April 2013        

The new pope

The election of a new pope, like that of most if not all of his predecessors, does not add much to the Catholic papacy. The cardinals chose as their new leader a man from almost “the end of the world”—the first non-European for almost 1,300 years and the first member of the Jesuit order.
     Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, becomes Pope Francis—the first to take that name. It appears that the electors in the Sistine Chapel opted for compromise. But the cardinals’ choice risked running into immediate controversy over the new pope’s role in Argentina’s history.
     In his book El Silencio a prominent Argentine journalist alleged that Bergoglio connived in the abduction of two Jesuit priests by the military junta in the so-called “dirty war.” He has twice refused to appear in open court in cases involving torture, murder, and the theft of babies from the regime’s prisoners.
     Historically, the Church has been a fountain of conservative ideology in an otherwise changing word. It has been at hand to oppose any move that challenged the status quo. A source of particular political anathema to Church leaders has been any move towards workers’ control and communism.
     Pope Pius X was known as a thoroughly anti-modernist pope, using Church power to maintain the line of tradition against the forces of modernity and liberalism. He opposed democratic institutions and created a secret network of informers to report on the suspicious activities of priests and others.
     For Pope Pius XII, communism was a greater evil than Nazism—and as a result he signed a concordat with Hitler in the hopes that this relationship might help stem the rising tide of communism.
     Many believe that Pope John Paul I was murdered in order to prevent him from learning or revealing embarrassing facts about the Church.
     Pope John Paul II was also one of the longest-reigning popes in the history of the Church. He tried to steer a course between reform and tradition, often siding more strongly with the forces of tradition and reaction, much to the dismay of progressive Catholics. The Church gave support to the “Solidarity” movement in Poland. Lech Wałęsa, who publicly displayed Catholic piety, confirmed the pope’s influence, saying: “The Holy Father, through his meetings, demonstrated how numerous we were. He told us not to be afraid.”
     Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger on 16 April 1927, is now “Pope Emeritus” of the Catholic Church. He served as pope from 2005 to 2013. Cardinal Ratzinger, a former theology professor and Bishop of Munich, was fifty-four when he was named to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office charged with upholding orthodoxy. He criticised the overreach of bishops’ conferences. His first few years as head of the congregation dealt much with liberation theology, a movement centred on the poor and one that Ratzinger believed had ties to Marxism.
     In the 1950s and 60s liberation theology had arisen principally as a moral reaction to the poverty caused by social injustice in that region. Clerics who supported liberation theology were often told to toe the line in front of visiting popes and bishops. It was all right to criticise the forces of the left, but any opprobrium for the right was to be spurned.
     In liberation theology, the pope declared, the “people is the antithesis of the hierarchy, the antithesis of all institutions, which are seen as oppressive powers. Ultimately anyone who participates in the class struggle is a member of the ‘people’; the ‘Church of the people’ becomes the antagonist of the hierarchical Church.”
     Ratzinger continued to persecute gay people around the world. He sentenced millions to poverty and death in sub-Saharan Africa through the Church’s antediluvian teaching that condoms don’t prevent the spread of HIV and its promotion of abstinence-only sex education. He tried to stop stem-cell research, which might help in the cure of such diseases as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and Parkinson’s.
     Ratzinger personally welcomed the holocaust-denying Richard Williamson back into the Catholic Church while comparing atheists to Nazis, and when he was a cardinal he refused to defrock a priest who had molested two hundred deaf children.
     In 1985 the Vatican silenced the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, at the time a Franciscan priest and a scholar of liberation theology. Often called the “father of liberation theology,” the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez faced several Vatican investigations in the 1980s for his writings.
     In 1983 Raymond Hunthausen, a progressive American bishop, allowed a mass for Dignity, a group for gay and lesbian Catholics, in his cathedral, which resulted in complaints to the doctrinal congregation. A month later Ratzinger published "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” This warns of “deceitful propaganda” from pro-homosexual groups and instructs bishops not to accept groups that “seek to undermine the teaching of the church, which are ambiguous about it, or which neglect it entirely.” The letter refers to homosexual orientation as an “intrinsic moral evil.”
     Charles Curran, a moral theologian who led the American resistance to Humanae Vitae in the late 1960s, was investigated by the congregation for his teachings on sexual ethics and in 1987 was fired from his teaching position at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
     In 1998 the Vatican criticised the book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism by Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian theologian. After three years of investigation, in 2001 the Vatican backed away from its initial finding of “serious doctrinal error” in the book but said there were “ambiguities and difficulties on important points which could lead a reader to erroneous or harmful opinions.”
     Pope Benedict, as pope emeritus, is where we came in. He was succeeded by Pope Francis on 13 March 2013.

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