A gust of fresh air is sweeping through the centuries-old, grandiose but encrusted and musty environs of the Vatican City with the arrival of a new Pope elected just seven months ago. Pope Francis, or the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is the new Bishop of Rome. He establishes several firsts: the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas (he is an Argentinian of Italian descent), and the first from the Southern Hemisphere.
His election highlights the ascendance to the papacy of someone who comes from the part of the globe where two-thirds of Catholics live, the church is still growing and also where the problems of the Third World – poverty and underdevelopment, social inequality and oppression, authoritarianism and social conflict – reign unabated, if not become much worse.
What most Catholics and the rest of the world found immediately refreshing is this pope’s simplicity, humility, openness and warmth as expressed in his refusal to take on the pompous trappings of his office – special vestments, the papal apartments, the papal limousine, strict protocols – that project aloofness and inaccessibility of the Pope to the faithful and even to the ordinary clergy and religious, the church’s foot soldiers.
Later, his interviews and candid statements revealed much more substantial differences from his predecessors. Upon taking the name of Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi (who turned his back on a life of ease and worldly pleasures to embrace poverty and devotion to Christ’s teachings and good works) he exclaimed, “How I would like a poor Church, and (a Church) for the poor.”
I trace my own social activism to a Catholic upbringing that included all of 10 years studying in a convent school run by German Franciscan Missionaries of Mary nuns. This is where I first learned the meaning of the virtue of charity especially sharing one’s blessings with the poor; love for one’s fellow human beings; and compassion for the sick, downtrodden and those in need. I imbibed the nuns’ missionary zeal and did catechism work among children living in the slums of the city as my small contribution to spreading Jesus Christ’s healing words of faith, hope and charity.
In the late sixties and seventies, the Theology of Liberation, congealed from the application of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the concrete conditions of widespread and dehumanizing poverty, social injustice and human rights violations in Latin America, drew adherents from religious and laity in other Third World countries including the Philippines, with an overwhelming majority of its population Roman Catholic.
Thus to my political awakening as a university student in the seventies brought about by the explosion of the First Quarter Storm Movement was amalgamated liberation theology with its “preferential option for the poor”; the use of “structural analysis” to understand how society is built to ensure that the miniscule elite dominates the vast majority economically, politically and culturally; the truth of “structural violence” against the “poor, marginalized and oppressed” sectors in society; that the most repressive form of this systemic violence is the use of state violence against those who would bring about fundamental changes in society; and that the church of God is not the hierarchical church as such but, like the early Christian church, is a movement of the “people of God” struggling to bring about the fruition of the promise of God’s “Kingdom on Earth”.
By the eighties, liberation theology drew official critiques from the Vatican, specifically through the writings of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1981-2005 before becoming Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Ratzinger expressed the Vatican’s disapproval of the mixing of the Marxist critique of capitalism with Catholic theology. Nonetheless, he affirmed liberation theology’s bias for the poor and oppressed and its call for the clergy and religious to be one with the people’s struggle for liberation against unjust socio-economic conditions. Still, several of the liberation theologians were sanctioned thus ushering in an era of frosty relations between the church’s hierarchy and the liberation theologians.
In the Philippines, liberation theology’s broad appeal among religious and laity was systematically countered by the anti-communist slur and intrigue emanating from reactionaries in the church hierarchy and encouraged by the elite classes who were threatened by its radical evangelization. By the nineties, liberation theology would be shunned by the non-politicized even before its relevance to societies embroiled in social conflicts could be studied and understood.
The meeting last September between Pope Francis and Peruvian priest Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez (he coined the phrase “theology of liberation”) marks a historic thaw in the relations of liberation theologians with the Vatican. It opens the door once more to a theology marked by its concern for the liberation of the world's people from unjust economic and social conditions as well as politically repressive states.
By his own pronouncements and actions, Pope Francis is clearly shaking up the world of conservative Catholicism, and much more, the world of unbridled finance capitalism and wars in the name of “humanitarian intervention”.
Pope Francis said, “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it … one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty…”
He commiserated with the thousands of Bangladesh workers who were receiving very low wages and died, victims of a fire in their factory, calling their employment “slave labor”.
In his first pastoral visit outside Rome Pope Francis went to the Italian island of Lampedusa where many illegal Muslim immigrants, some refugees while others are economic migrants, land. He spoke against "global indifference" to their plight and called for a "reawakening of consciences" to counteract this.
In a wide-ranging interview, he criticized the Church for putting dogma above love, and doctrine before serving the poor. He said the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception and had become a church of “small-minded rules”; he wanted an inclusive church which was a “home for all”.
Two months into his papacy, during an address to foreign ambassadors in the Vatican, the Pope said, “''The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal.'' He attacked the ''dictatorship'' of the global financial system and warned that the ''cult of money'' is making life a misery for millions.
At the height of the Syrian crisis, when US President Obama was trying to rally the US Congress and US allies in Europe for a military strike against Syria over the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against armed rebels and civilian populations, Pope Francis called for a global day of fasting and praying for peace in Syria and to oppose any military intervention in the country. Millions of people around the world responded and the Pope’s unprecedented action likely helped to stay the rampage of the US war machine.
One can only hope and pray that the Catholic Church in this country will be shaken to the very rafters by Pope Francis’ words and sterling example; more importantly, that the faithful be roused from its apathetic and mindless stupor to help build the Church of the poor and for the poor. #
Published in Business World
25-26 October 2013