantine, they have been used to persuade ordinary Christians that God endorses the policies of their oppressors however brutal.
The hell of it is that many priests and preachers, especially at lower levels, are completely unaware of their role in the system. They think of themselves as good pastors, patriotic citizens, supporters of a brave military, and opponents of Godless Communism. This may have been the case even with archbishop Bergoglio. He may simply have been an unconscious, naive pawn. Nonetheless, he was part of the gang, and so are all religious leaders who end up underwriting oppression.
Like Bergoglio, they should know better because Jesus had to deal with the alliance between religion and colonialism too. The priests, scribes, and Sadducees of his day were an essential part of the Roman system of exploitation. In fact, it’s common to refer to the Temple’s “con-dominium” with Rome. The priests and scribes on the one hand along with the emperor and Pilate on the other, all ruled together. To attack one was to attack the other. And Jesus attacked them both.
Opposing imperialism goes beyond simply firing one’s chauffer or taking the bus to work. It goes beyond saying we’re on the side of the poor. (Even Rick Santorum says that!) Instead popes and bishops have to understand critique and oppose the structures that cause and sustain oppression – economic and political systems along with laws, customs, and institutions like those of church, government, and the military. All of those structures transcend the short reigns of popes, presidents and generals. Those occupants of office come and go, but the systems and laws they serve and enforce remain.
The sainted archbishop of Recife in Brazil, Dom Helder Camara understood that. He once said, “When I feed the poor, they called me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Let’s hope that Pope Francis will not only ask that latter question – the why of poverty and hunger. Let’s hope he will answer it strongly and unmistakably. The poor have no food because keeping them hungry is in the interests of the economic and political system that runs the world – international capitalism.
At the moment, hasty hagiographers are saying that Francis I’s concern for the poor makes him a saint. My prayer is that they will soon be calling him a communist. The alternative appellation is “thug.”