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Can Pope Francis Redeem the Church?

A Humble Holy Man or Carefully Crafted Illusion?










by Playthell Benjamin

The more I see of Pope Frances the more I like him; which comes as a surprise to me.  And I got a good look at this man – who chose to adopt the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor – during his visit to Brazil for the church sponsored “World Youth Day” celebration.   Avid and careful readers of Commentaries On The Times will remember that I did not rejoice when the Roman Curia announced the selection of a Pope from among the European population of the Argentine. In fact I had written an essay – An African Pope as Act of Penitence – calling for the Church to choose a Pope from one of its brilliant African Cardinals; not only would their skills have enhanced the mission of the church, but the choice would be an act of contrition for the myriad and monumental sins committed against African Peoples by Catholics with the blessing of their church. After all, the Catholic Papacy was the mid-wife to the Atlantic slave trade that created the black diaspora of the Americas, which began with the plantation slavery system that created the foundational wealth of the western capitalist economy and financed the industrial revolution.  It was one of the greatest crimes against humanity in history, right alongside the mass murder of the American Indigenes resulting from the genocidal polices of the Spanish Conquistadors, whose unspeakable crimes were blessed by the Pope. Hence I argued that if the church chose a Pope from this region of the world – where there are more devout Catholics than anywhere else – he should be of indigenes stock.  I was aghast that they chose a son of the European invaders, the plunderers of the Americas, to head the global Catholic community.

I felt the Roman Catholic Church was adding insult to injury! But as I learned more about this humble priest of the Jesuit Order, the scholars of the Church, my attitude softened.  His disdain for luxury and the trappings of personal power impressed me.  And his denunciation of the mal-distribution of wealth in the world brought an Amen from this corner. In the Catholic Church, as in all large scale organizations, there are a range of personalities that run the spectrum from charlatans and knaves, sinners and saints, wise men and fools, the truly pious and base pretenders.   Thus far Pope Francis appears to be both pious and wise. Thus it was no accident that he chose Brazil as the destination of his first trip abroad.  Aside from the fact that Brazil is the largest catholic country in the world, 123 million faithful souls, it is also a country where all of the most troubling features of the human condition are on display.














By his example Pope Francis rejects the Social Darwinist vision of human society that has shaped social relations in Brazil historically, and is reflected in the preachment of the protestant Christian Right in the US and the blasphemous misrepresentation of Catholic social teaching by Congressman Paul Ryan. The rejection of Ryan’s views by American Catholic theologians and bishops as more representative of the Social Darwinism preached by atheistic Russian philosopher Ayn Rand than the preaching of Jesus Christ, upon which Catholic theology is based, is supported in the actions and homilies of Pope Francis. The massive demonstrations against inequality in Brazil that rocked the nation in the weeks preceding the Pope’s visit underscore the message he brought.  Perhaps this, as much as purely religious fervor, although there was plenty of religious passion on display, accounts for the massive crowds that greeted the first Latin American Pontiff everywhere he went on his Brazilian sojourn.  No doubt pride of region played an important part, but I am convinced the gravitas of his message of justice for the poor and powerless was the magnet that attracted the masses.

Pope Francis Anoints the Masses

Brazil Pope


The passionate adoration of the Pontiff was everywhere in evidence

Yet, despite his many virtues, the Pope is grappling with thorny issues of amazing complexity that sometimes seem beyond the capacity of any man to reconcile, even one with a billion faithful followers who regard his pronouncements as divinely inspired dogma.  This is an enormous power which requires the Pope to carefully weight his every utterance, because it can affect the course of many millions of lives. That’s why theologians, bishops, priests, and reporters who cover the affairs of the Catholic Church hang on his every word, explicating every possible meaning. Although the sociological and historical reasons for the obscene distribution of wealth that blights the human condition in Brazil and elsewhere in the world are very complex; they are much easier to address as a moral issue than problems like homosexuality and the proper place of women in the Church, which involve long standing doctrinal issues and the interpretation of scripture. On these pressing issues the Pope is torn between the relentless logic of science and the mandates of his faith. While he is smart enough to understand that Gay people are born that way, and that men are not naturally born superior to women, church doctrine and tradition bars women from the priesthood and the bible says homosexuality is an abomination, hence Pope Francis struggles to fashion a message that “renders unto god that which is God’s and unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Clearly bewildered by this dilemma, the Pope responded to the question of how the Church should treat Gay Catholics, laity and clergy, by shrugging and saying if they are earnestly seeking a relationship with God “who am I too Judge,” a comment heard around the world and sent the Bishops scrambling to bring their policies in line with the spirit of the Popes ambiguous comments to the faithful in Brazil.

The Papal Mass on Copacabana Beach


Some say three million Brazilians turned out to hear the Pope

In his farewell sermon at Copacabana Beach Pope Francis issued a call to the faithful to put religious devotion at the center of their lives because it was the only sure path to true joy and lasting happiness: Today, I would like each of us to ask sincerely: in whom do we place our trust? In ourselves, in material things, or in Jesus? We are all tempted to put ourselves at the center, to think that we alone build our lives or that our life can only be happy if built on possessions, money, or power. But it is not so. Certainly, possessions, money and power can give a momentary thrill, the illusion of being happy, but they end up possessing us and making us always want to have more, never satisfied. “Put on Christ” in your life, place your trust in him and you will never be disappointed!”

To an atheist like me it all sounds sort of odd, but I recognize what a powerful message it is to the faithful….and a great comfort to the poor.  But I’m not sure he is right because rarely does a rich person choose to swap places with the poor – I can think of no instance that I have witnessed or even heard of.  In fact I think my life-long friend and international businessman ‘Bad Black Bob” was probably right when he assured me many times: “Whatever happens in the world it will be easier to bear rich!” The Pope’s devaluation of the material world in favor of the spiritual is the kind of talk   that led Karl Marx to conclude that religion is “the opiate of the masses;” for it encourages them to reconcile their lives to social reality and seek solace in the grace of God rather than take revolutionary action to change it.   It is this tension between preaching against the greed of the rich and powerful and organizing a movement to overthrow them, that produced “Liberation Theology” in the Latin American Church. For the adherents of Liberation Theology – who based their views on the arguments in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s text A Theology of Liberation –which hold that biblical scripture should be interpreted from the perspective of the poor and oppressed masses and Christians should act to change their condition – the passiveness of the church in the face of political oppression cannot be reconciled.

This has led to political activism on the part of Priest such as Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, of the Matyknoll order, who embraced liberation theology and joined the revolutionary Sandinista movement in Nicaragua that overthrew one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, headed by the corrupt and murderous right-wing dictator Anatasio Samoza. When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, Father d’Escoto was appointed Foreign Minister, and after he refused Pope John Paul II’s order to resign his government post and return to his priestly duties he was suspended from the priesthood.  Two other Nicaraguan priests, Enersto and Fernando Cardenal, who were adherents of liberation theology, also joined the Sandinistas. When Pope John Paul II, who was outspoken on behalf of the poor and oppressed, visited Nicaragua Father Enersto Cardenal – priest, poet and government official – greeted him on behalf of the Sandinistas at the airport.  When he knelt to kiss the Pontiff’s ring, the Pope sternly ordered him to return to the discipline of his Bishop.

Father Enersto Cardenal and the Pope


Return to your Bishop!

Father’s Enersto and Fernando Cardenal were later suspended from the Priesthood for not resigning their posts with the Sandinistas.  Father Cardenal later said in an unprecedented critique of the Pope, that the Pontiff had made “a historic error” during his visit to revolutionary Nicaragua, because he didn’t understand the history of their country and thus “confused capitalism with liberty.” This is “confusion” resulted in John Paul’s rejection of liberation theology because he believed that the doctrine had borrowed too much from Marxism.  Having served as a priest under the communist regime of Poland which was hostile to the church – and rightly so given their suspected collaboration with the Nazi’s – John Paul was rabidly anti-communist and it distorted his view of what was happening in the Latin America. It was this antipathy towards Marxism that caused the Pope to turn his back on the true people’s movement for justice in Latin America.  His treatment of Archbishop Oscar Romero of neighboring El Salvador, a strong and fearless voice for the poor and oppressed, is a scandal that rivals his refusal to confront the widespread rape of children by his Priests.  Alas, while John Paul was quick to suspend the Sandinista priests he allowed the pedophile priests to be reassigned to new parishes, some even received high posts in the Vatican. For more than twenty years Father Romero had lived the life of a conservative Catholic priest, in fact many activist priest were passionately opposed to his selection as Archbishop on February 23 1977, while the right-wing government rejoiced.  But the assassination of a the Archbishop’s good friend  Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit Priest who was active on behalf of the poor,  radicalized Romero and pushed him closer to the liberation theologians.

“”When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead,” said Romero, “I thought ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” When the Salvadorian government refused to even investigate the murder of father Grande, which was obviously a politically motivated assassination, Archbishop Romero traveled to Rome seeking an audience with the Pope in order to explain the plight of his people, who were being slaughtered by a fascistic right-wing government he was treated like a wayward sinner by John Paul. Despite the urgency of his mission, the Archbishop was kept waiting for days while the Pope farted around in his palace trying to figure out how to face the truth his Archbishop had come to tell. In light of the fact that as Archbishop Romero became more vocal in his criticism of the crimes of the Salvadorian government against the people they began to take actions against church interests, such as closing catholic schools and a growing hostility to priests participating in governmental affairs, John Paul appeared to be shaken. Faced with a choice between supporting the activism of Romero and accommodating the church to the brutal reality of government power, the Pope ordered the archbishop to stay out of politics and get along with the government.

Archbishop Oscar Romero




He Stood Up for the people against the Salvadorian Militarist

In this decision John Paul was once again derelict in his duty to stand with the victims of injustice as Jesus Christ has commanded us to do.   Thus as with his wishy-washy stand on the rape of children, Pope John Paul’s great moral failing is that he loved the institutional church more than he loved God!  And for this reason I don’t believe he is a suitable candidate for Sainthood.  I feel so strongly on this point that I might well write an Amicus Cure brief against it much as Christopher Hitchens did expressing his opposition to the canonization of Mother Theresa. John Paul’s hypocrisy on the issue of pedophile priests led to the rape of more children, and his refusal to stand firmly behind the Salvadoran church’s advocacy for the poor and denounce systematic government terror and murder led to the assassination of Archbishop Romero as he conducted mass in the Church of the Divine Providence, shot down by a highly trained sniper 35 meters away outside the sanctuary, armed with an American made Roberts 257 rifle with a high tech Starlight Scope. During the same month that the Archbishop had sought the assistance of the Vatican, February 1980, he had also written a letter to President Jimmy Carter imploring him to stop arms shipments to the Salvadoran government because they were being used to slaughter his people.  Carter ignored him.

With both the Pope and the US President turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the Archbishop’s pleas, right wing paramilitary forces felt free murder him.  And on March 24, 1980, less than a month after appealing to them both, Father Romero was murdered. To his everlasting shame Jimmy Carter, obsessed with preventing a successful people’s revolution led by leftist radicals such as the Sandinistas, ignored the pleas of Archbishop Romero, made public in an open letter to the US President, and continued to arm the fascist Arena Party led by the murderous Roberto d’bussion, who from her public comments about his handsome manliness appeared to inspire wet dreams in Dr. Jean Kirkpatrick, the amoral wicked witch of the West who served as Carter’s UN ambassador, that offered obscene apologia for this murderous fascist pig.  Yet it was d’Abbuson who conceived “Operation Pineapple,” the covert action that killed the Archbishop with weapons supplied by the US government. John Paul II, the Bishop of Rome, through whom God a billion Catholics believe God speaks to the world, added to his duplicitous behavior and added insult to injury by rushing to honor Archbishop Romero as a Martyr of the Church.  It is amazing that the Pope’s actions failed to inspire a schism in the Church – which is the greatest fear of the Popes.  It is an abiding fear with deep roots because then the Church will split along doctrinal lines and the Vatican would no longer be the center of power in the world Catholic community. In a worse-case scenario it could result in a new church, as was the case when Martin Luther mailed his 99 thesis’ to the Vatican door challenging church doctrine which resulted in the creation of the Protestant church, or Henry the Eighth creating the Episcopal Church of England: both of which rejected the authority of the Roman Pope.  However the lingering bitterness toward the Vatican for the role played by John Paul II in the assassination of his Archbishop in El Salvador during those dark days in the final fifth of the twentieth century, was demonstrated by the decision of the President of El Salvador presenting Pope Francis with a blood garment worn by Father Romero when he was assassinated during the Popes Brazilian sojourn.

This is not the only baggage Pope Francis had to deal with regarding the role of the church in the recent history of Latin America – as opposed to the ancient crimes of the conquistadors.  There is also the matter of the Pope’s own behavior as Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Provincial of the Society of Jesus, the highest ranking Jesuit in Argentina during the reign of terror conducted by General Jorge Videla from 1976-1983, after leading a CIA backed military coup on March 24, 1976 that overthrew the government of Isabel Peron. Due to the incredible work of the National Security Archive, a privately funded non-governmental organization that collects documents revealing activities of the US government in the area of national security that are often kept secret i.e. “covert action.”  One of the most notorious of these covert actions in the 1970’s and 80’s was “Operation Condor.”  In a trial begun by the Argentinian government on March 5, 2013 to consider the totality of crimes carried out under Operation Condor,” that covert action is described as “ a coordinated campaign by various US-backed Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s to hunt down, torture and murder tens of thousands of opponents of those regimes.” A State Department memorandum from a subordinate to Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger dated August 3, 1976, make it clear that the reign OF terror conducted by Latin American dictatorships from El Salvador to Chile during the 1970’s and 80’s was backed and coordinated by the CIA.  And there is reason to believe that this policy was carried out with the blessings of the Vatican, adding to the Catholic Church’s long and sordid history in Latin America.

 Farther Bugoglia: Jesuit Leader and General Videla



The future Pope and the Butcher of Buenos Aires

When the military dictatorship was ended in 1983, the popularly elected President, Raul Alfonsin, set up a truth commission to investigate the crimes against the Argentinian people under military rule and General Videla was tried and sentenced to life in a military prison in 1985.  The question here is: what role did Pope Francis play as the leader of Argentina’s Jesuits during the military dictatorship? Well, he has been accused by Samantha Powers – Harvard professor, renowned authority on genocide and adviser to President Obama – as a collaborator with the Argentinian Junta; two priests committed to Liberation theology under his authority as head of Argentina’s Jesuits were dismissed for disobeying the Vatican’s instruction not to opposes the regime, and they later accused Francis of fingering them for the military torturers and murderers, and Human rights lawyer Myriam Bergman filed a criminal suit against him in 2005 for conspiring with the military in the kidnapping and torture of the two Jesuit priests in 1977. During the court proceedings in 2005 Father Bugoglia invoked his right under Argentinian law not to testify in open court.  And when he did finally testify in 2010 about his collaboration with the Junta during the “Dirty Wars” his answers are described as “evasive.”

It is hard to reconcile the stories about Father Bugoglia’s collaboration with the fascist military junta, the agents of the super-rich who conspired with Wall Street wolves to ravish the Argentinian people, with the humble priest who disdains wealth that we see in Pope Francis I. This rejection of the luxurious trappings of his clerical office did not begin after he became Pope; as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires he also refused to live in the palatial digs assigned to him.  And he drove an old nondescript car.  The symbolism of his activities in Brazil – washing the feet of women and the poor, visiting the humble abode of a poor family, etc – were designed to demonstrate where his ministry will be focused. There will always be those who remind us that had he stood up for the poor during the reign of the military Junta it would have saved lives: I say maybe or maybe not. Given the utter ruthlessness of the Junta and their willingness to murder priests and nuns too, nobody can say with certainty that had father Bugoglia spoken out against them things would have been better.  Things could have been much worse. In any case he was not then the Archbishop or the Cardinal he would become before being elected Pope by the Roman Curia.  Hence he had no real authority to make or inform church policy. Given the hands off policy of the Vatican, indeed their reconciliation with the political realities of Argentina, Father Bugoglia could have very well met the same ghastly fate as the other Jesuit priest: Expulsion from his priestly duties, arrest, torture and even death.  And his fate would surely have further poisoned relations between the Church and State in Argentina. Among their myriad other duties, the paramount objective of all priests is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world and win souls for the church: “The body of Christ.”  In carrying out that mission over the centuries, priests have had to accommodate themselves to the princes and powers that ruled the realm in which they operated.  This has led them into more than one Faustian bargain – the concordat with the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini and the silence in the face of the Latin American dictators for instance.

Although priests are viewed as exalted figures by many of the catholic faithful, they are just men.  Some are extraordinary men compared to the common lot of us but they are all subject to the same human failings.  Hence even though his words carry the weight of divine dogma, it is his deeds upon which he will ultimately be judges – although in the case of the Pope word and deed often blend into one and the same thing. He is certainly saying many of the right things, but he has yet to address the issue of rampant racism in Latin America despite the fact that he comes from the most racist society in the region.  Indeed the racial profile of Argentina was forged by a genocidal policy toward black men driven by a Social Darwinist ideology based on master race theories that predate American eugenicists like Madison Grant or his intellectual spawn Adolph Hitler.  For a scholarly treatment of racist ideology in Argentina see “The Negro in Argentina.’ Hence we will reserve final judgment on Pope Francis I, who now has an opportunity to fashion the Church in his image. Clearly he has decided that the church must engage the world and accommodate the cultural practices of the people they serve.  This new attitude was clearly on display in the Masses he conducted in Brazil, where they incorporated Brazilian popular music and priests danced the Samba on stage. Culture is a powerful force and it is hoped by the leaders of the Catholic Church that it will prove a powerful weapon in the fight to maintain the dominance of the Catholic Church against the proselytizing of a burgeoning evangelical protestant movement in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America.  But the most powerful weapon the Catholic Church’s arsenal is the stance Pope Francis I takes in defense of the poor and oppressed: He talks the talk…now he must walk the walk.

Benjamin is a veteran political journalist out of Harlem NY. His essays can be read on his blog site Commentaries on the Times.

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