When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis in March 2013, both the faithful and the general population were astounded. After decades of Euro-centric papacies featuring elder clergy who seemed criminally out of touch with reality, especially regarding a not-insignificant case of monetary malfeasance in the Vatican Bank and a sexual abuse scandal of epic proportions that spanned the globe, Francis seemed like a huge relief. He was from South America, he was a Jesuit, he chose to live a life of austerity, he broke taboos left and right, in the minds of many, he was a not just a breath of fresh air, he was an oxygen tank and cardiac crash cart for a Church that had seen its membership and donations significantly shrink since 2002 and the revelations about the Boston clergy abuse cover-up proved to be the crack in the dike that unleashed the flood of revelations about the Church worldwide.
However, any mature research into the life and teachings of this man reveals that, just as was the case with Barack Obama, the adulation and praise is merely false hope. Almost every issue that the popular media claims to be a ‘major groundbreaking utterance’ from Pope Francis in reality is just a re-iteration of Catholic dogma and theology, glamorized with a steady dose of sensationalism, American media gloss, and plain stupidity. This can be attributed to the Senior Communications Adviser with the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, the former Fox News correspondent Greg Burke. Burke, a native of St. Louis, is a graduate from the Columbia School of Journalism and a member of Opus Dei. While Opus Dei has been mis-represented by pulp novels like The DaVinci Code as some sort of Catholic Masonic order, the record of the order is far from saintly. Consider this letter from the order’s founder, Josemaría Escrivá, to El Caudillo himself, Francisco Franco:
Although alien to any political activity, I cannot help but rejoice as a priest and Spaniard that the Chief of State’s authoritative voice should proclaim that, “The Spanish nation considers it a badge of honor to accept the law of God according to the one and true doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church, inseparable faith of the national conscience which will inspire its legislation.” It is in fidelity to our people’s Catholic tradition that the best guarantee of success in acts of government, the certainty of a just and lasting peace within the national community, as well as the divine blessing for those holding positions of authority, will always be found.
Of course, most apologists for Escrivá argue that the anti-clericalism of Republican Spain was so horrid that aligning with Franco was the only sane thing to do. But that is a stretch, because in reality the Basque country featured priests who ministered to Republican forces and who themselves were killed by the Nationalists. The truth of the matter is that the anti-clericalism of the Spanish Civil War had less to do with dogma and more to do with power politics. I mention this because this theme will resurface in later discussion about the Pope.
In cutting through the chaff to get to the core of the Francis phenom, I want to go about it topically because, in the news cycle, it seems that these alleged ‘breaking stories’ tend to be based around taboos and headline grabs.
The biggest news this week has of course been the leaking of the Pope’s newest encyclical, Laudato Si, which takes on climate change as a man-made phenomenon, water rights, biodiversity, and economic inequality. Only the clinically insane would say these are not issues that need to be brought to the forefront. But only the clinically insane would likewise claim the Pope is breaking new ground here, and the man himself is upfront about that from the outset, citing writings by Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. Indeed, issues about pollution and conservation have been a major topic of Catholic social teaching for decades that the politicized clergy has conveniently left out of the conversation when cozying up with the Republican Party and its oil barons. The general principle is called stewardship and specifically stewardship of creation. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops lists on its webpage:
The Bible contains a profound message about the stewardship of material creation: God created the world, but entrusts it to human beings. Caring for and cultivating the world involves… [j]oyful appreciation for the God-given beauty and wonder of nature… and preservation of the environment, which would be the stewardship of ecological concern.
Despite the howling of the right-wing press, the reality is that Francis is saying something that most European political parties knew twenty years ago and that became planks of the mainstream parties at the turn of this century.
In July 2013, the news media exploded into a frenzy of especially blatant idiocy based around the most misrepresented statement this decade. On a flight back from Brazil, referring to homosexuals, Francis answered “Who am I to judge?” Across the board, everyone was screaming from the rafters that this might represent a major shift in policy towards LGBTQQI people, who were particularly stigmatized by the Vatican when the hierarchy went out of their way to blame the pedophile putsch on gay men, claiming there is a causal relationship between same-sex attraction between consenting adults and the compulsion to rape minor boys.
But back on planet earth, it was not that way at all. The original question had been about gay priests and whether they had a role to play in the Church. Benedict XVI had previously issued a directive that tried to weed out gay seminarians from the ranks. Of course, in context, there is something understandable that needs to be unpacked here.
In English-speaking seminaries, there is a discernible legacy of Puritanical sexual morality that has made the Catholic Church especially strict on sexual mores. But in the rest of the world, seminaries have become bacchanals, as shown in a PBS Frontline film some time ago. Gay seminarians run around Rome and pick up tricks in local bars, boozing, drugging, and screwing into the early hours before heading to morning prayers. Some might be asking why I am being such a prude here, wondering whether having gay priests actually could be a benefit and create a democratic upsurge in the years to come.
But the record is clear that the opposite is true, that these deeply closeted clerics usually end up being the most militant culture warriors, railing from the pulpit weekly about abortion and marriage equality to deflect attention from their continuing hypocrisy. For example, consider the reign of New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, dining partner of Roy Cohn, rabid anti-Communist, and known patron of the sexiest choir boys Broadway could offer. One of the major elements of the McCarthy era, after they had chased out what few Communist sympathizers there might have been in the State Department, was the hounding of gay and lesbian ‘subversives’, and that was all fueled by the shenanigans of the allegedly-gay McCarthy and the undeniably gay Cohn.
So what Benedict did, while certainly medieval, at least was an effort that would tamper down on the hypocrisy, and in turn, what Francis said was that, if a priest is loyal to his vow of celibacy and does not promote what are considered the basic planks of the LGBTQQI liberation platform, such as gender parity, marriage equality, safe access to abortion, free provision of safe sex utilities and contraception, adoption rights, and opposition to transphobia, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” If you need further proof, look no further to his January homily in the Philippines, the most Catholic nation in Asia. That day, Francis was able to speak a with his guard down and more openly:
Beware of the new ideological colonization that tries to destroy the family. It’s not born of the dream that we have from God and prayer – it comes from outside and that’s why I call it a colonization… [W]e have to be very wise and strong to say “No” to any attempted ideological colonization that could destroy the family… The pressures on family life today are many… The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.
This extends to his teachings on other elements of sexuality. He has reiterated the absolutist opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. The much-praised 2013 Evangelii Gaudium included this quote that is not highlighted so often by Progressive Democrats:
Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.
He has also been firm about the ordination of women to the priesthood, saying “With regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no. Pope John Paul [II] said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed.”
This is where things become particularly ugly with regards to Francis. The aforementioned Evangelii Gaudium was seen as some sort of rejuvenation of Liberation Theology because he had the audacity to call free market proponents “crude and naïve”. But the Church has a long-standing opposition to both Marxism and capitalism, codified in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church in Canon 2425:
The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with “communism” or “socialism.” She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for “there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market.” Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended.
John Paul II wrote in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus:
[I]f by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
What is ugly about this issue is the connection between then-Jesuit Bergoglio and the Argentine junta. Following the historic Second Vatican Council, South American priests were lit on fire with an evangelical fervor that emphasized the ‘preferential option for the poor’. Noam Chomsky has ben particularly vocal about this Liberation Theology and how it sought to reinvigorate the Gospels as a radical pacifist/socialist movement with a condemnation of structural inequality and unrepentant wealth for the few in the midst of poverty for the majority.
Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II were quite apt to condemn this movement as some sort of Marxist heresy, but the wonders of the Freedom of Information Act and the de-classification of Cold War files make abundantly clear what the real issue was, the American intelligence community knew that Liberation Theology was a threat to hemispheric hegemony and it needed to go, whereas South American Leninism, at least until the coming of Hugo Chavez, had breathed its last on the day Allende was deposed by Pinochet. So, in the years of the Polish Pontiff, with Catholic power players like Zbigniew Brzezinski and William Casey bumbling around Washington, an organized international effort to crush Liberation Theology was created and succeeded, part of a tit-for-tat where John Paul would help preserve American power in the south while the United States fostered Polish independence through aid to Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement. And Bergoglio was right in the middle of it, refusing to take a principled stand for priests that ministered to the poor. He was brought to court for the participation in these issues in 2005 and his statements were described as evasive by human rights attorneys. Of course, Francis apologists point out a record of acting behind the scenes and the claim that he did not know.
But, just like Josemaría Escrivá a generation before, this is simply political. Both clerics were putting temporal gain before spiritual principles. Escrivá could have stood up against Franco in the name of democracy and the Basque priests murdered in the Civil War, just as Bergoglio could have stood up for his subordinates and prevented their torture. But instead, they played it safe, refusing to follow the Christian ethic of doing what is right rather than what is comfortable.
Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and independent journalist who lives outside Providence. His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.