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Pope Francis Betrays Christianity By Romanticizing Poverty


Writing in Forbes last year, Steve Moore, a Catholic, asked: “What is the theological case for telling those in the poorest villages of the planet where people still live at subsistence levels, that they have a moral obligation to save the planet by staying poor and using less fossil fuels, less energy and electricity?”

Three months later, Vatican Radio ran the telltale headline: “Pope: Christians Should Kneel Before the Poor.” The article cited Pope Francis’ assertion that “poverty is the great teaching” Jesus gave us, and that “the poor are not a burden but a resource.” He capped his homily with, “How I wish that Christians could kneel in veneration when a poor person enters the church.”

His comment was a red flag that went largely unnoticed. Only a handful of Catholic bloggers remarked on it. They are sensitive to Francis’ tendency not to genuflect at those sacred moments during Mass that traditional rubrics require it. Yet he kneels to wash—and kiss—the feet of juvenile offenders or women in a Buenos Aires maternity hospital. Why not at Mass? Have the poor become surrogates for the Eucharist? And what are we to make of elevating poverty from a condition to be addressed to a teaching to be cherished?

An oblique response to Moore’s question came this February. On the flight back to Rome from Mexico, Francis admitted the orphic quality of his preoccupation with poverty: “The word ‘people’ is not a logical category. It is a mystical category.” In this euphoric apparition, the pueblo—the indigenous poor—are a primal entity. Poverty retains a hint of Eden, and the poor are themselves agents of redemption for the developed world.

Therein is the core of Francis’s “theology of the people.” A strain of liberation theology, it lends a Christological gloss to Marxist theorizing. Tinged with neo-völkisch romance borrowed from the Europe it disdains, Francis’ theology mythologizes the poor, particularly the ethnic poor: native peoples, mestizos, those on the shadow side of Western history.

Unstained by modernity, they are washed of original sin, preserved from the corruptions of advanced societies. Poverty, conceived as a prophetic condition, becomes a spiritual weapon in the revolt against the dark Satanic mills of a colonizing modernity.

Attributing Purity to Poverty

Francis’ credo derives from the thinking of Rafael Tello, one of the Argentine founders of a theology of the people. Censured by Rome in his day, he and Jorge Bergoglio kept contact over 17 years until Tello’s death in 2001. In 2012, then-Cardinal Bergoglio wrote the foreword to the original Spanish-language edition of “An Introduction to the Theology of the People” by another Argentine theologian, Ciro Enrique Bianchi. Bergoglio accompanied the text with a lecture in honor of its publication. That lecture, an encomium to Tello and “the faith of our humble people,” was included in the Italian edition of Bianchi’s text published last year.

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio maintained that the poor “live in a transcendental sense, beyond the huge daily difficulties. . . . [and] consumerism has not enclosed them.” For Bergoglio, “the transcendent sense of life glimpsed in popular Christianity is the antithesis of the secularism that is spreading in modern societies.” He identified popular piety as “the disclosing of the memory of a people.”

That “memory” is primordial. As if in the bloodstream, it is an innate disposition that bears affinity with older notions of a racial unconscious. Omar César Albado, writing last year in Bogotá’s Franciscanum: Revista de las ciencias del espiritu (Journal of the Spiritual Sciences), explained Tello’s understanding of pueblo spirituality:

Popular culture . . . has been transformed by Christianity and their faith is based on the Cross, the Virgin and the saints with an unalterable devotion. But it is also the continuation of an ancient culture that the West has not been able to banish these five centuries of efforts. It is a mestizo culture, where atavistic beliefs survive resignified in Christian worship.

In other words, mestizo culture is celebrated as a popular form of permanent resistance against the oppressive forces of modern development. February’s papal Mass in Chiapas offered symbolic endorsement of that defiance.

On many occasions, in a systematic and organized way, your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society.  .  .  . Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them.

Prayers and readings were given in various ancient Mayan languages. Francis, who speaks no English, said a few words in Tzotzil, and added: “Exposed to a [modern] culture that seeks to suppress all cultural heritage and features in pursuit of a homogenized world, the youth of today need to cling to the wisdom of their elders!”

Substituting the Poor for Christ

There is analogy here to our own Black English movement, and its detriments. But let me stay with the pope. His biases contribute heavily to the leftward drift of contemporary political culture on a global scale.

Theology of the people blends class struggle and mysticism in the time-honored language of gospel concern for the poor.

Bergoglio has internalized Tello’s ecstatic vision of the poor as the collective completion of the Passion of Christ. They are co-operators of salvation (Albado: “cooperadores de la salvación”) and, hence, a gift from God. Christianity provides a scaffold for sacralizing a mestizo variant of the Marxist proletariat. Theology of the people blends class struggle and mysticism in the time-honored language of gospel concern for the poor.

It is a deviant Christianity in which the cross alone is not sufficient for man’s redemption. Pueblo theology embraces the poor as an essence—a folkdom—endowed with an elemental antagonism to modern secularism. Poverty retains a hint of Eden, elevating the poor as agents of reparation for the sins of the developed world.

The English language press is ill-equipped to grasp this distortion. But the irrationality of the papal love affair with the poor has not been lost on Loris Zanatta, an eminent Argentine historian at the University of Bologna. His study “The Catholic Nation: Church and Dictatorship in the Argentina of Bergoglio” was published in Italy last year.

Zanetta’s recent essay, “The Chosen People” appears in the April issue of Italy’s prestigious Il Mulino. It was excerpted April 20 by Sandro Magister, leading Vaticanist and journalist with L’Espresso. The essay takes an informed look at the angle of this pontificate’s hold on reality. His essay confirms existing insights into the nature of Bergoglio’s pontificate. These are intuitions outside the ken of mainstream media, and ones Catholics themselves would like to wish away.

Pope Francis Means Poorer Is Holier

Is Bergoglio a Peronist? Zanatta answers: “Absolutely he is.” And not solely because of the air he breathed in his youth. Add his conviction that Personism embodies an alliance between a people and a nation that defends “a temporal order based on Christian values and immune from that . . . Protestant liberalism whose ethos projects itself as a colonial shadow over the Catholic identity of Latin America.” The statist bond will restore to the Catholic Church its lost stature.

By “Protestant liberalism,” Zanatta refers to the antinomian individualism that challenges the ecclesial authority which, in papal eyes, is the heart of Latin American identity. Is Bergolio, then, also a populist? Again, absolutely. Zanatta looks to the pope’s language to understand the tonal quality of his populism:

On his great journeys of 2015—Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Cuba, the United States, Kenya, Uganda, Central Africa—Francis used the word ‘pueblo’ 356 times. . . . He said ‘democracy’ only 10 times, ‘individual’ 14 times, mostly with a negative connotation. {These numbers] confirm for us what could also be guessed: that the notion of ‘pueblo’ is the keystone of his social consciousness.

Populism inhabits the pope’s vocabulary and shapes his politics. In his lexicon, “pueblo” means la gente común y humilde. Francis extols the piety of “the poor and simple.” Popular piety—“the memory of a people”—contains that germ of conversion with which the humilidades will evangelize the non-poor. (“Evangelii Gaudium”: “We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”) Zanatta explains:

His pueblo is good, virtuous, and poverty confers an innate moral superiority upon it. It is in the popular neighborhood, the pope says, that wisdom, solidarity, values of the Gospel are preserved. It is there that Christian society is found . . . .

Moreover, that ‘pueblo’ is not for him a sum of individuals, but a community that transcends them, a living organism animated by an ancient, natural faith, where the individual is dissolved in the whole. As such, that ‘pueblo’ is the chosen people that safeguards an identity in peril. It is . . . an eternal identity impervious to the unfolding of history, on which the ‘pueblo’ has a monopoly. [This is] an identity to which every human institution or constitution must bend in order not to lose the legitimacy conferred on it by the ‘pueblo.’

Populism, in the form of an idealized people, simplifies the complexity of the world:

The border between good and evil will then appear so diaphanous as to unleash the enormous power inherent in every Manichaean cosmology. This is how the pope contrasts the good ‘people’ with a predatory and egotistical oligarchy. A transfigured oligarchy, devoid of face and name, [becomes] the essence of evil, the pagan devotee of the god money: consumption is consumerism, the individual is selfish, attention to money is soulless worship.

Concern for the poor is as old as the church itself. What is new in this mystique of the pueblo is its other-worldly intoxication with poverty, as if material deprivation conferred holiness. An unacknowledged strain of cruelty runs through it. The poor are revered insofar as they play the role of the People, actors in a paternalistic drama directed by marxisant superiors inclined to interpret affluence as a signal of moral defect. Added, then, to the burdens of the poor is the servitude of personifying the sufferings of Christ.