Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Pope who offers smiles

You'd think our U.S. politics were enough misery to contemplate -- but no, I thought I might get something out of reading up on some less familiar, for me cross-cultural, politics that only tangentially touch on ours. At the suggestion of a writer at the National Catholic Reporter which I read to track progressive Catholicism, I picked up Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism by Paul Vallely.

This is a big gossipy book that reads as if assembled from a series of shorter journalistic articles as it may well have been. Parts go over the same terrain repeatedly -- it would have been better with tight editing. But I did find some insights of interest to me that I'll enumerate here.
  • The discussion of how the Jesuit Provincial Jorge Bergoglio, the future pope, dealt with the Argentine dictatorship and murderous Dirty War of the 1970's looks at this contested subject from several viewpoints without drawing any definitive conclusions. Vallely includes a brutal description of the torture chamber run by the Navy and includes testimony to the complicity of the Catholic hierarchy with this regime. He also gives a vivid sense of how middle class citizens of Buenos Aires tried to keep their heads down and just get by amid the horror. Bergoglio definitely sought to keep his community away from politics, especially from opposing the regime in defense of the poor; subsequently he apparently felt he had acted highhandedly and without due discernment, but Vallely comes to no conclusion about his concrete collusion with the military. He was removed from leadership by higher ups for a season, though eventually he was made the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
  • In that role, he was a champion of what was known as the "Theology of the People" which vied with and also took up much of the "Theology of Liberation."

    Liberation Theology had the poor as its primary focus and placed great emphasis on the stark contrasts between the rich and the poor in the Gospel. The Theology of the People focused on the people and their pious practices. ... there was a temptation within the Theology of the People to romanticize the ordinary man and woman. ... Liberation theologians were more likely to concentrate on raising the self-consciousness of the poor; the Theology of the People was unlikely to see the Church as part of an unjust social order.

    Yet by choosing to place himself in the slums, with the people, Bergoglio seems to have been changed by his practice. The acknowledged founder of Liberation Theology, Leonardo Boff, says Pope Francis should be considered a convert to a gospel of liberation these days.
  • On the topic of Pope Francis' famous response to a question about homosexuals in the Church -- "who am I to judge?" -- Vallely turns to the observations of the priest and theologian James Alison about the men who make up the Catholic hierarchy. Alison asserts that many of these celibate churchmen are deeply conflicted gays which makes their coming to terms with homosexuality nearly impossible.

    'And that's why it is such a relief that the pontiff appears to be straight because it means it's not a particular problem for him' ... One Jesuit close to Francis, Father Antonio Spadero, thinks the point Alison makes about Francis and homosexuality is true more widely. ... The criticisms made of the Pope by some conservatives are so sharp that Spadero views the 'anguish' of the Pope's foes 'as more of psychological problem' than a question of doctrine.

  • Vallely offers a full account of the criticisms from many Catholic women that, for all his openness and emphasis on pastoral presence, this Pope just can't see women as full, adult human beings. He quotes a question that Mary McAleese, a former President of the Republic of Ireland, put to the Pope:

    "How many of the men who will gather to advise you ... on the family have ever changed a baby's nappy?" ... Of Pope Francis, she said 'He's a lovely person, everybody likes him and women like him. We love his smile, we love his openness, we love his accessibility, we love his frankness, we love the ease of him. But we also know that that's not enough.'

After reading this book, I'm with McAleese -- Pope Francis is bringing something wonderful to his Church and people -- and he could bring more. But then, that's always true, everywhere. It is easy to be glad and grateful that this unlikely person is there at all.

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