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A Nuanced Opening Look at Pope Francis

Pope Francis

In all the writing and (for lack of a better word) pontificating about the new pope, one area of discussion that has some of the most misinformation and misunderstanding has to do liberation theology and the new pope’s relation to it in the 1970s as the supervisor of Jesuit priests at the time.

Discussions of “liberation theology” often conflate several issues. One is LTs emphasis on God’s “preferential option for the poor,” which proclaims that God has a special concern for those on the margins and those who are oppressed. Out of this comes the obvious question, “How, then, do we act to show this concern?” One major strand of LT was to develop “base communities” — worshipping communities of, by, and for the poor — where lay people, not priests, set the agenda and led the organizational work. Thus, LT levels a critique not only against banks, the wealthy, and governments, but also potentially against the hierarchy of the church. Critics of LT took offense at this base community theology and labeled it “Christian Marxism”, which took on special resonance in 1978 at the election of the Polish-born communism-fighter Pope John Paul II.

In all I have seen and read about Bergoglio’s record in Argentina, he appears to have embraced in very strong ways LTs emphasis on the poor, but seriously questioned if not completely rejected the base community idea. As the leader of the Jesuit community in Argentina, he has been accused of collaboration with the junta (an accusation he has strongly rejected). Leaving aside for the moment who may be right on that, what is clear is that he demanded obedience from the priests under his supervision, and would discipline those who defied him. Thus — and this is my sense of things, not a proven fact — I suspect that what his critics label collaboration with the regime (an outside power) is a misreading of his attempts to enforce obedience within the church. Yes, the regime would be pleased at having meddling priests reined in, but that’s different from saying that they asked him to do it and he agreed in an effort to curry favor and power. What matters first to Francis is faithfulness, not power.

I say this not to excuse or defend Bergoglio and his actions. I don’t know enough about the circumstances to do that, and I’ve known enough pastors and priests who work in gang-ridden areas to know that trying to be a pastor and leader in such circumstances is not easy and often involves making difficult choices. Indeed, one of the Jesuit priests that Bergoglio was accused of turning over to the junta reconciled with Bergoglio several years ago.

Some of the best profiles of Bergoglio, now Francis, have come from folks like John Allen of NCR in a pre-conclave series on the papabile; José Mariá Poirier, editor of the Argentinian Catholic magazine Criterio, writing in the UK’s Catholic Herald in 2005; Frida Ghites of the Miami Herald (formerly of CNN); and Kevin Clarke of the Jesuit magazine America. A few snippets, strung together, show a consistent picture of a leader who with a compassion for the poor, who criticizes the church at times and demands obedience at others.

From John Allen:

From 1973 to 1979 he served as the Jesuit provincial in Argentina, then in 1980 became the rector of the seminary from which he had graduated.

These were the years of the military junta in Argentina, when many priests, including leading Jesuits, were gravitating towards the progressive liberation theology movement. As the Jesuit provincial, Bergoglio insisted on a more traditional reading of Ignatian spirituality, mandating that Jesuits continue to staff parishes and act as chaplains rather than moving into “base communities” and political activism. . . .

Bergoglio has supported the social justice ethos of Latin American Catholicism, including a robust defense of the poor.

“We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” Bergoglio said during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

From Kevin Clarke:

His past is more complicated than the pastoral face he has so far offered the world and Pope Francis may soon be asked to answer for positions and decisions during Argentina’s “dirty war.” Those positions have already created divisions among members of his order in South America.

He has been accused of not speaking out sufficiently against the murders and “disappearances” during that awful period when as many as 30,000 perished. He has denied the allegations and defenders say he negotiated behind the scenes to help victims. Respected Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff said Thursday he did not believe that Pope Francis, acting in his capacity then as Jesuit provincial, could be implicated in connection to the acts of the Argentine junta, and that he in fact assisted some of the junta’s intended victims.

Leonardo Boff is not merely a respected theologian, but is one of the primary theologians behind the development of liberation theology, and who was silenced for a year by Benedict for some of of his more recent work. Thus, Boff is not exactly someone who looks fondly on those in power nor excuses those who are opposed to liberation theology, and so his words here about Francis carry particular weight.

A little more digging also shows another connection between Boff and Bergoglio. Part of what got Boff in trouble was a 2001 interview in which he accused then-Cardinal Ratzinger of terrorismo religioso — religious terrorism — for Ratzinger’s excessively exclusive claims about the Roman Catholic church, which resulted in pitting brothers and sisters in faith against one another. Interestingly, just last year Bergoglio used similar language in condemning excessively conservative priests in his diocese who were withholding baptism of the babies born to single mothers:

The Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, did not hesitate to reprimand the reason that is repeatedly given to justify “denied” baptisms: “I say this with sadness and if it sounds like a complaint or an offensive comment please forgive me: in our ecclesiastical region there are presbyteries that will not baptise children whose mothers are not married because they have been conceived outside holy wedlock.”

This unique call for an end to the use of sacramental blackmail to subdue the hopes of those who want their children to be baptised, was pronounced Sunday by Fr. Bergoglio in his homily, during the closing mass for the Convention of the ecclesiastical region of Buenos Aires. The convention examined the issue of urban pastoral care.

In this “hijacking” of the sacrament that marks the beginning of Christian life, the Jesuit cardinal sees the expression of a rigorous and hypocritical neo-clericalism which also uses the sacraments as tools to affirm its own supremacy.

This kind of language ought to make the careerists in the Vatican very nervous, as well as a number of American bishops who want to use the sacraments as a club to beat up politicians with whom they disagree.

But back to Argentina, where Poirier’s perspectives on Bergoglio’s days as the Jesuit provincial are also instructive:

What is certain is that he is not loved by most of his Jesuit companions. They remember him as their provincial during the violence of the 1970s, when the army came to power amid a breakdown in the political system after the death of General Peron. A part of the Church in Argentina was involved in the theology of liberation and opposed the military government. Bergoglio was not. “After a war,” he was heard to say, “you have to act firmly.”

He exercised his authority as provincial with an iron fist, calmly demanding strict obedience and clamping down on critical voices. Many Jesuits complained that he considered himself the sole interpreter of St Ignatius of Loyola, and to this day speak of him warily.

The secular clergy of his diocese [i.e., clergy not connected with a religious order like the Jesuits], however, love their archbishop. As auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, he managed always to be with his priests, keeping them company through crises and difficulties and showing his great capacity for listening sympathetically (I have heard many stories of Bergoglio spending hours with elderly sick priests.) He also continued to show his option for the poor by encouraging priests to step out into the deep in intellectual and artistic areas: Bergoglio has never hidden a passion for literature.

Ironically, it is the same Bergoglio who, as Jesuit provincial, demanded absolute obedience and political neutrality, as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires wants his priests to be “out on the frontiers”, as he puts it. ??Cardinal Bergoglio regularly travels to the furthest ends of his three million-strong diocese to visit the poor. He wants them in the neediest barrios, in the hospitals accompanying Aids sufferers, in the popular kitchens for children.

Ghites notes another of Bergoglio’s defenders: Argentinian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel:

Peace Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, assured today that elected pope Jorge Bergoglio “had no links with the dictatorship” that ruled Argentina between the years 1976-1983 as he’s been accused for many years.

Speaking to BBC News, Perez Esquivel said that “there were bishops who were accomplices of the dictatorship, but it was not the case of Bergoglio.”

“Bergoglio was questioned because it is said he did not do enough to get out of jail two priests, as he was the Superior of the Jesuits. But I know personally that many bishops called on the military junta for the release of prisoners and priests and these requests were not granted”, said Perez Esquivel.

So where does this leave us? With lots of questions and only hints about what the future will hold.

Each of these profiles notes Francis’ staunch conservatism about sexual issues like contraception, abortion, and marriage equality, which should surprise no one. Any other serious candidate for the papacy would be the same. What is different, however, is the connection Francis has with the poor and the disdain for trappings of power. Many have commented on Francis declining to wear the same kind of elaborate liturgical attire as Benedict and John Paul II, as well as his paying his own hotel bill and riding the bus with the cardinals after the conclave. What isn’t often mentioned is that this is not a new approach to ecclesiastical leadership for Francis. In Argentina, he acted exactly the same way, declining to live in the archbishop’s palatial quarters and choosing a simple apartment instead, and using mass transit rather than fancy chauffeured vehicles.

Of all the big questions, the two that strike me as biggest for reasons beyond the church are these: (1) What will Francis do with regard to bishops who tried to protect priests they knew to have raped children, and (2) what will Francis do to reform the Vatican offices in the Curia? These are obviously related questions, and there are a lot of bishops nervously awaiting the answers.

Francis’ breaks with the practices of his more recent predecessors are getting a lot of attention within the church, but one is gliding under the radar in most places. By the laws of the church, the appointments of most of the senior leaders of the various departments of the Curia come to an end when a pope dies or resigns. When a new pope is elected, he generally re-appoints the former heads on his first day, then takes his time with replacing them once he gets squared away in his new position.

We’re now into day three, and Francis has NOT reappointed the curial officials — at least in the usual manner. Instead, today the Vatican press office said this:

Holy Father Francis has expressed the desire that the Heads and members of the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, as well as their Secretaries, and also the President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, continue “donec aliter provideatur”, that is, provisionally, in their respective positions.

The Holy Father wishes to reserve time for reflection, prayer, and dialogue before any final appointment or confirmation is made.

Shorter Francis: “Keep working, but don’t assume you’re staying.” Another reason for those in the Curia and in the hierarchy of the church who practice rigorous and hypocritical neo-clericalism — of which there are more than a few — to be nervous.

At this point, everyone is reading tea leaves, including me. With that said, and given the possible other candidates who were mentioned as Benedict’s successor, I’m mildly optimistic about Francis. A pope who isn’t automatically bound by how things were done before, and who sticks up for the poor, single mothers, and those on the margins, has a lot to teach some of the rest of the hierarchy of the Catholic church. At a time when 65% of Italian households are in economic trouble according to the Bank of Italy, having a pope tell the world “How I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor” is a very good place to start.


photo h/t to zennie62 and used under Creative Commons

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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