Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1586      March 20, 2013


Pope Francis I and the poor

The world’s Catholics have a new Pope. The former Cardinal from the Argentinean capital of Buenos Aires is the first non-European to hold the post in the Church’s long history. Pope Francis I is reported to be a man of great humility, foregoing accommodation in the Archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires to live in a modest apartment, cook his own food and travel on public transport. He is also reported to be a strong advocate for the poor. The world’s media hammered this officially sanctioned message heavily following the elevation of Jorge Bergoglio but Vatican spokesmen were very quickly obliged to engage in damage control as details of the Pope’s more dubious past began to circulate among the people.

The Jesuit cleric is a conservative, a strident opponent of abortion and marriage equality. More damaging still are reports that, while Archbishop in his homeland, he did little to help two young priests who were arrested and tortured during the dictatorship’s Dirty War against the left between 1976 and 1983. Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell rushed the Pontiff’s defence saying that he had, at least, made some representations to military strongman Jorge Videla. Bergoglio was questioned by police about the matter when democracy returned to the country but, unlike a number of his clerical colleagues, was not prosecuted.

Vatican officials tried desperately to blame the uncomfortable reminders of the Church’s less-than-heroic role during the dictatorship on misguided “leftists” and “atheists”. It is understandable that the left in Argentina would seek to remind people about the relatively recent, traumatic experience of those years. Up to 30,000 political activists were “disappeared”. Thousands more were tortured horribly. Babies were taken from mothers and placed with military families throughout Latin America. In 2000, the Church in Argentina felt obliged to apologise for its failure to stand up for the people during those dark days.

The stance of the Church’s hierarchy in different countries of Latin America varied greatly during the tormented years of the 1970s and ’80s. It varies significantly today, as well. But it is clear that the newly-elected Pope is not from that tradition of priests who put their bodies on the line in defence of the impoverished peoples of the region. Pope Francis I is most certainly NOT an adherent of “liberation theology” – the movement originating in Latin America that believes that Christians need to pursue practical, political change and not just mouth platitudes about “the poor”.

The election of another conservative Pope should come as no surprise. John Paul II, the Polish Pope who played such an active part in bringing down socialism in Eastern Europe and beyond, saw to it that the pool of Cardinals from which his successors would be drawn was stacked with like-minded clerics. Joseph Ratzinger pressed on with his predecessor’s right-wing agenda during his years as Pope Benedict XVI. His reign will probably be recalled primarily for the shameful cover-up of paedophilia in the ranks of the Church and the failure of authorities to act against child sex abuse.

For all this neglect of the interests of the most vulnerable, conservative Church leaders will continue to preach about the corruption of the times, excesses of capitalist consumer society and to remind adherents in the most general terms about the needs of “the poor”. The faithful will carry on their seemingly endless charitable work. A long line of Popes, from the time of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum encyclical of 1891 to the present, have scolded the rich for their callousness to the poor of the world. Rich Catholics may or may not feel chastised but capitalism, which is exploitative and oppressive by its very nature, continues. In fact it is sacrosanct in the Church’s eyes. Any efforts on the part of “the poor” to organise a new society based on collective ownership and solidarity (socialism) are held to be “unnatural” and a challenge to the supposedly divine model of private ownership.

Progressive Catholics have fought a long, ongoing battle against this patently hypocritical attitude to “the poor”. In this clash of political outlooks, one is reminded of the words of Brazilian Archbishop, the late Dom Helder Camara, who had the courage to speak out plainly and frequently against the dictatorship’s efforts to crush his people’s hopes. He said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”

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