Stephen King’s IT: A Halloween Parable about America and Its Orange-Haired Clown

Pennywise 2

I don’t like horror films. They’re too much like real life with its mass shootings, hurricanes, and the policies of that clown in the White House. So I demurred when friends invited me to see the film version of Stephen King’s IT.

In the end, however, I was somehow persuaded. After all, as a box office phenomenon, IT remains the highest grossing “R” rated film in history. Its subconscious cultural content, I suspected, might somehow explain that huge box office success. So I accompanied my friends to our local Miramax determined to find that content.

Before I get to that however, a word about the film itself. . . To put it succinctly, IT was quite boring. In terms of horror, it didn’t even succeed in the (otherwise quite easy) task of scaring me!

Think about the movie’s unlikely premise: a group of 7 pre-teens meet a terrifying clown who lives submerged in the sewer underworld of Derry, a small town in Maine. The kids are all outsiders; they even call their group “The Losers’ Club.” One is black, another Jewish, and the remainders a tomboy, a stutterer, a frail hypochondriac, an overweight intellectual, and a wise-cracking smart-aleck.

The Losers’ adversary appears every 27 years to maim, kill and disappear children in Derry. No one but the kids can see the motley spirit who appears all-powerful. Nonetheless, in the end, (spoiler alert) the children improbably, but only apparently kill the clown. (Readers of King’s book know Pennywise will return in 30 years or so – thus setting up the dreaded sequel.)

Oh hum!

None of this is to say that IT wasn’t terrifying. However, its truly scary characters were the story’s adults – especially the Losers’ parents. They were variously fat and lazy, sexually abusive, violent in the extreme, deceptive, authoritarian, possessive and stultifying.

What united them all was their mirror-perfect depiction of our country’s adult refusal to recognize an extreme violence threatening our own children, even when it’s staring us in the face. Nothing mobilized the adults; not disappearances, shootings, torn limbs, decapitations, bleed-outs, bullying, racism, child abuse and even a room covered with blood. They just couldn’t see any of it, and got angry when the children suggested that something was wrong.

Of course, all of this reflects our culture’s normalization of terror in a country described by that other Mr. King (Martin) as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” We’re blind, for instance, to the horror of our economic system that today allows the preventable deaths of 30,000 children each day – without most of us taking any more note of the tragedy than the adults in Derry’s Maine-stream.

With the clown, we leave the terrifying adult world, and enter an ironically less threatening spirit world. But the spirit of what? The clown’s name “Pennywise” might offer a clue. (After all, Stephen King did choose to call him that?) Pennywise’s puzzling designation implies a connection between terror and money. Could he be the embodiment of an economic spirit that saves pennies, while being pound-foolish – the implied second half of the clown’s name? There’s got to be some meaning there.

In any case, and regardless of Stephen King’s intentions, our culture’s short-term focus on saving pennies (e.g. by defunding public schools, and healthcare) destroys children’s lives as surely as bites from the movie-clown’s yellowed incisors.

So, my premonitions may have been spot-on. Despite its artistic demerits, IT does hold lessons for those determined to probe its cultural context. They include:

  • Wake up!
  • Realize our pound-foolish system is destroying our children.
  • It depends on terror, fear, and violence to do so
  • Most of its older victims are in denial.
  • Younger “Losers” know better.
  • Listen to them.
  • And don’t be afraid of that violent, pennywise clown in the oversized suit.
  • Get rid of him as soon as possible.

For Lower Fares and Better Service, Nationalize Public Transportation!

Fair Skies

The airline industry is in big trouble with most of us, I’m sure you agree. I mean fares keep going up with no end in sight. You have to pay extra for any baggage you need to check. The seats keep getting smaller, and sometimes it costs you more for slightly wider accommodations even in the coach section. Meals that used to be free now come in little boxes at hefty prices. And even if you’ve paid for all of that, they still might call in the cops and evict you, bloody your nose, and knock your teeth out so that airline employees might take the seat you purchased, and more conveniently hitch a ride to their next gig.

I was reminded of all that when on my last Delta flight, I read an ad in that airline’s August edition of Sky Magazine.  It was headlined “Help Us Defend U.S. Jobs.” In part, the text complained:

“The nations of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are attempting to take over international aviation by funneling billions of dollars in subsidies into their state-owned airlines. U.S. airlines . . . can’t compete with the unreasonably low prices of the gulf airlines. And for every route lost, 1,500 Americans lose their jobs. Left unaddressed, the U.S. aviation industry is at risk . . . Join the fight to protect fair trade and American jobs.”

Say what? “Unreasonably low prices?” They want me to campaign against that? Hmm.

So, what’s Delta’s real problem here?  The ad says the company’s worried that it can’t compete with state-owned airlines that are less concerned with turning a profit than with serving the public – providing more of what travelers want: cheaper fares, good service, no extra charges, and free food and drinks.

How do Qatar, UAE and others do that? Simple: they funnel billions of dollars of investment (Delta misleadingly calls it “subsidies”) into the airlines they own rather than making profit maximization their be-all and end-all. Or, as it’s expressed at DELTA.COM/OURFIGHT: “Because they have large sums of money available, these . . . airlines don’t have to rely on profit.”

What’s wrong with that?

According to the Delta ad quoted above, what’s wrong is that the state-owned airlines are more successful; they’re getting bigger market shares and, Delta claims, costing Americans jobs – 1500 for each lost route. In fact, if it weren’t for the questionable protectionism of U.S. regulations, those airlines would enter our domestic market and take over there as well.

But, of course, there’s a cure for all of that too – one that will not only save those jobs, but likely get us cheaper fares and better service. It’s to follow the example of Delta’s vilified competitors: invest our tax dollars in U.S. airlines too. Nationalize them!

Don’t worry: no jobs will be lost. (It takes just as many people to run state-owned airlines as private ones.) And just watch: those fares will become “unreasonably low” in the process. Services and passenger perks might even reach the level of those gulf companies that so irritate Delta and other U.S. airlines.

Bring it on!

And, while you’re at it, how about investing “billions” of our tax dollars in state-owned railways, rather than in further bloating the defense budget? The state-owned China rail system runs bullet trains that travel at speeds over 200 mph. Meanwhile our under-funded Amtrak locomotives continue plodding along no faster than they did about 50 years ago.

Thank you, Delta, for making the point so exquisitely: when “airlines don’t have to rely on profit” consumers benefit. Air fares become “unreasonably low.”

At least as far as public transportation is concerned, socialism is far more efficient than capitalism.

Colin Kaepernick’s the Real Hero, Not Desperate U.S. Soldiers

kaepernick

Can you imagine yourself as a twenty-something – a black person sitting in the San Diego Chargers football stadium – with 70,000 angry mostly white people booing you and you alone? Can you imagine how that would feel – or what it would do to your psyche and to your feeling of being oppressed – not to mention your performance on the field?

Well, that’s the position the San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick was in last Thursday night. Every time he touched the ball (virtually each of his plays, since he’s the 49ers’ quarterback) he was booed mercilessly by a hostile overwhelmingly white crowd. Many of them obviously took the opportunity to scapegoat Kaepernick for their anger towards the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM).

That’s because in the spirit of BLM, this 28 year-old bi-racial athlete has used the pre-game singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” to protest the numerous killings of unarmed black men and women by police officers over the past few years. He refuses to stand. He’s sitting it out.

As Kaepernick himself put it: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Ignoring those reasons, the quarterback’s critics have somehow turned his protest into his alleged attack on the honor the military who have given their lives “defending our freedom.” So when Thursday’s Chargers-49ers contest coincided with San Diego’s 28th annual Salute to the Military, the pre-game ceremony took on added meaning. It featured a special flag ceremony that only heightened Kaepernick’s “unpatriotic” stance – and the reaction against it.

Specifically, before the game a huge flag was spread across the playing field, its borders held aloft by service men and women in Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force uniforms. It was then that the National Anthem was sung. While everyone else stood with caps doffed and right hands over hearts, Kaepernick took a knee. He knelt while the others stood. Afterwards the boos rained down – on him and him alone.

For me, the boos called attention not simply to many white people’s opposition to BLM, but to our unthinking, unconditional support for capitalism and the U.S. military in general. The fact is that those soldiers, sailors, marines and pilots on that San Diego football field are not in any way defending our freedom. Instead they are victims of nationalistic propaganda and of a failed economic system.

Think about it: since 9/11 and well before (e.g. Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama), U.S. military personnel have been simply brain-washed agents of U.S corporations defending the “right” of modern robber barons to steal resources, markets and cheap labor. General Smedley Butler said as much long ago. “War is a racket,” he charged.

The fact is that despite their good intentions, the military agents on that San Diego field do not deserve celebration any more than Hitler’s servicemen did.

Daniel Geery says it would be more fitting to celebrate conscientious objectors, deserters, and members of Iraq Vets against the War. It would be better to cheer young people who choose to actually do something productive with their lives. As he has identified them, they “serve us as nurses, doctors, teachers, construction workers, garbage men, laborers, cooks, waiters and waitresses, writers, inventors, organic farmers, architects, scientists, engineers, computer programmers, landscapers, and all those who choose to actually do something with their lives. . . Far better to be a prostitute, even, than to be a military person. You are at least hiring out to bring pleasure to others, not misery and destruction.”

Problem is, the “capitalist” economy is unable to provide enough of such jobs. So it funnels a desperate under-educated surplus workforce into the military whose commercials promise that there they can “Be all that you can be.” And the commercials are right. Under capitalism many simply can’t be more than killers for corporations. For them there is no alternative other than subscribing the neo-Cartesian principle, “I kill therefore I am.”

So subconsciously realizing capitalism’s failure to provide adequate jobs, but unable to face that music, propagandized fans express their anger by booing a scapegoat – a worker like themselves instead of the system’s managers.

Nonetheless, Kaepernick remains steadfast in his brave witness. He said, “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

We should keep those words (and Colin Kaepernick’s example) in mind the next time we’re asked to stand for the National Anthem. Can we be as insightful and courageous?

Is Pope Francis a Positive Force or a Dangerous Illusion?

Francis wolf

A good friend of mine recently shared a link from the Real News Network that deserves a response. It was an interview with Chris Hedges criticizing Pope Francis for not being radical enough in his denunciation of capitalism and imperialism. The award-winning journalist gave the impression that the pope should have denounced both as such and offered alternatives.

I was surprised by Hedges’ remarks. That’s because my personal assessment is that the pope actually has done all three. He has been scathing in his denunciation of capitalism; he has denounced colonial imperialism, and has offered clear alternatives to capitalism-as-we-know-it. The pope did so during his” homecoming” trip through Latin America late last summer, during his subsequent six-day trip to the United States, and especially in his landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’ (LS).

On his Latin American tour, Pope Francis’ was quite direct in his denunciation of capitalism and imperial colonialism.

For instance, addressing the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Francis traced today’s global problems back to their origins in European colonialism beginning in 1492. But he also identified new forms of colonialism exercised through corporations, loan agencies, “free trade” treaties, and imposition of “austerity measures.”

Such actors and policies, he said, subordinate states to outside powers which also exercise control through misguided measures ostensibly aimed at controlling drug trafficking, political corruption, and terrorism. More subtly, external powers colonize, destroy local cultures and foster cultural uniformity through communications monopolies, which the pope described as “ideological colonialism.”

“Let us say NO to forms of colonialism old and new,” he said.

Still in Latin America, the pope went on to criticize capitalism-as-we-know-it as “an invisible thread” connecting problems of world poverty, worker exploitation, landlessness among farmers, homelessness, and destruction of the natural environment. That system imposes the mentality of profit at any price without concern for its impact on displaced peasants and workers or for its destructive effects on “Mother Earth.”

The system, he said “is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”

For me, all of that represents not only criticism of imperialism, but of the free market system.

Then during his visit to the United States, Pope Francis offered an extremely harsh denunciation of capitalism itself. There he in effect 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 implied that  the politicians seated before him were a bunch of gangsters.

Even Chris Hedges may have missed all of that, because the polite, soft-spoken, and gentle pontiff was a gracious enough guest to say 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 clearly stated in Laudato Si’ which the pope cited in his congressional address (LS 53, 173-175). Surprisingly, 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 has pulled his punches. The pontiff has been quite specific in offering alternatives to the system he has so sharply critized. 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.

 

Democracy at Work and in Play: Capitalist Rams vs. Socialist Packers

On Tuesday , Stan Kroenke, the owner of the NFL Rams franchise decided to move operations from St. Louis to Los Angeles.

The decision brought sorrow and a bitter sense of betrayal fans in St. Louis who have supported “their” football team through thick and thin. For them the penny dropped: their Rams were not theirs at all.

The obvious injustice prompted them to chant “Kroenke Sucks!” when the move was announced during a St. Louis Blues –New Jersey Devils hockey game.

The chant showed that people intuitively recognize the problem. It’s the problem of capitalism: a single owner backed by a small group of similar wealthy stockholders can override the interests of an entire local community for one reason and one reason only — MONEY!

With capitalism, it happens all the time. A small board of directors (15-20 people) can decide to override the interests of entire communities — Detroit, Youngstown, Camden New Jersey — and move operations offshore to Mexico, China, Taiwan, and who knows where else? In doing so, the private owners devastate the abandoned communities. Yet they bear no responsibility for their actions.

They simply leave. They leave without reimbursing the community for roads built to service their facilities, for tax breaks granted, for plants constructed with community subsidies, for families destroyed by loss of employment.

And, once again, it’s done for one reason and for one reason only — MONEY! It’s the logic of capitalism.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

As economist Richard Wolff has indicated, there can actually be democracy at work. Democracy at work means that if workers shared ownership of their factories, they’d never vote to offshore their jobs.

Following Wolff’s logic, there can also be democracy in play — even in the NFL.

The case of the St. Louis Rams contrasted with that of the Green Bay Packers illustrates the possibility. Unlike the NFL Rams, Packers’ owners could never vote to move their franchise. That’s because the owners are the club’s fans themselves. So moving from Green Bay (pop. 104,000) even to Los Angeles (pop. 4.8 million) is out of the question.

More specifically, according to the Packers’ 1923 Articles of Incorporation, no single person can control more than 4% of the club’s stock. So these spiritual descendants of workers — the Green Bay Meatpackers’ Union — have no one like Kroenke to deal with.

Moreover, Incorporation Articles stipulate that profit from any (unimaginable) transfer of ownership must go not to individuals but to the Green Bay Packer Foundation which benefits community education, civic affairs, health and human services and youth programs.

There are lessons in all of this:

– Democracy at work and in play is possible.

– It is preferable to capitalism’s oligarchical tyranny.

– The traditional name for such democracy is “socialism.”

– Socialism can be successful. (The Packers have won more championships than any of their capitalist competitors).

– Maybe workers should be rooting for the Packers in Saturday’s matchup with the Arizona Cardinals.

– Bernie Sanders is a socialist. Hmm . . .

George Will: Pope Francis Is UnAmerican (Sunday Homily)

George Will

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!

The Conversion of Pope Francis and “Why the New Pope Must Resign”

Francis Capitalism

“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:

  1. When the military took over in 1976, Argentina (like Weimar Germany) was in a state of political and economic chaos.
  2. So virtually all segments of society welcomed the military take-over (as Germans and the German Catholic Church welcomed Adolf Hitler).
  3. 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.)
  4. 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).
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Bergoglio clearly shared their disdain for priests involved in politics.
  3. 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?
  4. If Jalics had forgiven Bergoglio (as he originally had said) what had he forgiven?
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.