Contradictions and Conservatism Muddle Hopes for Change Under Jesuit Pope


In the social circles I run in, progressive, moderate, and former Catholics alike were taken aback yesterday by the news that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio will be pope. This is primarily because … he’s a Jesuit! The Jesuits are an order with a reputation for being intellectuals, committed to the poor, suspicious of hierarchy, and regularly in trouble with the Vatican. They are known for founding some of the world’s premiere Catholic-affiliated educational institutions and not generally found in high positions at the Vatican. I do not follow papal politics and didn’t think I had a horse in this race, but I was swept up in the moment of glee, thinking that maybe, somehow, they’d installed one of those rebellious-type Jesuits.

A cursory Google search brought me back to reality. Cardinal Bergoglio, who will be known as Pope Francis, is a vociferous opponent of marriage equality (“a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God”), has claimed permitting gay couples to adopt is discrimination against children, and believes the law should force a rape survivor to carry a pregnancy to term against her will (limited access to abortion in Argentina is “the death penalty”). He is credited with neutralizing the threat of Jesuit liberalism, while praised for maintaining an austere lifestyle associated with the order. He either turned two fellow Jesuit priests over to the Argentine junta or saved them from execution through behind-the-scenes dealing. Or maybe both.

His silence during Argentina’s dictatorship of the late seventies and early eighties, known as the Dirty War, and his alleged assistance to the murderous regime, caused some commentators to decry as a shame upon the Church his nearly successful candidacy for pope the last time around. In 2012, his bishops issued an apology for the failures to protect the people; some saw it as equivocal, but it was still an apology—acknowledgments of guilt are not what Catholic clerics are known for.

There is little cause for optimism in his record on reproductive justice or the rights of sexual minorities.  He is a hardliner on contraception, but has said the use of condoms can be permissible in some circumstances to prevent infection. It’s unclear to me whether his position differs from  Pope Benedict XVI’s, who made a comment to the press suggesting a possible deviation from the accepted orthodoxy, but did nothing in the way of changing course on the church’s influential work to block access to condoms globally.

Though belied by his position on marriage equality, Bergoglio attests to the dignity of gay people. It is possible he isn’t as extreme as the U.S. bishops who claim to hold the same belief, yet the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently opposed the Violence Against Women Act because it includes explicit protections for people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. And yet, the position that LGBTQ persons should not even be mentioned in the legislation is a symptom of the kind of hatred that makes people targets of violence. Perhaps Bergoglio believes it is permissible for the democratic state to recognize that people of various gender identities and sexual orientations exist and protect them. More basically, one can hope that he will refrain from legitimizing supporters of the death penalty for gay people as Benedict did.

Bergoglio hails from the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriage. So far as I can tell, he was an outspoken critic of the bill, but has not claimed, á la the American bishops, that the adoption of a policy he disagrees with through the political process constitutes a violation of his own religious freedom.

Cardinal Bergoglio endorsed the view that those opposed to the criminalization of abortion should not take communion. He has been more forgiving regarding other sacraments, however. In criticizing priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers conceived outside “the sanctity of marriage,” Bergoglio said:

These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized.

Though problematic, this statement contains an unusual recognition of a woman’s autonomy. It acknowledges that a woman chooses whether or to not carry a pregnancy to term. I hope this is because he recognizes a woman’s moral agency and bodily autonomy; at the very least it exhibits an acceptance that a woman has some rights under the law.

On the whole though, Bergoglio’s views on issues of sexuality and reproduction are orthodox and oppressive. I can only hope that in keeping with Jesuit tradition, he will tolerate disagreement and dissent. This would be a major reversal from what observers have called an inquisition under the rule of Joseph Ratzinger as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog and then pope.

I hope Bergogolio is a man of the people rejecting the trappings of power and dedicated to the poor as portrayed. Still, there is no indication he understands that reproductive autonomy is fundamental to economic justice, but perhaps his stated commitment to alleviating poverty, which is radical by U.S. standards, is genuine and will leave too little time for undermining access to reproductive health care. It takes real work, for instance, to deprive low-income women of contraception as successfully as the Church in the Philippines did. Perhaps Pope Francis will be too busy giving the assets of the Vatican to the poor in the style of his papal namesake St. Francis of Assisi and lobbying for wealth redistribution worldwide for such efforts.

Gary Wills has explained that popes are monarchs in an age of democratic values. The pope is selected by cardinals who were appointed precisely because of their loyalty to orthodoxies long rejected by the laity, particularly regarding the equality of women. In the modern era, Church officials cannot impose their will through force of law as they once did. This allows moderate U.S. Catholics to think of the pope as largely irrelevant and the bishops as out of touch but harmless. That, however, is a luxury of the privileged.

A North American “cafeteria Catholic,” especially an affluent one, is free to disregard the Catholic teachings she finds archaic or unjust and continue to enjoy and support the Church for the value she finds in it. Others, however, who lack resources or the protections of a government that separates church from state can’t just look away. The Catholic Church is an extremely powerful influence on the policies and conditions that determine whether a person who is marginalized can access reproductive healthcare, afford contraception, enjoy legal equality, or seek redress for sexual abuse.

My fear is that the good will moderate and liberal Catholics feel towards Jesuits, and Bergoglio’s forceful advocacy for the poor will put a pleasing face on an institution that must be held accountable by its members. Catholics legitimize and fund the Church and they have some responsibility to those it harms.  It is not enough for cafeteria Catholics to say they don’t agree with everything the Church does.

As critics are regularly told, the Church is not a democracy. I accept that and have exercised my right of exit, but I admire the internal dissenters who stay and seek to reform the church, both for their commitment to their own beliefs and the importance of reform to those who cannot exit as easily as I did. I believe more cafeteria Catholics need to join the Catholic reformers. One thing we can all learn from the accusations against Cardinal Bergoglio regarding his conduct during the Dirty War is that the silence of the privileged can look a lot like complicity.

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  • BJ Survivor

    Why anyone listens to celibate old white men who wear dresses and live in castles is beyond me. Even their own laity ignore their stupid edicts.