Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Pope of the Poor – An Impossible Dream ?

by Roger Williamson

The new Pope says he wants a “poor church, for the poor”.  Will he get it? The old saying comes to mind “be careful what you wish for….” 

For those committed to improving the lot of the poor, marginalized and vulnerable and also to development specialists and practitioners (not necessarily the same thing, I know), this is an important question. Development specialists are waking up to the importance of faith communities – but understanding them is a really complex challenge. Speaking as a practising Christian, I have to say that in terms of social involvement, religious organisations need very careful study – much of the record is destructive, alienating and problematic – but at its best faith commitment can lead to an identification  with the poor which is very profound and positive. None of the simple answers are adequate ( e.g. “religion =  wonderful/ the real thing”; “religion = alienating, oppressive, bad” or Alistair Campbell’s spin doctor comment on Tony Blair’s administration – “We don’t do God”). Any serious social scientist has to “do religion”  - there are a lot of religious believers. You have to take them seriously, but not believe everything they say. So let’s take the Pope seriously and see what he is saying on behalf of his flock of one billion plus.

Former President of the World Bank James Wolfensohn and former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey,  launched an initiative (the World Faiths Development Dialogue) on this subject 15 years ago – I remember being involved in the planning process.

Wolfensohn correctly argued that there is a place of worship in practically every village on the planet, and that if religious organisations could consistently advocate development at every level, huge progress could be made.

In many religions, parts of the tradition have a positive evaluation of voluntary poverty and generosity towards the poor. But, as Asian Catholic theologian Aloysius Pieris points out in An Asian Theology of Liberation (Orbis, Maryknoll 1988), there is all the difference in the world between voluntary poverty and enforced poverty.  He stresses that a large percentage of the population of Asia are religious and poor, and argues that they should be freed from enforced poverty. He looks for an interfaith (Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, etc.) alliance of people of faith who choose poverty and reject acquisitiveness, in order to oppose the structures in society which create enforced poverty and suffering.

So what could it mean if the Pope is serious?  I suggest three criteria for whether he means it.

Personal integrity from the top.
The complicity of much of the leadership of the Argentine Catholic church with the successive military juntas in Argentina is well documented. (See Emilio F Mignone, Witness to the Truth : The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina Orbis, Maryknoll, 1986.) There are allegations that the new Pope (as head of the Jesuits in Argentina ) and Cardinal Arumburu effectively  withdrew church protection from two Jesuits who were working in the slums of Buenos Aires – they were subsequently taken by the military and held for months in inhumane  conditions, and badly mistreated. (See also  Tony Allen-Mills and John Pollain, “Man on a Mission” Sunday Times, 17.03.13 pp. 23-5) The Vatican has waved away questions by saying these are old questions. That’s not the point – the issue is what actually happened? Are the well documented and long-standing allegations true? I can well understand being scared of the Argentine military. To have someone who betrayed his colleagues as a church leader is not in itself the problem (if that is what he did) – Peter denied Christ. So to have someone who failed and is restored to a position of trust could be a sign of hope for the throne of St Peter. But the Pope has to come clean about the Dirty War and his role in it – the leadership of the Catholic church in Argentina  (with a few brave exceptions ) either kept quiet or offered ideological support as thirty thousand people were tortured, disappeared, killed and thrown out of helicopters into the River Plate. It is not enough to know whether the new Pope is a man who cooked his own meals and refused to use the Cardinal’s residence. We need to know what he and his church did in the Dirty War.

Beyond charity
Catholics give huge amounts of money to charitable organizations – much of it for poorer parts of the Catholic Church as emergency response, famine relief, and other charitable causes. But we have also had the unedifying spectacle of the Vatican lining up with Iran and a conservative US administration at the 1994 UN Population Conference because of its position on birth control.

There are also many progressive Catholic organisations – even at high level in the Catholic Church (like Justice and Peace). In the UK CAFOD, the development agency of the Bishops’ Conference, has gone well beyond charity and emergency relief, to work for long-term development. 

Commitment to justice for the poor

The advocates of a socially-engaged Catholicism provide many inspiring examples in recent decades, exemplified by:
  • liberation theology and the protests against military dictatorship in Latin America,
  • opposition to the murderous civil wars in Central America (the murdered Jesuit academic Ignacio Ellacuria talked of “crucified peoples” )
  • and opposition to apartheid in South Africa ( eg  the Kairos Document) or
  • and mobilization against repression in the Philippines under Marcos – where nuns and lay people were particularly active.
As a Brazilian activist said, if you don’t have structural change, you end up with “different parrots at the top of the same trees”.  

This week marks the 33rd anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, gunned down while saying Mass. His conversion by the poor people of his country led him to make some extraordinary statements indicating the depth of his commitment: “Brothers and sisters, I’m glad that the Church is being persecuted. In a country where so many horrendous murders are occurring, it would be very sad to think that there were no priests among the victims. Their deaths are a symbol that the Church has incarnated itself among the poor.” (See Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic p. 9).

Archbishop Romero, in one of his last lectures (at the University of Leuven) radicalized the statement of the early church theologian St  Irenaeus (2nd century) “gloria dei homo vivens” (the living human being is the glory of God) by making it “gloria dei  pauper vivens” – the living poor person is the glory of God.
Jon Sobrino was the one survivor of his Jesuit community in El Salvador in 1989 – he was abroad when his fellow Jesuits, their housekeeper and her young daughter were massacred. He was a close theological associate of Romero and has said – “the poor are those who are close to death.”

So “Church of the poor” – does the new Pope mean it?
The Roman Catholic Church did have a Church of the Poor, most obviously in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. The Pope’s two predecessors did their best to dismantle it by censuring or silencing priests and theologians who worked out the full implications of solidarity with the poor and oppressed, by making difficulties for bishops who reformed their dioceses in service of the poor, for example by breaking up the Archdiocese of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns  in Sao Paulo. A word about Arns - when I visited the Archbishop’s Palace in 1983, human rights groups were protected by being housed there; he ensured that the funeral of one secular, leftist Jewish  journalist was held in the cathedral and accused the military by saying that the people who killed Vladimir Herzog were worse than the executioners of Jesus – who at least gave the body back.

Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (his successor Pope Benedict) have sought to ensure through appointment of conservative bishops and rigorous ideological policing of liberation theology that the next generation of church leaders would be more conservative and compliant.

Dutch sociologist Mady Thung has written of the church as a “precarious institution”. However, the biblical record, the life and death of Jesus and parts of the Christian tradition contain many subversive memories which resurface and serve as the stimulus for the church as a movement of the poor. At the same time, particularly since the collusion between the church and the Roman empire solidified and gave us the established church. Major churches as institutions have always tended to compromise with, or actively support, the powerful.

There was a significant movement of the “the church of the poor” in Latin and Central America – as documented by Penny Lernoux in her book  Cry of the People. Hundreds of its members were murdered by military dictatorships for their stand on social justice and their defence of poor people.

As Jesus said, it is as hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  If it is that hard for one rich person – how hard would it be for a church of over a billion people?

So – the big question remains: taking the name Francis - after the poor man, St Francis of Assisi, is an exercise in “rebranding the papacy”. Does it mean an end to secrecy, collusion with power, cover ups and corruption? Does the new Pope really mean it? will the Vatican now be committed to the defence of the poorest people on the planet? First, let’s hear the full truth about the Pope’s  role in the Dirty War, then let’s see some tangible evidence of commitment to the poor – not as charity, but as justice. There are many in the Catholic Church who want it. That is the Christian tradition of Romero, Ita Ford, Ellacuria, the housekeeper of the six Jesuits murdered , the unknown peasants repressed in the 1970s and 1980s – and that is just a short list for El Salvador.

Following Jesus in being on the side of the poor sets you against rich, powerful and dangerous people and can get you killed. For the true church of the poor that is not an argument to stop.
The church of the poor should defend the poor and dismantle the structures which make and keep people poor. If that is what the Pope means – excellent. An institution of a billion people (many of them poor, many already committed) working on that agenda  will make a big difference. If it is not what he  means, then it is just “re-branding” in the worst possible sense.

Pope Francis, human rights and the church of the poor: an addendum
Since writing the piece above, I have made every effort to discover more on the record of the Pope and the Argentine Catholic Church on human rights under the Argentine military dictatorship. This has caused me to feel the need to add to the above account.

In summary, the following are my conclusions:
In the early coverage of appointment of Pope Francis, there was considerable comment on the case of two Jesuit priests working in the slums of Buenos Aires who were captured by the military, then tortured and eventually released after five months imprisonment in 1976. The two priests (Fr Yorio and Fr Jalics) were, in all likelihood, taken because of their association with Monica Quinteiro, a catechist who has been described as a sympathizer of the Montoneros. The military junta which took over in 1976 quickly engaged in a massive effort to round up anyone who was involved in the Monteneros  and ERP guerrilla movements. In order to ensure that they captured as many as possible of movements’ leaders, they also picked up and “disappeared” many who knew those in the movements,  who had no direct personal involvement, who were “friends of friends”, who were involved in social work in the slums, or who were cases of “mistaken identity”.

For anyone not living through that terror, it is hard to imagine what it was like for those involved and for those trying to help them. Iain Guest in his 1990 book on the disappeared writes about the group of friends including Monica Quinteiro, Monica Mignone and others who knew the priests and worked with them in their church activities. In total, seven young women in that group were abducted and never released.(Guest, pp. 34 ff.)

Monica Mignone’s father, Emilio, wrote an early (1986), critical book on the Catholic church and human rights. He was subsequently active in the human rights movement and was president of CELS, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies. He comments on the case of the priests, the alleged withdrawal of church protection for them after they were told  to discontinue their work in the slum as well as their connection with his daughter and Monica Quinteiro in his book, Witness to the Truth 98, 134, 148

The priests were held in the notorious ESMA, a training centre of the Argentine navy. There has been a long-standing effort to prosecute the naval officers involved in the abductions, torture and murders – of whom perhaps the most notorious is Alfredo Astiz – found guilty for the murder of, among others, two French nuns, Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011. Ultimately the chain of command went up to Admiral Massera –  the head of the navy and one of the original Junta leaders, with whom Bergoglio interceded on behalf of Yorio and Jalics. There are two recent statements by Fr Jalics on the website of the German Jesuits which make it clear that he does not think that Bergoglio was responsible for them being taken by the military. Although he was critical of his superior (Bergoglio) at the time, he is now fully reconciled to what transpired. Yorio is deceased, but members of his family remain critical.

The Pope’s official biographer Sergio Rubin details other cases in which Bergoglio intervened to save or protect people in danger in his book El Jesuita.  There is a huge volume of comment on these issues which can be accessed on line, including film parts of Borgoglio’s testimony in the 2010 hearings in the ESMA case. Thus, in spite of the difficult earlier pastoral relationship with Yorio and Jalics, Bergoglio intervened at high level (with Junta leaders Videla and Massera) and was eventually successful in getting the priests released.

The story of the silence and/or complicity of the majority of the Catholic hierarchy during the time of the military dictatorship would merit a full and careful study. Much of the information has emerged, piece by piece, through the work of the human rights organisations, the national commission on the disappeared and the various trials and attempts at trials over the past three decades. According to Mignone, only four Bishops publicly protested, at great personal risk – Bishop Angelelli of La Rioja (who was killed in what was made to look like a car accident), Jaime de Nevares of Neuquen, Miguel Hesayne of Vielma and Jorge Novak of Quilmes. In contrast, “Bishop Tortolo and Cardinals Aramburu and Primatesta, who in 1976 made up the Executive Commission of the bishops’ conference, closed their doors to the victims’ families; only in rare cases did they meet with them.” Mignone, pp 19-20.

It is also necessary to be aware that there are serious divergences of view in the human rights movement.  It is understandable that people who have lost relatives – perhaps particularly in the cases where women killed and their babies given to other families are particularly harsh in their judgments and feel that more could and should have been done by the church and other organisations.

It is a consistent account that Bergoglio used possibilities which he had to intervene behind the scenes and is still reluctant to talk about this – the exceptions so far have been his testimony in the trial (2010) and his interview for the official biography.  Where then does the critique come from?  Initially the priests (Yorio and Jalics) themselves, then Mignone who met Yorio immediately on his release to try to find out about his daughter and her friends, then, more recently and in more vehement form by Horacio Verbitsky, author of a book El Silencio (The Silence) on the relations of the church with ESMA, and other examinations of the human rights abuses. Various versions of his thesis – in longer or shorter form – have been presented in the media.  His writings and interviews are the source of much of the most negative criticisms of Bergoglio. He article by Buchet gives a judicious evaluation of these accusations and has been helpful in analyzing the internal political context of the critique of Bergoglio – as emanating primarily from  allies of President Kirchner.

The new Pope is conservative on doctrine and sexual issues, but with a strong social conscience. According to Rubin, he has a genuine concern for the poor, but is not an advocate of liberation theology. He has had major confrontations with the current Kirchner government on social policy, but the Argentine president has been quick to seek a rapprochement with him on his elevation to the Papacy.

Obviously, had I known then what I know now, I would have written my original piece in a different way. I have chosen to redress the matter in this way, rather than simply withdrawing the piece. This serves as a salutary warning both about the ideologically polarized nature of Argentine political discussion, and also how information primarily from one source (i.e. Verbitsky) - effectively deployed - can still exercise an excessive influence on interpretations of news stories.

In spite of the problems with what I wrote and its (it now seems to me) unfair comments on the role of the Pope, the central points remain
  • The Argentine Roman Catholic Church – with certain notable exceptions, fell well short, through complicity and silence, of what should have happened in defence of human rights.
  • Pope Benedict, at the 1999 meeting of the Latin American Bishops’ conferences, CELAM , announced the death of liberation theology. The collapse of communism “turned out to be a kind of twilight of the gods for that theology of redeeming political practice” (Linden p. 152.) Linden’s own reading of the preferential option for the poor and the structural challenge it implies is different. His hopeful conclusion is as follows: “News of the death of liberation theology was greatly exaggerated. Liberation theology was disposable, not an end in itself. The preferential option for the poor and its redeeming-pastoral practice were not. These had long since entered the bloodstream of the Church and migrated around the world … The life of the Church in Latin America, and arguably the universal Church, had been irrevocably changed.” ( p. 152-3)  
  • A huge amount is at stake – the promise of a church of the poor is inspirational. Even in a less ideologically charged environment (post-Cold War) it will not prove easy.  Given the polarized national context from which the Pope has emerged, and given the difficulty of thoroughly reforming Catholic church (as Catholics as different as Martin Luther and Pope John XXIIII – the architect of Vatican II – have discovered), time will tell.  One should be encouraged by the initially positive, though not starry-eyed,  evaluations of figures such as Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel,, the Jesuit Jon Sobrino – who worked closely with Archbishop Romero and Brazilian liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff. It is too early to say whether the Pope will succeed in re-orienting the Catholic church  to be a church of the poor and whether the name of St Francis has been rightly invoked as the hallmark of this Papacy.  Or, as Jesus said – “by their fruits will you know them.”

For further reading
  • Tina Beattie, Eve’s Pilgrimage: A Woman’s Quest for the City of God, Burns and Oates, London and New York, 2002 – critical history of the history and theology of the Roman Catholic Church by a feminist theologian
  • Leonardo Boff, Good News to the Poor, Burns and Oates, London, 1992 – one of the Brazilian theologians who has had trouble with the Vatican
  • Penny Lernoux,  Cry of the People, Penguin, London, 1982 – detailed history of the work of the Catholic church in Latin America with the poor and in support of human rights
  • Ian Linden, Global Catholicism: Diversity and Change since Vatican II, Hurst & Co, London, 2009 – excellent overview.
  • Emilio Mignone, Witness to the Truth: The Complicity of Church and Military Dictatorship in Argentina, Orbis, Maryknoll, 1988 – examination of the Church and the “Dirty War”
  • Albert Nolan, Jesus before Christianity, Orbis, Maryknoll, 1978 – South African Dominican monk, who has also written God in South Africa and helped to coordinate and write the Kairos document mobilizing the churches against apartheid.
  • Aloysius Pieris, An Asian Theology of Liberation. Orbis, Maryknoll, 1988 – Sri Lankan Jesuit writing from an Asian interfaith perspective
  • Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI , Oxford University Press, 2008 – a careful study of Ratzinger’s theology
  • Julio de Santa Ana, Good News to the Poor, Separation without Hope, Towards a Church of the Poor, World Council of Churches , Geneva, 1977, 78, 79 (3 volumes) – three studies on the Biblical basis for the church of the poor, historical examples and the implications.
  • Jon Sobrino, The True Church and the Poor, SCM, London, 1985 – the one survivor of the massacre of the Jesuits in El Salvador.
  • Maria Lopez Vigil,  Oscar Romero, Memories in Mosaic, EPICA, CAFOD, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000 – a full study of people who knew Romero
  • Derek Winter, Hope in Captivity: The Prophetic Church in Latin America, Epworth, 1977 – a profile of the leading figures in liberation theology. The book was too interesting and well written to submit as post-graduate thesis.