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Reformer or Hypocrite? Understanding Pope Francis

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Posted on Dec 12, 2013
DonkeyHotey (CC BY 2.0)

By Sonali Kolhatkar

At first glance, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” Pope Francis, is a mess of contradictions. On the one hand, he has vehemently denounced the evils of global capitalism, calling it “a new tyranny.” However, as pontiff, he heads the Catholic Church, which has been characterized as “probably the wealthiest institution in the entire world.” And, although the pope has championed the importance of women in the Catholic Church, saying in an interview, “The woman is essential for the church. ... The feminine genius is needed whenever we make important decisions,” he continues to oppose as strongly as any pope before him the ordination of women, and considers abortion to be evil. How do we make sense of Pope Francis’ views?

It turns out that his critique of capitalism is actually nothing new. According to human rights activist Blase Bonpane, a former Maryknoll priest and adherent of “liberation theology,” “It’s been going on for a long time. If we take the 19th century, we had Pope Leo XIII who gave us the encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum,’ which followed directly from ‘The Communist Manifesto.’ The pope agreed with practically everything in the ‘Manifesto’ by talking about how people go into the factories and are ruined, whereas materials come out of the factory ennobled. And that was followed by another encyclical by Pius XI called ‘Quadragesimo Anno’ in the 1930s, 40 years after Leo XIII’s encyclical. These were anti-capitalist documents.” In fact, according to Bonpane, “Pius XI called for a living wage and defined it very well as ‘one worker in the family, time for vacation, an ability to save money, to have a decent life, to pay for all of your needs.’ So we have not always complied with what the popes are talking about but they have had many anti-capitalist statements going back to John the Baptist who said, ‘If someone has two pairs of shoes, give one to someone who doesn’t have any.’ So [this sentiment] has been in the history of the church despite its opulence.”

In that sense, Pope Francis represents a break not from the long-term tradition of the church, but from his immediate predecessors. Bonpane said, “I think it’s a dramatic change for him to focus on the liberation theology elements [of Catholicism], which is to downplay dogma.” In addition to his recent statements denouncing the ills of modern global capitalism, there are reports of the pope quietly stepping out of the halls of the Vatican at night to help poor and homeless people. If that’s not enough to cement his progressive economic policy credentials, Pope Francis has also provoked the ire of right-wing shock jock Rush Limbaugh, who accused him of “ripping capitalism” and being a Marxist.

Still, there remains the question of the Vatican’s vast and shady financial empire, estimated to value in the billions of dollars and plagued by allegations of money laundering. If the pope is so interested in redistribution of wealth, why doesn’t he just give it all away? Bonpane chuckled, “That would be a great idea! I think it would help the church immensely if [the Vatican] became a huge museum complex. Jesus didn’t call for a Vatican. He didn’t even call for a building! He was on the street. He didn’t talk about rigid dogmatic compliance. He talked about serving the poor and realizing that whatever we do for those in need is our connection to the Almighty.” So even though, according to Pope Francis, we “have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality,” and that “Such an economy kills,” it does not appear as though he will redistribute Vatican wealth anytime soon.

The pope also has a complex relationship with social issues such as women’s rights and the role of the LGBT community in the Catholic Church. In an interview earlier this year, he said, “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role.” Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, is cautiously heartened. He told me in an interview, “As someone who really cares about issues that are central to women, I have to say that I welcomed what Pope Francis [has] said. Because he basically called for the Catholic Church to be home for all and not just a small chapel focused on very narrow interpretations of what the moral issues really are of the day. And that message resonates with so many Catholics because it reflects our personal experience that Catholics are gay and lesbian, Catholics use birth control, Catholics have abortions.”

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The pope has also said that the church has expended too much effort being fixated on contraception and abortion. O’Brien said he believes it is a good thing for the church to pull back its focus on those issues, “because if you look at what the Conference of Catholic Bishops here in the United States has been saying and the amount of time they spent telling us we shouldn’t be using contraception, 98 percent of women in the United States use a method of contraception the bishops don’t like. It does get a bit laborious when we see them up on Capitol Hill lobbying against President Obama’s coverage of contraception as part of the Affordable Care Act. So the idea that we’d hear church hierarchy speak less about it, is a good thing.”

But the pope draws the line at abortion. O’Brien cited how the pontiff made it clear to a group of gynecologists gathered at the Vatican that “he would expect them, in his opinion, to continue to not provide abortions and that they should refuse to provide women with the right to choose.”


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