Don’t pick a political fight with Pope Francis? The title of Rachel Lu’s recent essay and the timidity behind it reminds me of a old Jewish joke.
Max and Moishe are being escorted to the execution chamber in a Nazi prison. In a sudden gesture of defiance, Max raises his arm and gives the guards his middle finger. Horrified, Moishe pulls his arm down and blurts, “Please, Max, don’t make waves.”
Just so all the reflexive excuses for Pope Francis’ dismaying behavior and increasingly obvious ideological bent. Lu forgets there exists such a thing as a loyal opposition. She cites criticism of Francis as evidence of a “war.” A Republican war at that. Doing so, she strays into the same reductive trap set by the mainstream media that she wants conservatives to avoid.
Under the tutelage of a pope who ascribes to himself an omnicompetency in geopolitical and scientific matters, the Catholic Church is at risk of a death walk of its own. Its descent into a left-leaning political entity is underway while we circle the wagons and measure our tones. It is a serious matter when a pope confuses political and ideological symbols for religious ones.
Civil society has an immense stake in that confusion. And the stakes are raised when papal preferences, masked in a Christian idiom, align themselves with ideological agendas (e.g. radical environmentalism) that impinge on democratic freedoms and the sanctity of the individual. Throughout the history of the Church, there has been tension between Peter and Caesar, between the Church and the state. Francis, raised in Argentina during the apogee of Peronism, gives every evidence of tilting toward the state.
Let’s Talk About Pope Francis Associating with Marxists
Since Lu refers to my January 5 article in First Things, let us go back to that for a moment. “Francis and Political Illusion” included a photo of the pope standing between two environmental activists and holding an anti-fracking T-shirt. Effort was made by papal apologists to dismiss the image as nothing more than a visual equivalent to Francis’ off-the-cuff malapropisms—a genial Francis being courteous to some activists.
No, it was not. And these were not just any activists. The older of the two men in the photo is Fernando Solanas, an Argentine film director, avowed propagandist, and politician. A key player in Buenos Aires, he ran for president of Argentina on the Socialist ticket in 2007 and stood for the senate last year. In the 1960s, he co-founded the influential, radical film collective Grupo Cine Liberación (The Liberation Film Group) with Octavio Gettino, Both were Marxists and supporters of Juan Perón at the time.
Together with Gettino, Solanas also founded Tercer Cine (Third Cinema), a title referencing the Third Word. Prominent in the 1970s and 1980s, it was a movement—a school—opposed to neocolonialism and capitalism. It issued a manifesto, “Documentary Is Never Neutral” that opened with the words of Frantz Fanon: “…we must discuss; we must invent.” In the obligatory style of left-wing manifestos, it included quotations from Mao, from Che Guevara’s handbook “Guerilla Warfare,” and anti-colonial, and pro-Cuba tracts. It rails against “bourgeois values,” “surplus value cinema” and “the lords of the world film market, the great majority of whom were from the United States.”
Gettino died two years ago; Solanas is carrying the torch.
That meeting between Francis and Solanas, on November 11, 2013, had been scheduled for months. It was the culmination of a Vatican conference on “environmental crimes” with Argentine activists. Federal prosecutor Gustavo Gomez participated. When discussions ended, Francis’ invited Solanas and Gomez into his apartment for a private audience and closing photo-op. A cameraman and sound technician accompanied. There was nothing casual about it.
Solanas and Gomez were eager for the pope to declare major environmental missteps “crimes against humanity.” No definition was given of what constituted a crime or distinguishes it from an accident. Instead, the men praised Francis’ slogan for his upcoming campaign: “We must pray for children who receive dirty bread their parents give them.”
The film ran while the pope sorted through the T-shirts and held them up to the camera: “Say No to Fracking” and “Water Is Worth More than Gold.” That done, image-conscious Francis selected the wall he wanted to pose against while he delivered a homilette. It is a disquieting, rambling bit of stagecraft.
The Hashtag Papacy
In the course of it, Francis has condemned 46 percent youth unemployment in an unnamed European country but appears to have no grasp of the causes of such unemployment. He offers only distaste for the vague “unjust international system” we are living in. That, plus a wave of the hand encompassing Hiroshima, mining, and high-voltage cables is presented in evidence that “we are living the myth of Shiva.”
Despite the resurgence of a conquering Islam and the gruesome cleansing of Christians from the Middle East, Francis declares that “the greatest conflict that is rising is the struggle over water.” We must not waste or contaminate water. Toward the end of this strange performance, Francis quotes Zhou Enlai, Mao’s henchman. While an innocuous quotation in itself, Francis’ choice of it signals sympathy with Solanas’ ideological tastes.
It bears mention that the photo-op provided invaluable publicity for Solanas’ La Guerra del Fracking (“The Fracking War”), banned in Argentina by the government. This was a backhanded but unsubtle papal intrusion into Argentine politics. The film, in Italian with English subtitles, runs nine minutes. It can be found here.
Francis is no naïf. He signals his priorities to anyone paying attention. You do not have to be a Republican or a conservative to get the message. In support of his green theology, he plans a speech at the United Nations and a congress of world religious leaders at the Vatican. He is preparing to lend this agenda the magisterial weight of an encyclical. Yet, when innocents are slaughtered in Paris by the same forces that are shedding Christian blood in the Middle East, the most he can muster is a hashtag, #PrayersforParis.
The contrast is telling.
Silence and Appeasement Have Never Been Effective
Lu would have us turn our eyes away. She prefers that conservatives keep mum on papal presumptuousness so as not to inflame the liberal media. In short, she rationalizes silence as a means of appeasing media hounds. It is a fainthearted position that ignores longstanding—and ongoing—evidence of the futility of appeasement.
Let us be honest. Conservatives are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. While deferential observers are measuring their tones, Francis drives ahead with a demagogic program which makes the state the guardian and enforcer all values. To suppress challenge to a pope’s political biases or erratic behavior is no favor to the Church. It is little more than a failure of nerve that will earn no reward in the press. Silence is a form of collusion.
Earlier this month, Peter Berger reported in The American Interest that Leonardo Boff is an advisor to the pope on his forthcoming encyclical on climate change. Boff, a former Franciscan priest, is one of the major proponents of Liberation Theology, rejected as radical by both previous pontiffs. In March, 2013, at the time of Francis’ election, Boff told the press that Jorge Bergoglio was more liberal than people supposed. His conservatism as cardinal was due only to pressure from the Vatican. Rorate Caeli recorded Boff’s prediction: “He is now the pope and he can do whatever he wants. Many will be surprised with what Francis will do.”
This past October, Francis took aim at “ideological Catholics,” calling them “a serious illness” within the Church. What is Francis, if not an ideologue?