My Apologies for the Papal Bull

Posted on 15 March 2013 by

Now What I Actually Meant to Say Was…

My previous article has attracted intense disagreement, for many good reasons (and sometimes not). Apparently I was too careless in conveying the impression that the new pope would be some kind of revolutionary, when really my special interest was in the strategic nature of the choice of a Latin American pope, and I could almost entirely dispense with commentary on the personal characteristics of this new pope. Thus two distinct narratives opened up at the start of debate: one that unsuccessfully tried to situate the choice of the new pope within the changing historical and geopolitical context of Latin America, seeing signs of a potential, pragmatic rapprochement; and, a different narrative, that instead focuses on allegations that Jorge Mario Bergoglio is guilty of aiding or even committing human rights abuses during the tenure of the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s. (I am not disputing those allegations, but I am not endorsing them with absolute certainty either.) Only lately has there been an attempt to bridge the two narratives into what is a kind of sinister hypothesis: Bergoglio’s past under the military junta (ignore the history that came after though) predetermines that he will be an active agent of reactionary counter-revolution in Latin America. Certainly, I would never say, “let your guard down,” but I would not advocate untenable analyses either, which can weaken all of us just as much as being naively optimistic, which, if I encouraged the latter, I would withdraw.

What follows is simply a response to an overly heated set of exchanges that have unfolded elsewhere. It first began with this strong objection, then it was later followed by my response as to what was it that we were analyzing, and how were we analyzing it, to the continuing arguments here. While it may not be obvious, the response below should be read primarily as a series of open questions and hypotheses, not certainties, and not a finished research project. I have long been interested in the Catholic Church, having studied it directly and indirectly, ethnographically and historically, and having had the experience of Catholic schooling. In university, I took courses in religion and politics, and one exclusively devoted to Liberation Theology–so of course, all of these things together have left their mark. What I did not predict was that I would be setting a “trap” for myself: falling back into a fascination that will likely continue to distract me from other areas of research. For now, the debate seems to be one that provoked lots of thought and has been worth having if anything for that alone.

Pope Hercules?

Pope Francis, remember, not Pope Hercules. The Pope, the Vatican, the institutional core of the RC Church have very limited means for conducting any sort of counter-revolution in Latin America that merits the name. The U.S. couldn’t do it, and the pope is a an almost laughable substitute by contrast, if he were intent on toppling governments. He could undermine them of course, but there are costs and consequences to that too. A counter-revolution then? By the pope and which army? I think that if one takes a more careful look at the objective constraints working on the RC Church, one might come to more sober conclusions. This is a church that is badly weakened worldwide, facing immense competition, financial disarray, scandals, the inability to staff many parish churches worldwide, and a loss of faith among followers. Room for manoeuvre is severely limited. This not the same RC Church of past decades and centuries in Latin America, and the political context has shifted decisively. Meanwhile, the mainstream media, supportive of the Vatican’s preferred narrative, continue to loudly proclaim that this pope is committed to the poor, to social justice, and to countering the inequities of globalization. The alignment with the new Latin American political landscape will be difficult to avoid. Where the RC Church gets to conserve some semblance of doctrinal continuity, however, is not in the area of political economy, but personal morality: here too Latin America is still relatively propitious for maintaining this sense of Catholic resilience, in continuing to reject female priests, abortion, and gay marriage, and finding a relatively safe environment for doing so. The real competition the RC Church faces is from other churches that have a demonstrated track record of aiding the poor and providing social services. If anything, by grafting itself onto state programs and state institutions that aim to provide these services (as it has done with education), the RC Church faces better prospects of survival by being, in the end, more aligned with the new socialist governments than by being against them, and against their very many followers. Opposing popular gains, while speaking the language of social justice, does not sound like a winning strategy.

Latin America is critical to the survival of the RC Church, it moves toward it to better ensure its own earthly salvation, and it recognizes the global importance of Latin America. Where in the past talking about “law and order” was dominant, today the Church has to speak about social justice. It would then be joining a conversation already in progress. Now, all of this can be true, regardless of whether the new pope is a good man or a bad man…it does not matter which in this argument, he just needs to be a pragmatist. In all the writing that hails him as an excellent “administrator,” and in denunciations that have him sucking up to power, it would seem that we could be justified in concluding that he is pragmatic. This is what I meant to convey about the whole process.

The Dump

To come to some sort of sober estimation though, we will need to dump some tenets that are useless to anything other than accusation, denunciation, and dismissal. One of those is that this new pope is not really Latin American, because his parents were Italian. This kind of cheap shot, if taken seriously and given the respect it does not deserve, would invalidate the hard-won citizenship of many millions of Italians across the Americas, myself included, and would play into the hands of xenophobia and racism. Moreover, it reduces the complexity of the Americas into a simplistic typology of authentic types, and treats identity as merely a matter of ascription. Going further, and casting Bergoglio as coming from a family of oppressors and Europeans who massacred Indigenous peoples, is just gross emotional hyperbole. The same is true if one hails him as a hero of the oppressed. Secondly, asserting that the RC Church is incapable of producing any “progressives” of its own (depending on what this amoeba term inspired by positivist and evolutionist ideas from Europe, is supposed to mean), would be an argument against history, against Vatican II, and against the career of Pope John XXIII. Third, we need to avoid base conspiracy theorizing, which shares with religion one unfortunate quality: belief without evidence, and belief against evidence. Fourth, can we have a discussion among supposed “friends” and “colleagues” without the usual social media garbage of takedowns, smackdowns, and only appearing on a site when you finally smell the chance of pouncing and asserting your own expertise? Also, can there be an analysis of large structural changes, of matters of history and geopolitics, that does not reduce to simply targeting a specific person, while ignoring everything else? If not, then count me out of the conversation.

While I did sense a shift that led me to the correct prediction that the new pope would be from Latin America, it’s also possible that will be the only thing about which I was right. About everything else, we’ll see. I encourage everyone else to do their own thinking, not rush to judgments, and consider all possibilities.