Is New Pope’s Take on the Poor All That New?

Next week, Bergoglio will return to [Brazil], this time as Pope Francis. Though he won’t visit his native Argentina, the visit will draw attention to Latin America’s first pope and his appeal for a poor church that eschews worldly power. –Alessandro Speciale, Religion News Service, July 18, 2013

When People Magazine wanted to tell us “all about” recently elected Pope Francis, it remarked that “he is known for living simply and advocating for the poor. He’s also a tango fan and soccer devotee who became a priest after a childhood girlfriend moved away.”

Indeed, the most consistent reading of Pope Francis in the media has been that he is a humble man, with a simplicity and down-to-earthness that not only make him a man of the people, but also lend authenticity and transparency to his nascent papacy. These qualities stand in stark contrast to the cerebral aloofness of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, whose rigid defense of Catholic orthodoxy and penchant for order and hierarchy aided and abetted the Vatican’s culture of secrecy, which, in turn, allowed corruption, infighting, and sexual abuse scandals to flourish within the Church.

There is evidence to support this view of Francis: the fact that he adopted the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, whose vows of poverty challenged the Church in the Middle Ages; that he refused to wear the especially-tailored red loafers that were Benedict’s sartorial trademarks; that he choose not to move to the traditional papal accommodations, electing instead the more modest Domus Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse for cardinal and priests; that he took care of his hotel bill, not exerting the prerogatives of his office; or that he rode together with his fellow cardinals after being elected. Summarizing all these actions, Rev. Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, commented that the Francis has a great knack for “significant gestures that immediately convey very powerful messages.”

The evidence of change appears to be more than symbolic. Francis has formed a consultative panel of eight cardinals that will help him confront the tough challenges faced by the Church, seeming to borrow a page from Vatican II’s call for more collegiality and openness to the world. The panel, which reflects the geographic distribution of Catholicism far better than the College of Cardinals (which remains heavily European) contains cardinals from the Americas, Asia, and Africa, including Sean Patrick O’Malley, a Franciscan who has been credited with cleaning up the Archdiocese of Boston, which witnessed some of the most egregious cases of sexual abuse and cover up under Cardinal Bernard Law. Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras and head of Caritas International, will serve as the panel’s coordinator. Among the proposals that the council will consider is one that sets term limits for positions within Vatican bureaucracy in order to avoid entrenched “careerism”—a change that could have a wide-ranging impact on the Church’s governance. However, the council will not meet until early October, an indication that Francis is in no hurry to undertake any reforms.

Is Francis signaling a shift from the “conservative restoration,” that had characterized the John Paul II era, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or is this simply a return to John Paul II’s image-conscious conservative populism? Under this second hypothesis, Jorge Bergoglio, lacking the charisma of the youthful Karol Wojtyla, would have to appeal to the Jesuit mystique, particularly in Latin America, of taking a preferential option for the poor, to repair the Church’s severely damaged reputation.  

Just a few months into Francis’s papacy, it’s too early to render a conclusive judgment on its direction. Nevertheless, The New York Times, which has been at the forefront in denouncing abuses within the church and calling for more transparency and accountability, seems convinced that a major transformation is afoot in an article pointing to Francis’s denunciation of “the ‘cult of money’ and greed he sees driving the world financial system, reflecting his affinity for liberation theology.”

The Times goes on to cite a speech by the new pope on the ethics of financing: “The financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in a profound human crisis . . . . We have created new idols. 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 humane goal.” The article concludes that 

Francis’ speeches clearly draw on the themes of liberation theology, a movement that seeks to use the teachings of the Gospel to help free people from poverty and that has been particularly strong in his native Latin America. In the 1980s, Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, led a campaign to rein in the movement, which he saw as too closely tied to some Marxist political elements. 

Francis studied with an Argentine Jesuit priest who was a proponent of liberation theology, and Father [Federico] Lombardi, [a Vatican spokesman], acknowledged the echoes. “But what is clear is that he was always against the strains of liberation theology that had an ideological Marxist element,” he said. 

The reference to the specter of Marxism reveals what is at stake in the debate about the direction of Francis’s papacy: a subtle but important re-articulation of the notion of the poor away from its moorings in the Latin American context, where it carried strong sociological and political connotations, toward a spiritualized and moralizing reading of poverty that resonates with the discontents generated by the on-going global economic crisis.

While Latin American liberation theology is very diverse, in most versions of it the notion of the poor calls for a rigorous sociological and economic analysis of the conditions that lead to the production and persistence of poverty, an analysis that may or may not borrow from Marxism, since the goal is to come up with the most robust examination of the “signs of the times.” This analysis is a necessary, feet-on-the-ground precondition for deep reflection in the light of Christian resources in a see-judge-act spiral that led to faith-informed actions to address injustices, even if through small grassroots practices.

By contrast, Francis seems to think of poverty primarily as a virtue, as a marker of service, frugality, honesty, purifying suffering, and loyalty at a time of general indignation toward the excesses and wastefulness of contemporary capitalism. Poverty above all implies a call for moral and spiritual conversion in the midst of a Church that has lost a great deal of its moral standing. This view is clear in his first encyclical Lumen Fidei, co-authored with Benedict XVI, which cites Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa of Calcutta as models for work among the poor.

They understood the mystery at work in them. In drawing near to the suffering, they were certainly not able to eliminate all their pain or to eliminate every evil. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather his response is that of an accompanying presence . . . . Suffering reminds us that faith’s service to the common good is always one of hope – a hope which looks ever ahead in the knowledge that only from God, from the future which comes from the risen Jesus, can our society find solid and lasting foundations.

In other words, the primary pastoral task is to mitigate the effects of poverty and to offer the poor hope of a better life, not to accompany them in their struggles to build societies that reflect Catholic social teaching. These struggles are now severed from God’s salvific work.

In Latin America, the renewed attention to the poor, even if under a different key, has been taken as a budding sign of hope. Theologian Leonardo Boff, who was censored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger, recently pointed out that the new prefect of this office, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, has co-authored a book with Gustavo Gutiérrez which offers a very positive view of liberation theology. This collaboration, as well the election of Francis, indicate to Boff the possibility of a “truce” that may allow for a recognition that “some vehement mobilizations of ecclesial sectors against Liberation Theology were more motivated by some preferences in political orientation than by the desire to safeguard [guardar] and affirm the Apostles’s faith.”

Boff’s assessment is a far cry from the simplistic assertion that Francis’s frequent references to the poor represent an automatic recovery of the true essence of Liberation Theology, devoid of all its noxious Marxist trappings. The call for frugality and simplicity seems to have its limits. As Francis prepares to travel to Brazil to attend the 2013 World Youth Day, reports have surfaced that the Vatican has asked the country and the city of Rio de Janeiro to pitch in an additional $39 million to cover a shortfall in funding for the visit. Brazil and Rio had already forked over close to $65 million, most of it to cover the cost of security, counting on two million expected pilgrims to take care of the rest of the bill totaling $150 million.

However, as only 320,000 pilgrims have registered, the Vatican has chosen to seek more funds from Brazilian sources. In light of the recent massive protests that have rocked the country, partly in response to the excessive expenditures in the preparation for the World Cup and the Olympics and the concomitant failure to invest in public education, health, and transportation, Brazilian authorities turned down the Vatican’s request.

Francis’s visit to Brazil does serve to highlight the promise of his focus on the poor. He will visit Varginha, one of the poorest communities in Manguinhos, an area popularly known as “the Gaza Strip” for its high levels of violence among drug traffickers and between them and the police. Francis will not only celebrate a Mass in the local soccer stadium, but he will also walk the streets in front of the chapel. He might even enter the homes of some of the settlers.

This is a radical departure from Benedict XVI’s visit to Brazil in 2007, when he spent most of his time meeting with other Latin American bishops and gave only one large public Mass. Unfortunately, the clash between the economics of evangelization and the needs and frustrations of poor Brazilians reveals the limitations and contradictions behind Francis’s re-interpretation of the poor and poverty.

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Manuel A. Vásquez is professor of religion and Latin American studies at the University of Florida. His most recent publications include Living "Illegal": The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration (New Press, 2011) and The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions (Brill, 2013).