My Apologies for the Papal Bull

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.

6 thoughts on “My Apologies for the Papal Bull

  1. David Marchesi

    A judicious response, following an article which surprised me a little, since I did not know that Zero Anth was very interested in the RC church. On reflection, it is clear that that church is still a “leading player” in Latin America, and so one cannot seriously be interested in people- in this case Latin Americans- if one ignores its role(s). I recall Helder Camara and Cardinal Arns, the Nicaraguan and Salvadorian Jesuits among others, all an embarrassment to the Vatican , yet all quite influential among the people they served. If Latin America, with its Morales, Castro, Chavismo etc is not a beacon of hope generally in the world, as well as being a key to the RC Church’s survival, it is hard to see where else is.So, while the new pope’s record may be mixed ( a “good” man or a “bad” man ? God alone knows) let’s be glad that a little of the hope from Latin America has perhaps – wait for actions, as well as words- rubbed off on a curious old dinosaur. The key is Einstein’s “never stop questioning”

  2. jackiemraz

    These are all interesting topics as far as the anthropology of religion at the end of U.S. Empire is concerned. But what about turning one’s attention to the bizarre state of play of religion at home in the U.S. right now. Let’s put aside the mainstream monotheisms for the moment and consider the strange case of the revival of spiritualism.

    Spiritualism has co-existed comfortably and uncomfortably alongside mainstream US religious practices for a long time. If you want to connect it to a certain prior moment of US empire, you just have to look to Jane Stanford, the mother of Leland Stanford, Jr., for whom Stanford University is named.

    Jane used different mediums to try to connect to her deceased son Leland. There are paintings of this in the Stanford University art collection that hopefully will see the light of day at some point. This is part of the history of the robber barron era that one might explore and that one might use to connect the dots to spiritualism today, a later moment of a fading empire.

    As for the dots to connect, take, for example, the ideas attendant to the Esther (and used to be Jerry) Hicks phenomenon of Abraham. Some sort of strange other worldly consciousness purportedly speaks through Esther Hicks to convey a whole host of ideas that are going mainstream in the US under the heading of “the law of attraction”: foreign aid is bad; the tsunami in Japan was a good thing; World War II was something of a catharsis as far as the death camps were concerned; if you are worried about your financial situation, just go to the beach or eat a meal you enjoy or pet your dog; etc.

    I think my favorite crazy moment from Abraham comes from a seminar when Esther and crew were in Boston a few years back. Abraham had apparently told Esther and company not to worry about prior reincarnations–part of the Abraham schtick is the idea of reincarnation. But this trip to Boston for the Abraham gang was going to be different. On this trip to Boston, they were going to know who they had been in past lives–Esther and her crew. So they ran around Boston–at least as far as their propaganda goes; you can check this online on youtube because it is all there–and they looked at all of the historical statues. They stopped in front of the statue of John Adams, and the whole lot of them said: “I was John Adams.” From this experience, this “consciousness” known as Abraham purports to put forward a theory of “blended consciousness,” reincarnation, and, of course, patriotism. I believe that this little show down coincided with the mini-series on U.S. television about John Adams. For my money, they would have done better to make the Boston pilgrimage to Mother Goose. Isn’t Boston the home of Mother Goose? It would have been just as good of a stage show for them to find out that they existed in past lives as Mother Goose. And the people that they spout the law of attraction to would have been just as likely to eat that up–that Esther Hicks was Mother Goose in a past life. The gullibility factor in this religious theater is serious. Even self-help guru Wayne Dyer has bought into it…

    In any case, get this: Silicon Valley’s very own Steve Jobs bought into the Abraham phenomenon. (Circle back to Stanford University and spiritualism? Yep. After all, there is that Stanford University-Jobs connection. ) Apple offered an Abraham product, I believe, on one of its phones or other appliances a few years back. Abraham–or Esther Hicks, take your pick–can be found on youtube today saying that the deceased Steve Jobs is very much interested in what Esther Hicks is up to these days. Can you believe this? Yep. That is religion in the US at the end of empire: a dead fruitarian entrepreneur from Silicon Valley is/was interested in a spiritual channel, Esther Hicks, who used to be John Adams in another life.

    Here is another related example of spiritualism in the US–the case of “Ask Theo,” i.e. Marcus and Sheila Gillette. Through Sheila’s conveyance of “twelve archangels” collectively known as Theo, in fact, Esther Hicks purportedly was told that she would be a channel. So the Theo and the Abraham phenomenon share some roots. But while they share roots, they branch off in different directions.

    You won’t hear Esther Hicks or Abraham, for example, consistently quoting the likes of the Ronald Regan loving American guru and self-help king Anthony Robbins. But that is exactly what Marcus Gillette does at times when he works with Sheila while she “channels” Theo. Marcus will also opine on the life giving properties of alkaline water–a dangerous faux good health measure. He will invoke the cult of transcendental meditation at times when Theo advocates meditation. But my favorite crazy get down with the Theo phenomenon has got to be this: the twelve archangels who purportedly speak through Sheila Gillette are in favor of mainstream psychiatry. That’s right. Angels in favor or shrinks. Can you believe it? That is spiritualism in the Unites States at the end of empire.

    If you go to the Gillettes’ electronic living room, for example, you will see Theo giving advice on whether a participant should or should not take lithium. You will also find on the Gillettes’ shows sometimes a representative from the pharmaceutical front/non-profit NAMI. You will find some strange version of psychotherapy that has been spiritualized that Theo calls “soul integration.” It is really nothing more than just a version of inner child psychotherapy with a dash of reincarnation thrown in. All strange stuff that deserves good ethnographic inquiry at the end of empire.

    Silicon Valley and spiritualism? Yep. Angels advocating psychiatry? Yep. Anthropologists need to look at this crazy stuff. It’s a hoot. And it’s an opportunity for some serious inquiry about the state of religion and political decay.

  3. John Allison

    The Church, they call it. The Roman Catholic, or Roman universial Church. It’s like the United States calling itself “America”, with ambitions after the Americas of being the United States of Earth.
    So it is with the Black of the Red and the Black; the carrot and the stick. The final destination, the final solution is a joint enterprise a pincer or forecepts operation; and certainly, one should not trust them any more that one should trust W or his father who promised “A Thousand Points of Light” in the 1$ community to replace “Entitlement” programs.

    I like listenint to Max’s perspective, because he is an aboriginal from the homeland of the Romans, and probably has some sense about all this that I do not. But, he is not The Oracle.
    So, as they say in the Army, let’s wait and see. We have NO control over it without massive organization with concensus; an objective about as close as Mars.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Great commentaries so far, and I am looking forward to more. Many thanks Jackie, I have read yours about three times already, enjoying it so much. “Religion at the end of empire” now strikes me as a really critical area of importance, and you found some amazing examples.

    Thanks to you too John, for saying I am not “The Oracle.” The funny thing is…I predicted you would say that :)

  5. M. Jamil Hanifi

    Max, thank you for the updated twist and rich added analysis. In selecting Pope Francis the rulers of Vatican had a number of strategic elements in mind some of which you cogently address. In my view these rulers seriously considered the symbolic effect of extending the leadership of the RC Church to their understanding of the “Third Word”—the bottom of global power structure—especially Africa. In the minds of these bishops, the “Franciscan” glow of the new Pope—liberalist and progressive engagement of poverty and inequality—also adds a powerful advantage in competing with other variations of Christianity for the “souls”—labor and coins—of the masses of Latin America and elsewhere.

    I view the Italian heritage of the new Pope Francis slightly differently. The Pope’s Mediterranean background keeps the leadership of the RC Church in its European cradle, a kind of cross-Atlantic neocolonial loop, if you will.

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