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Reformer or Hypocrite? Understanding Pope Francis

At first glance, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” Pope Francis, is a mess of contradictions. On the one hand, he has vehemently denounced the evils of global capitalism, calling it “a new tyranny.” However, as pontiff, he heads the Catholic Church, which has been characterized as “probably the wealthiest institution in the entire world.” And, although the pope has championed the importance of women in the Catholic Church, saying in an interview, “The woman is essential for the church. ... The feminine genius is needed whenever we make important decisions,” he continues to oppose as strongly as any pope before him the ordination of women, and considers abortion to be evil. How do we make sense of Pope Francis’ views?DonkeyHotey (CC BY 2.0)

It turns out that his critique of capitalism is actually nothing new. According to human rights activist Blase Bonpane, a former Maryknoll priest and adherent of “liberation theology,” “It’s been going on for a long time. If we take the 19th century, we had Pope Leo XIII who gave us the encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum,’ which followed directly from ‘The Communist Manifesto.’ The pope agreed with practically everything in the ‘Manifesto’ by talking about how people go into the factories and are ruined, whereas materials come out of the factory ennobled. And that was followed by another encyclical by Pius XI called ‘Quadragesimo Anno’ in the 1930s, 40 years after Leo XIII’s encyclical. These were anti-capitalist documents.” In fact, according to Bonpane, “Pius XI called for a living wage and defined it very well as ‘one worker in the family, time for vacation, an ability to save money, to have a decent life, to pay for all of your needs.’ So we have not always complied with what the popes are talking about but they have had many anti-capitalist statements going back to John the Baptist who said, ‘If someone has two pairs of shoes, give one to someone who doesn’t have any.’ So [this sentiment] has been in the history of the church despite its opulence.”

In that sense, Pope Francis represents a break not from the long-term tradition of the church, but from his immediate predecessors. Bonpane said, “I think it’s a dramatic change for him to focus on the liberation theology elements [of Catholicism], which is to downplay dogma.” In addition to his recent statements denouncing the ills of modern global capitalism, there are reports of the pope quietly stepping out of the halls of the Vatican at night to help poor and homeless people. If that’s not enough to cement his progressive economic policy credentials, Pope Francis has also provoked the ire of right-wing shock jock Rush Limbaugh, who accused him of “ripping capitalism” and being a Marxist.

Still, there remains the question of the Vatican’s vast and shady financial empire, estimated to value in the billions of dollars and plagued by allegations of money laundering. If the pope is so interested in redistribution of wealth, why doesn’t he just give it all away? Bonpane chuckled, “That would be a great idea! I think it would help the church immensely if [the Vatican] became a huge museum complex. Jesus didn’t call for a Vatican. He didn’t even call for a building! He was on the street. He didn’t talk about rigid dogmatic compliance. He talked about serving the poor and realizing that whatever we do for those in need is our connection to the Almighty.” So even though, according to Pope Francis, we “have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality,” and that “Such an economy kills,” it does not appear as though he will redistribute Vatican wealth anytime soon.

The pope also has a complex relationship with social issues such as women’s rights and the role of the LGBT community in the Catholic Church. In an interview earlier this year, he said, “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role.” Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, is cautiously heartened. He told me in an interview, “As someone who really cares about issues that are central to women, I have to say that I welcomed what Pope Francis [has] said. Because he basically called for the Catholic Church to be home for all and not just a small chapel focused on very narrow interpretations of what the moral issues really are of the day. And that message resonates with so many Catholics because it reflects our personal experience that Catholics are gay and lesbian, Catholics use birth control, Catholics have abortions.”

The pope has also said that the church has expended too much effort being fixated on contraception and abortion. O’Brien said he believes it is a good thing for the church to pull back its focus on those issues, “because if you look at what the Conference of Catholic Bishops here in the United States has been saying and the amount of time they spent telling us we shouldn’t be using contraception, 98 percent of women in the United States use a method of contraception the bishops don’t like. It does get a bit laborious when we see them up on Capitol Hill lobbying against President Obama’s coverage of contraception as part of the Affordable Care Act. So the idea that we’d hear church hierarchy speak less about it, is a good thing.”

But the pope draws the line at abortion. O’Brien cited how the pontiff made it clear to a group of gynecologists gathered at the Vatican that “he would expect them, in his opinion, to continue to not provide abortions and that they should refuse to provide women with the right to choose.”

On the issue of LGBT Catholics, O’Brien said, “While he embraced and said we should not pass judgments on gay, lesbian and transgender folks, I think the reality is that he’s not talking about changing the certain judgment that the Catholic hierarchy has, that when a gay man or a lesbian woman expresses sexual love, that that sexual love is not accepted by the church.” Indeed, in his Evangelii Gaudium, the pope stands by American bishops in their condemnation of “moral relativism” with regard to choice and gay marriage.

So while women may be more welcome in Francis’ church, they cannot expect a role within the Catholic Church’s power structure. And, while gays and lesbians may be less stigmatized, they are unlikely to be fully accepted.

In addition to the pope representing incremental social progress, his own identity as an Argentine was an important consideration for the church, Bonpane pointed out, “because of Latin America and the huge amount of Catholics not feeling represented.”

But the pope’s integrity during the “dirty war” in Argentina has been seriously compromised. Bonpane, who spent many years doing solidarity work in Latin America, reflected, “It certainly is questionable. He was using his authority at that time to question priests who had continued working in the slums and were really followers of ‘liberation theology,’ which ultimately began to have an impact on him. But we certainly cannot defend his treatment, especially of two priests and maybe various others that really lost their status and could have lost their lives as a result. I saw this in Guatemala that once the cardinal declared that we were communists and anti-Christ, we didn’t have a chance to live through it, really. So it can really finish off not only your career in the church but your life as well.”

Even though, Bonpane said, “I wouldn’t make any excuses for his behavior,” he added, “I would say that there has been an evolution,” and that once Pope Francis “saw how terrible the junta was, and how terrible the dirty war was, ultimately he had something of a conversion somewhat analogous to that of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador.”

Ultimately, what makes the pope an important figure in progressive politics is the very real ultraconservative power structure in the Catholic Church that he represents a sharp break from. O’Brien said, the church’s right-wing lobby wants to “use a conservative understanding within the church—which is a minority view—to beat up on our elected leaders like Nancy Pelosi and other Catholic leaders here in the U.S. What Pope Francis has done in one fell stroke is taken away some of the weapons that they try to use to go after our elected representatives who want to legislate for all of the people as opposed to legislating some conservative minority view into our laws.”

In fact, Pope Francis has also made it clear that he disapproves of right-wing Christian fundamentalism, calling it “a serious illness.”

While he is tilting toward progressive ideals, it should be noted that this pope understands that the real crisis of credibility facing the Catholic Church is one of image. O’Brien pointed out that Pope Francis is savvy about public relations, saying “the head of communications at the Vatican is a former employee of Fox News. In other words, the image that Pope Francis is projecting is different. We’re talking about a pope who is a communicator ... who is painfully aware what’s been going on at the church: scandals at the Vatican Bank, an ongoing sexual abuse scandal that’s global and is monumental in its mismanagement, and problems in the actual government of the church.”

Bonpane concluded that, weighing all considerations, Pope Francis does appear to be “a reformer,” and that “he has an enormous amount of work to do.” However, he hinted that we shouldn’t take the Catholic Church and its head so seriously in the first place, condemning the Vatican’s attempts through the years to “try to make the church the exclusive voice of God on earth.” Bonpane was adamant that the church “is not [the exclusive voice] and it has never been and never will be.” He went further, suggesting that what would be truly radical is to say, “We don’t need the Vatican. We don’t need churches. We don’t need a lot of dogma. We don’t need institutional legalization of various issues. We have to liberate ourselves from that. And we can go even further: We can liberate God from the Bible, and from the Quran, and from the so-called holy books and see that there’s something far more transcendent than that.”

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