My Study of Liberation Theology in Brazil (10th in a series on critical thinking)

Dom Helder

My study in Brazil initiated a profound change in my understanding of critical thinking. It led me to see that liberation theology itself amounted to a Global South version of that discipline. However, the critical thinking I encountered in Brazil didn’t concern itself with abstract dilemmas and logical fallacies. Instead the Brazilian version addressed problems confronted in the very lives of its protagonists – hunger, poverty, dictatorships, imprisonment, torture, police raids, and the reasons for widespread hunger in an extremely rich and rather thinly populated country.

Neither did critical thinking in Brazil worry about neutrality and balance or with giving equal time to capitalists and their working class opponents. In the minds of its teachers, those problems had long since been settled. After all, in 1964, defenders of capitalism had overthrown Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1960s that had been the case throughout the region. In Brazil it meant that by 1984 the country had completed its second decade of a military dictatorship fully supported by the United States. Over those years, vast numbers of priests and nuns, union organizers, university professors, social workers, lawyers, and simple peasants had been routinely imprisoned, tortured and often murdered. Their crimes?  They had demanded land reform, higher wages, health care, education, freedom of speech, and ability to speak freely and organize. No, capitalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had clearly shown itself to be the enemy of the people.

All of that became very clear for me when, to begin with, I connected with the legendary Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s methodology for teaching literacy had exercised strong influence on liberation theology, and especially on “Base Christian Communities” (BCCs) which following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) proliferated throughout the country. My intention was to research those communities as part of my sabbatical assignment.

At the same time, my wife, Peggy was working on her doctoral dissertation on Freire’s work. So she worked in his center every day and every week with literacy teachers implementing his method in Sao Paulo’s favelas. On our fifth wedding anniversary, we had supper with Paulo and his wife, Elsa, in their apartment. Afterwards, he read aloud Peggy’s latest dissertation chapter. I remember him pausing at one point after reading a quotation from his own Education for Critical Consciousness; he said, “Right now I am loving these words!” He was wonderful.

While in Recife, our whole family twice visited Dom Helder Camara, the famous “Red Archbishop” of that huge city in the northern part of the country. I phoned his office to set up the appointment. He answered the phone himself!

Considered a saint even before his death in 1999, Dom Helder was also called the “Archbishop of the Poor.” He once famously observed “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.” With those words, this patron of liberation theology expressed the central question of critical thinking in the Global South: Why are people so poor in the midst of so much abundance?

I informed Dom Helder of my intention to experience liberation theology’s BCCs in Recife. That was during our first visit in his office, while he held our four-year-old daughter, Maggie, in his lap. (I later told her she had been embraced by a saint!) I asked the archbishop to share his thoughts about those communities. He told me, “It would be better for me not to say anything at this point. Why don’t you do your research first? Experience those communities, and then at the end of your visit come back and tell me what you found. Then I might tell you what I think.”

So I followed the saint’s advice. During our family’s weeks in Recife, I participated in several BCC meetings. There I witnessed the kind of critical thinking referenced above. It was the same process that had been prescribed for teaching literacy years earlier by Paulo Freire in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I had read while still in Rome.

I consistently found all of that inspiring. Here were absolute giants in the field of critical thought, centralizing their fundamental identities as spiritual beings in order to address in practical terms genuine problems of politics, economy, and personal life. I found such embrace of human political spirituality absent not only in the standard approach to critical thinking familiar to me, but even in the churches of my own experience.

I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of that approach to critical thinking.

To that end, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar taught by liberation theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars I had been reading for years – figures like Argentina’s Enrique Dussel, Chile’s Pablo Richard, Belgium’s Francois Houtart and Brazil’s own Frei Gilberto Gorgulho and Ana Flora Anderson. In the course of the experience, I was also introduced to the work of Chilean economist and theologian, Franz Hinkelammert, who would become for me an extremely important mentor. Significantly, Franz was to later found the international Grupo de Pensamiento Critico (the Critical Thinking Group).

As I listened to these scholars describe history in ways I never had confidence enough to seriously entertain, I found myself wondering, “What is the key to all of this?” I mean, Enrique Dussel described World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.” What is he talking about? I wondered. Was Hitler really a capitalist? It was a completely foreign thought.

Meanwhile, Frei Gorgulho spoke of Cuba as “the envy of the Third World.” Pablo Richard had just returned from a trip to revolutionary Nicaragua and was full of stories about Anastasio Somoza, the history of U.S. oppression in the country, the Sandinistas, land reform, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionary Contras. The positive evaluation of Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution stood contrary to everything reported in the U.S.

Even more disturbingly, everyone constantly and negatively referenced highly destructive American military interventions in its “backyard” and throughout the world to defend colonialism and what was termed “neo-colonialism.” The whole seminar was scandalized by a picture in the Folha do Sao Paulo of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II sitting together in Rome – both of them smiling broadly. “That photo,” all agreed “will cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” (It was because it implied that the pope endorsed Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America.)

None of these thoughts would ever be expressed in the United States. But here they were bandied about by these teachers of pensamiento critical as though they were perfectly obvious. And there was no objection from my classmates – most of them priests, nuns and lay theologians.

Again, I wondered, what is the analytic key to this sort of thought.

I later found it was the dependency theory of the German-American sociologist and historian, Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder Frank traced everything back to the history and structures of colonialism and neo-colonialism. I resolved to find out more about that; it seemed essential to this kind of critical thought. I asked for sources. Other than Gunder Frank’s works themselves, my seminar colleagues told me to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For perspective on Africa, they recommended Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I immediately purchased the books and my education in critical thinking took another giant step forward.

To repeat: this was not the type of critical thinking I had become used to. Unlike its U.S. version, what I found in Brazil was politically committed, historically grounded, and deeply spiritual. In the United States, everything familiar to me was apolitical, historically uninformed, and entirely secular. That caused me to reflect once again on my own historical ignorance. I also wondered about neutrality and the stories about Nicaragua routinely disseminated back home. I could already see that those tales amounted to one-sided propaganda. As one of my Ten Rules would later express it, I was beginning to suspect that truly critical thought involved rejecting pretense of neutrality.

I resolved to visit Nicaragua as soon as possible. I did the following year.

(Next week: Nicaragua!)

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.

Oscar Romero’s Message: Another God Is Possible; Another God Is Necessary!

PROMO9
PROMO9

(This is the second in a three-part series on our parish’s upcoming celebration of the beatification of San Oscar Romero which will take place on May 23rd. The event will be observed in Berea’s St. Clare’s parish on June 3rd, when our new bishop, John Stowe, will join us.)

In the previous installment of this mini-series inspired by the upcoming beatification of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, I offered a thumb-nail sketch of the great archbishop’s life. Romero’s witness has been inspiring for many, including Lexington’s new bishop, John Stowe. (As I said, think of the thoughts that must have coursed through the bishop’s mind as he celebrated Mass recently at the very altar where Oscar Romero was shot. We look forward to his sharing those thoughts on June 3rd when he joins our local church to celebrate Monsignor Romero’s beatification.)

In fact, Monsignor Romero’s story should be encouraging to each of us because of its life-changing implications. It connects perfectly with the message of Pope Francis in his “Joy of .the Gospel.” Both tell us that political and spiritual transformation is not only possible; it is necessary to save our world.

First of all consider the example of Oscar Romero. His change was profound both politically and religiously. In both dimensions, he became a radical, like Jesus of Nazareth.

Remember, Monsignor Romero started out conservative in every sense of the word. To a large extent, that’s why he was appointed archbishop in 1977. Romero was considered safe. He was patriotic. He unquestioningly supported his country’s military. He looked on the widespread rebellion of the poor in El Salvador with great suspicion. He considered the would-be revolutionaries communist subversives.

And yet, the archbishop had this close friend on the opposite side of the political fence. He helped Romero grow. That friend was Rutilio Grande. Grande was a Jesuit who took very seriously his vow of poverty.

So the priest moved out of the parish rectory and lived with the poor in their barrio slums. He knew first-hand their struggles, their family break-downs, their unemployment, hunger, low wages, and harassment by local police. Those became his issues, his context for interpreting the Gospel of Jesus.

Even more, Grande knew the Salvadoran military’s strategy for defeating the country’s impoverished insurgents. It was simply this: kill everyone who might possibly be sympathetic to rebel forces. That meant targeting most of the country’s non-elite. It meant butchering many of their parish priests. For Rutilio Grande, the slogan of the White Hand death squad represented an everyday reality and threat: “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

Eventually, of course, the White Hand killed Father Grande himself. It was his martyrdom that pushed Oscar Romero over the edge and radicalized him. He utterly abandoned his conservatism. He would later say, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” (The “they” Archbishop Romero referred to was his own government, its military, and their backers in the United States.)

So Archbishop Romero started listening to the poor. He attended their “biblical circles,” where peasants shared their thoughts about Sunday gospel readings. Once after listening to simple farmers sharing thoughts about “The Parable of the Sower,” the archbishop stood up without comment and walked away from the group. The local priest followed him and asked anxiously, “What’s the matter, Monsignor, did something offend you?”

“No,” the archbishop responded, “quite the opposite. It’s just that I think I’ve heard the Gospel of Jesus today for the first time.”

This is where Romero’s Other Gospel, Other Jesus, Other God comes in. The archbishop discovered that when poor people read the Bible, they see things that remain invisible for people like us who tend to be white, comfortable, patriarchal, and supportive of empire.

Jesus was none of those things, the archbishop realized. He was brown or black, poor, a victim of empire, and counter-culturally open to the viewpoints and experience of women. Those factors constituted the Master’s standpoint. They deeply influenced how he saw the world.

More specifically, Jesus stood on the same ground as El Salvador’s poor (and by extension, the poor of today’s Global South). He was conceived out of wedlock by a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He was a working man with calloused hands and sweat-stained clothes. His friends, people said, were drunkards and prostitutes. Rabbis expelled Jesus from the synagogue, and thought he was diabolically possessed. Even his family thought he was insane. Jesus became a vagrant without visible means of support. He lived under an oppressive empire. Imperial authorities saw him as an insurgent and terrorist. He ended up a victim of torture and of capital punishment.

All those characteristics, Archbishop Romero realized, described Another Jesus that to him was far more compelling, inspiring and faithful to the gospels than the abstract and other-worldly Jesus elaborated in the theological texts that guided his doctoral studies in Rome.

So San Romero concluded that the poor knew Jesus more deeply and authentically than he ever could. (They had what scholars called a “hermeneutical privilege.”)

The Jesus of the Poor revealed that Other God who alone could save El Salvador. Fidelity to that same Jesus can save our world from the path to destruction we’ve embarked upon. (And this is where Pope Francis’ continuity with Romero’s vision comes in.)

Francis too has chosen to prioritize the experience and understanding of the world that belong to its poor. In doing so, he challenges our very idea of God. He evokes the Other God who alone can save us from the abyss.. For the pope, God is not neutral, but stands with the poor in their struggles against oppression. What does it mean, he asks implicitly, that God chose the poor, oppressed and despised as the primary site of his Self-revelation?

It means the poor of the world are God’s Chosen People. That answer has led Pope Francis to be the voice of the voiceless. And he does so even at risk of being called a communist. In this, he’s like Dom Helder Camara the late and sainted bishop of Recife in Brazil. Dom Helder said, “When I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why the hungry have no food, they call me a communist.”

Pope Francis does more than ask Dom Helder’s question. In his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (J.G.), he answers it. I’ll tell you what causes poverty, he says. It’s the reigning economic system that is homicidal (J.G. 53), and unjust at its roots (59). It’s allegiance to the “trickle down” ideology of the rich – a theory that has never worked (53). The world really belongs to the poor, the pope insists (57). The rich who refuse to return to the impoverished what is rightfully theirs are robbers and thieves (57). The rights of the poor take precedence over those of private property (189).

The pope’s choice to be the voice of the voiceless extends to the environment as well to impoverished humans. Watch for his encyclical on climate change to be published sometime next month. There he’ll surely give voice to the planet’s animals, plants, mountains, forests, rivers, and oceans. In the face of climate change, he warns us, “God always forgives. Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.” So what’s the proper response to the challenges of Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, and (we hope) Bishop Stowe? As I see it, proper response entails:

  • Leaving behind the safety of contemporary Christianity’s conservative ways.
  • Committing to a path of parish renewal and personal faith development intent on acquainting ourselves with the biblical God of the poor.
  • Viewing the world and its conflicts from below – from the viewpoint of the Other Jesus embraced by Monsignor Romero – from that of unwed mothers like Miryam of Nazareth, of immigrants, the mentally unbalanced, sex workers, the homeless, insurgents, terrorists and those being water-boarded and executed by the state.
  • Recognizing that with 1.2 billion members world-wide, a Catholic Church attuned to the spirits of Oscar Romero and Pope Francis has unlimited potential for changing the world.
  • Embracing that change as our collective vocation.
  • Abandoning pet convictions that national allegiance, military action, and trickle-down theories will solve our world’s problems.
  • Embracing the Other Jesus of the poor
  • His Other God
  • And the Other World that Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, and Jesus proclaim as the very essence of God’s Kingdom.

Thug Pope?

Cia Argentina

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.”