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Eppur si muove? Papa Pancho

14 March 2013

Writing a little over a week ago about the possible effects of a Latin American pope on financial markets (“Pope Matters”) , I made the point that what matters (in financial and more celestial spheres) to those in the wealthy countries may not be all that important to those of us in the less-wealthy world.  I can’t help but wish I had also made mention of Bro. John Donaghy’s  “Cardinals, popes, and prophets” which had appeared the day before my post on one of his blogs.

panchoDiscussing what he calls “in-crowd thinking”, Donaghy highlights an “in-crowd writer”… or at least “inside the Washington beltway” writer — E. J Dionne — who wrote in Commonweal on a different way of looking at the major splits in Catholicism.  Getting beyond political labels of “conservative” and “liberal” (as members of a two milliena old institution,  even radical reformers are going to be “conservatives” from the perspective of outsiders anyway), Dionne refers to  “Kingdom” and “Communion” Catholics:

The Kingdom Catholics, corresponding to those we usually call progressive, were “exhilarated by the [Second Vatican] council’s embrace of modernity” and “see our church as primarily the People of God on pilgrimage towards the Kingdom.”

“The Christ whom they cherished,” he writes, “was the one who overthrew the boundaries between human beings, who touched lepers, reached out to foreigners and gathered us into the People of God.” Theirs was “an outward-looking theology” that was “rooted in experience” and emphasized “liberation.” The Kingdom Catholics look back to the council era as a time when “everything seemed possible.”

The Communion Catholics view the same period quite differently — as the equivalent of “ecclesiastical urban planning, tearing up our neighborhood.” This group, in which Pope Benedict XVI is the leading figure, insists that the church “stand firm in the proclamation of our faith.”

Radcliffe explains their skepticism of the Kingdom Catholics’ attitude toward modern ideas: “If one embraces the language of modernity too uncritically, then we are likely to lose our identity and be absorbed without a trace. … We must not let ourselves be assimilated to the world. We must not be afraid to underline what is distinctive about our faith, otherwise we will disappear.”

While the Communion Catholics can fairly be seen as conservative, their views do not always conform to what most American conservatives believe. Benedict, for example, was tough on the injustices of capitalism, a view consistent with a traditionalist critique of modern materialism.

Dionne was writing for — and from the perspective of  — U.S. Catholic intellectuals, who probably paid more attention to Benedict’s rather mild critiques of materialism than the bulk of U.S. and European commentators, and who are more focused on various scandals in the Church, and critiques of the Church for not responding to recent political and social issues — things more discussed in first-world circles than in the global south.

The new pope had not even tried on the infamous ruby slippers before every Western media outlet suddenly turned expert on a figure they hadn’t really heard of before, analyzing a minutes old papacy NOT in terms of the “Kingdom/Communion” dichotomy, but in the old “Liberal/Conservative” terms.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s simple lifestyle… and his statements suggesting the Church’s “preference for the poor” were taken as evidence that Francis will be a “liberal”.  That as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio made some strong statements opposing same-gender marriage and gay adoptions in his own country was broadcast immediately as counter-evidence that he is a “conservative”[1].

Neither of these, it seems, are as serious — or as important overall — in thinking of the meaning of a Latin American Pope as Cardinal Bergoglio’s record  in dealing with the Argentine government, during and after the dictatorship.  That record (said to include collaboration with, or at least, a failure to challenge, the dictators) suggest a “conservative kingdom” Catholicism, which makes more sense in Latin American terms.

Until 1994, the President of Argentina had a veto power over the Papal selection of Bishops, and although Bergiglioni was not consecrated as a Bishop until 1992, he was the Jesuit Superior during the Dirty War, when any high ranking cleric would have needed to pass muster with the political power.  The most that can be said against the new Pope is that he failed to act as forcibly as he could (presumably) have acted to protect individuals.

Although there were standouts, like Chile’s Cardinal Raúl Silva Henriquez, who did openly defy military regimes during the time, very few of the hierarchy did more than try to survive (and sometimes assist individuals trying to survive) during a difficult period.  And, it has to be pointed out that Cardinal Silva was a labor lawyer before he became a Salesian priest (which as an order, is supposed to assist the poor and downtrodden) and a liberationist (from the “liberal kingdom” wing of Catholicism).  Bergiglioni’s Jesuits are something of a mixed bag in Latin America… and while active in the liberationist movement of the time as individuals… are also better known in Latin America for training the elites and (at times) trying to influence governments being the scenes.  Historically, too, as an Argentine, Bergiglioni would have been keenly aware that the Jesuits, although running Paraguay directly, were tossed out of all of Latin America in 1783.

Latin Americas think long term, so I don’t read a whole lot into the new Pope’s attitude towards the military regime in Argentina, other than to see him as not particularly sympathetic towards the activities of the Liberationists.  That in itself is to be expected.  Being named to a position  like Primate of Argentina during John Paul II’s reign, one wouldn’t expect anyone sympathetic towards liberation theology.  BUT… as a Latin American… Cardinal Bergiglioni is very much, whether to his taste or not, in the Kingdom of Kingdom Catholicism.

Even in anti-clerical Mexico  the Church is expected to play an important role in national affairs.  Although in Mexico, the Primate Norberto Rivera is seen as an arch-reactionary, backed the the socialist administration in the Federal District when it started providing vouchers to the elderly (since adopted by the Federal Government) and on small-scale social service projects (famously, providing a retirement home for prostitutes).  On national issues, one isn’t surprised that even reactionaries like Rivera weigh in on the side of broader access to public services.    Of course, his concept of a better educational system would include religion in the classroom, the fact that he’s been pushing as much as anyone for educational reforms has had its impact on the Federal Government.  One tends to forget that long before anyone thought of “Liberation Theology” the Archbishop of Mexico — during a time of extreme official anti-clericalism — who was the key to selling oil nationalization to his countrymen and women, a move that was (and still is) seen as a radical socialist concept.

The point being,  the Latin America Church, while not particularly “liberal” on social issues, is not necessarily buying the whole “conservative” package as its understood in the northern countries (“free-market” capitalism) and is hostile to the entire idea of economic growth at the cost of social equality.<

Theologically, the new Pope is said to be a “moderate”, meaning not a whole-hearted “communion Catholic”.  A bizarre criticism of the new Pope, by right-wing U.S. writer Michal Brendon Dougherty in Slate complains of Francis’ apparent indifference to Latin Masses (as opposed to the mass of Latins) and the old pre-Vatican II order of service (something the outgoing Pope Has-Ben quietly permitted to flourish.  Dougherty carps:

But the other way to look at the dawn of this papacy is that it is one more in the pile of recent Catholic novelties and mediocrities. He is the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit to be pope, and the first to take the name Francis. And so he falls in line with the larger era of the church in the past 50 years which has been defined by ill-considered experimentation: a “pastoral” ecumenical council at Vatican II, a new synthetic vernacular liturgy, the hasty revision of the rules for almost all religious orders within the church…

Apparently, for Dougherty, being Latin American is tantamount to mediocrity all by itself.  But his other complaints (I leave the choice of the Pope’s regnal name aside as just plain silly),  suggest a Pope who at least accepts that while the Church might be the heir to the Roman Empire, the world has changed quite a bit in the last 1600 years, and the Church has to deal with a lot more of us Barbarians than the Romans ever encountered.  While Argentina is, at least on the surface, more Europeanized than your average Latin American country, Argentine Catholicism isn’t that much different than in the rest of the Americas… or, to put it another way, as diverse among Argentinians as it among Mexicans or Bolivians.  Even a guy like Cardinal Rivera here, who rails against congregants in mini-skirts, has nothing to say when congregants show up in loin-clothes and feathers, banging drums and burning copal to honor the Mother of Jesus… and Quetezecoatl.  Even the much milder syncretic traditions down on the Pampas are probably anathema to Dougherty, but a Pope who doesn’t find it at all weird, or even remarkable, is not likely to roll back liturgical and theological reforms.

And, finally, sex and money — the two things everybody in the global north is hung up on.    Latin Americas don’t expect sexual perfection, even in their clergy, and although as Cardinal the new Pope railed against changes in Argentine law that improved the lives of gays and lesbians (sort of part of the job description), he’s learned to live with it, just as Cardinal Rivera has learned to live with GLBT rights in the Federal District and usually backs off when the state tells him to forget about it.  Not knowing who the new Pope is appointing as subordinates, we don’t have a clue how he is going to deal with the pedophilia scandals or the questions of clerical celibacy (something just ignored in Latin America, “don’t ask, don’t tell” being the rather humane alternative to dealing with married priests here for the last 500 or so years), but given Dougherty’s complaints about the Papal “collegial” style I expect a few changes.

The new Pope made public appearances meant to highlight AIDS awareness, and has expressed tolerance for birth control methods meant to prevent disease.  The “collegial style” might mean a loosening of top-down pronouncements on sexual health (and identity), and, if nothing else, a Latin American style of  simply accepting what is, and not what should be, among the clergy and laity.

It may just be public relations, but Cardinal Bergiglio wasn’t unique among the  Latin hierarchy in toning down the bling and glitz.  Besides the havoc it would create in the world markets if the Church just sold off its art works, and precious metals (and I’d rather the Bernini Doors remained on St. Peter’s rather than melted down for cheap faucets any day), I don’t expect the Church is going to sell off the Vatican (can you sell a country, and who’d buy the Vatican anyway) or any of the other rather silly and unworkable reforms suggested every time there’s a new Pope.  In Mexico, where the State seized all the Church property back in the 1850s, and the Church has managed to thrive (especially after 1992, when they were again allowed to own property) with less bling, and more focus on becoming self-supporting.  Again, it depends on who Francis chooses as “department heads”, but I expect some major changes in the Vatican’s substantial portfolio that may not be to the taste of first-world investors, but will infuse cash into our part of the world.


Why Pope Francis May Be a Catholic Nightmare (Slate).

Christian Science Monitor (photo)

Questions remain over Pope Francis’ role during Argentina’s dictatorship (Guardian, via Raw Story)

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss?/updated (Mercury Rising)

Special Semi-Nice New Pope Time: Maybe He Is Not So Bad? (Wonkette)

Cardinals, popes, and prophets (Walk the Way)

Jorge Bergoglio, acusado de entregar jesuitas a dictadura (La Jornada)

Pope Francis: the quiet man of Buenos Aires known for his humble tastes (The Guardian)

etc, etc., links without end… Amen 🙂

[1] Within minutes of his election, his Wikipedia biography was edited to read “Bergoglio attained the position of novice master there and became professor of theology. He is another homophobic bastard indeed.”  The second sentence quickly disappeared, although there is a discussion of his attitudes on homosexuality in what is now an entry on “Pope Francis”.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 March 2013 1:48 pm

    Thanks for a thoughtful commentary. I’ve got to think a few more days before I write something more detailed than I’ve written. But I hope the choice of a name was auspicious. After all, some of us were praying to St. Francis to ask God to inspire the cardinals to vote for a person who could identify with the poor.

  2. 14 March 2013 3:58 pm

    This has probably been the most balanced commentary on what a Latin American pope means, and what kind of change Francis could really stand for. I’m no Catholic, but I haven’t quite written off the church 100% as a source for good, and this choice seems promising to me, by the low bar of who would qualify for pope. A Liberation Theologist or a social liberal isn’t going to make it that far up in the church hierarchy, or even a vocal opponent of the dictatorships (especially in the case of Argentina, where most of the activist priests were on the provincial margins.)

    But just having a pope who makes an effort to concern himself with the poor, ahead of other issues (For Benedict it seemed to be an afterthought, John Paul II was so rabidly anti-communist that he actively opposed any church element with even the slightest possible left-wing tilt), and one who has lived through such a turbulent time in Argentina, gives the church an opportunity it did not have under a European Pope.

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