The most common reaction to news of the new Pope seems to be “great! The first from outside Europe!” For anyone who knows anything about the Church, the next thought is “Great! The first Jesuit Pope!” For my part, when I saw the new Pope’s regnal name, my first association was with the TV series House of Cards.
The easiest way to sell eyeballs and clicks seems to be to play up the new Pope’s alleged humility: most news reports emphasize his choosing to live in a “modest” apartment instead of the official Palace of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, choosing to occasionally cook his own food, choosing to ride the bus instead of his official chauffeured car. These reports may have their origin in wishful thinking on the part of naïve journalists inspired by a movie called In the Shoes of the Fisherman. This is not that movie.
Yes, the new Pope is a Jesuit from Argentina. Yes, the Jesuits are the intellectual special forces of the Church. Yes, Catholicism is relatively much stronger in Latin America than in Europe. That’s pretty much all that’s real which you’re going to get from most mainstream reports.
Has anyone noticed how old the new Pope is? (76) When Ratzinger was elected in 2005 (at age 78) the consensus was that his election was meant to be a temporary stopgap: he was a reliable tool of the late Wojtyla, who could be trusted to keep the Catholic ship on a steady course while the political game continued to unfold, and point to a stronger successor who could then establish a definitive new direction for the Church to follow.
Ratzinger has outlived the short life expectancy that most observers gave him. He’s managed to alienate broad swathes of humanity, failed to make any headway in resolving the sexual abuse scandals, and allowed a crisis to blow up over money laundering and corruption suspected to fester inside the Vatican’s banking system. He has, as expected, maintained the theological conservatism of his predecessor, although not even I imagined that Ratzinger would invest so much effort in rapprochement with the schismatic fundamentalist Society of Saint Pius X (founded by a bishop who was excommunicated in 1988 for flagrant flouting of Papal authority and unauthorized consecration of priests).
The main issue confronting the Church today is the same one that it faced in 1962: how to adapt to a changing world? As any Thomas Friedman column or gee-whiz TED talk will tell you, the world is changing faster and faster than at any time in recorded history. From the Industrial Revolution, to votes for women, to the Internet, to de-industrialization and globalization, human society today is fundamentally different from how it was in 1517 (the year that Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses, when the Church was at the height of its power on Earth). The Church has always managed to play an adept political game: failures like the English Reformation under Henry VIII and the French Revolution stand out as outliers in Church history, as she’s always managed to either pick winning horses (Franco) or else adroitly reconcile with the victors (modern astronomy).
In the mid-sixties progressive elements within the Church recognized value within socialism and Marxist analysis. A doctrine called Liberation Theology arose, which attempted to reconcile divine theory with the day-to-day life of the parishes. The essential concept is “a preferential option for the poor” – that God’s kingdom will be realized in heaven when it is realized on earth, identifying the service of Christ with advocating for the world’s poor to become masters of their own destiny (in order words, poverty eradication).
In fact, an ecclesiastical conference of Latin American bishops in the city of Medellín in 1968 explicitly adopted Liberation Theology as its official doctrine. The Church deliberately sought to evangelize among working-class communities and priests became actively involved in political advocacy for their causes, such as education, healthcare, housing, land rights, and so on. This is the image of the Catholic Church which you see in the Raul Julia movie “Romero”. I believe a major reason why this was possible is that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had dramatically modernized the Church. This council is the reason why the Mass and sacraments like confession and baptism are given in the local language, rather than Latin. This is the reason why priests no longer turn their backs on the congregation when performing the rituals of the Mass. This is why priests no longer insert the Host (the communion wafer) into the mouth of a churchgoer, but instead hand it to you so that you can put the wafer into your own mouth. This is why most churches built in the 70s and later have floor plans like an amphitheater rather than a crucifix – it’s more democratic that way. (See the Cathedral of San Francisco, the new shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, etc.)
Believe it or not, these innovations in practice (mass in the local language, priests facing the congregation, wafer non-insertion, etc.) are extremely objectionable to many conservative Catholics. Ever since the Council (referred to as Vatican II) concluded, the church has been trapped in a philosophical civil war. Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), who was sainted by the popular press as soon as he was dead, represented the triumph of this rightist revanche: he stacked the College of Cardinals with like-minded Vatican II rejectionists such as Ratzinger, and Bergoglio. I presume it had to do with the Polish Pope’s obsession with opposing Marxism – Liberation Theology is viewed by the Catholic right as a “Marxist misreading of the Gospel”.
Therefore, as I see it, all the years since Wojtyla’s election has been a big loss of time for Jesus Christ Inc. The world has kept on modernizing, as modern culture is starting to overcome sexism and homophobia, and women who enjoy greater educational and professional freedom are increasingly choosing to delay having children, and couples are choosing to forego marriage altogether. The Church has lost a lot of ground to evangelical Protestant groups, both in Latin America and in the U.S. The ceremonies of these “charismatic” groups deliver a greater narcotic thrill, if you will, to the worshippers; they speak in a language which people understand; they are better adjusted to “ministry” in the modern world today. The urge to aggressively suppress all modernizing impulses is probably the main reason why it’s so unlikely that the Catholic Church will ever accept female priests or an end to clerical celibacy – two innovations which I think would help tremendously to reinvigorate the institution.
The Society of Saint Pius X is a cousin to this relentless effort to push back against the Second Vatican Council. One of the first major moves by Ratzinger (Benedict) as Pope was to give official legitimacy to the old Latin Mass (a key fetish of the Catholic ultra-right) as acceptable for use in general service, subject to acceptance by local congregations. The election of Bergoglio (Francis) as Pope is no surprise, since all the electors remain the hand-picked men of Wojtyla (John Paul II). In the late 20th century, Argentina’s Catholic Church was the most conservative in Latin America, the most closely allied to the military dictatorship of 1976-1983; there, the Church did not really distinguish itself by opposition to dictatorship, as was the case in Brazil, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Well-founded suspicions exist that Bergoglio himself aided and abetted torture and disappearance, although he claims to have discreetly exerted himself on one or two occasions to intercede on behalf of victims of the regime. We have only his word on that point, and he had already been considered “papabile” in 2005 (during the Conclave to replace Wojtyla) by the time he gave the interview in which he made those claims (2010).
But without going into suspicions about what he may or may not have done during one of the bloodiest dictatorships of Latin America in the 20th century, Bergoglio has a well-documented track record as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998. During the leftist administrations of Presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Bergoglio engaged in outright political opposition. In 2005 the bishop in charge of the Argentine Armed Forces, Antonio Juan Baseotto, made a comment in the media that the Health Minister, Ginés González García, deserved to be “thrown into the sea” for having advocated the distribution of
prophylactics and the legalization of abortion. You have to recognize the reference: during the military government 1976-1983, the bodies of disappeared people were commonly disposed of by this method. In the resulting scandal the president fired the military bishop. Bergoglio, the future pope, had an extended public confrontation with Kirchner on this occasion.
He’s openly attacked the elected government before. The local press says his relationships with the two Kirchner presidents have been “frosty” for many years.
It is worth remembering that the Church in Latin America is accustomed to far more privileges than in the U.S., and indeed more than in most of Europe. Bishops make explicit political interventions very often there. The church is extensively involved in the provision of social services of all kinds, including publicly-funded education in some countries. In Bolivia the Church protested vigorously at the mere suggestion in 2006 that the public schools might drop their obligatory Catholic Studies classes.
In 2010 Bergoglio had the ex-chaplain of the ESMA transferred to Genoa, Italy, after the chaplain used Biblical language referring to the separation of wheat from chaff to justify the crimes of the dictatorship. The ESMA, the Naval School of Mechanics, was one of the dictatorship’s principal torture and incarceration facilities.
The foregoing is just the tip of the iceberg, what I was able to turn up with 5 minutes’ Google work. (I remembered very clearly the “thrown into the sea” controversy in 2005, as I was studying in nearby Chile at the time.) Argentina has yet to be rocked by a sex-abuse scandal, but I think it’s inevitable in a country where the Church enjoys powerful privileges and the priests are not permitted to have romantic relationships. Who knows what else may come out? It’s worth noting that the world press has not made much of young Ratzinger’s membership (obligatory, he claims) in the Waffen-SS during the last years of World War II. I never approved of the jokes some of my friends have made about “the Nazi Pope” but I do believe it is accurate to say that Bergoglio was closer to the Videla government than Ratzinger was to the Hitler government.
Was Bergoglio the best that was available? I doubt it. The nature of a closed and secret process like the Papal Conclave is that there is no level playing field, there is no formal vetting process. Contrast this with an American Cabinet or judiciary nomination; skeletons in the closet are very likely to come out prior to confirmation. I honestly doubt that an elderly bishop from South America can confront the financial crisis brewing at the Institute for the Works of Religion (the “Vatican Bank”), the sexual abuse scandal, and the questions of family planning, female priests, and priestly celibacy. But due to his advanced age, we may see another one of these elections soon.