Pope Francis knew what poverty and oppression looked like: several times a year he celebrated mass in Buenos Aires’s 21-24 slum. Yet, as leader of the Jesuits in Argentina, he denounced liberation theology, and insisted that the priests seeking to defend and mobilise the poor remove themselves from the slums, shutting down their political activity.
He now maintains that he “would like a church that is poor and is for the poor.” But does this mean giving food to the poor, or does it mean also asking why they are poor? The dictatorships of Latin America waged a war against the poor, which continued in many places after those governments collapsed. Different factions of the Catholic Church took opposing sides in this war. Whatever the stated intentions of those who attacked and suppressed liberation theology, in practical terms they were the allies of tyrants, land-grabbers, debt slavers and death squads. For all his ostentatious humility, Pope Francis was on the wrong side. (George Monbiot, "Cardinal Sins")
Montbiot echoes the famous quote by Dom Heldar Camara, the bishop of Recife Brazil who became rather well known in the sixties and seventies: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Popes Benedict and Francis apparently don't think the 'why' question is one that the official church should bother itself about. As Montbiot's article reminds us, Benedict, during his pre-pope stint as the the head of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, was the heavy who shut down the efforts of so many priests and nuns who did care about that question.
They asked why, and understood why, and they risked and often gave their lives to do something about it by working to organize and empower poor people. But they were perceived as communist or as abetting a communist program when Cold War tensions were still high. But communism is an atheistic ideology, and it's a scandal for the church to be associated with anything so impious. As in Vichy France, better to work the fascists than the resistance, too many communists in the resistance, after all.
Perhaps some day Benedict and Francis will be canonized because they understood how the church expects a saint to act. But in my view a saint is not a pious conformist; he or she is rather someone who is willing to risk everything in working for the regime of compassion and love to which Jesus and the gospels point. What have our current and former ecclesial CEOs risked in that way? Did they even have a clue when they met someone who did in fact live such risk? Or did they just see them as reds?
The Roman Catholic Church is animated more by the spirit of imperial Rome than it is by the spirit of the gospels, and that's why its spiritual authority is not taken seriously by anyone who has a clue about the latter. At least the new pope gets that the imperial thing and the red Gucci shoes are bad p.r., but we'll see if there's any substance to his humility. We'll see whether, in fact, his humility is just a mask for moral cowardice. I hope it isn't. But even if his is a true humility, will it have any impact in changing the imperial ethos that has dominated the Vatican since the 300s. Give me a shout if that starts to happen, but until then, who cares about what happens in that corrupt little city state.