When, just after his election, Pope Francis begged the multitudes in St Peter's Square for their blessing, reversing the usual papal invocation urbi et orbi, the BBC evidently wondered what to make of him. By the morning after, it had decided. It must mean that he was a "social justice Catholic", the kind it invariably chooses to speak on its own Thought for the Day. The Todaypresenter Evan Davis cheerfully asked the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, whether Pope Francis would be the Catholic Gorbachev, which would of course make Benedict XVI the equivalent of Andropov and John Paul II that of Brezhnev. It would be difficult to imagine an analogy more ignorant and calculated to outrage Catholics, given that John Paul actually played a key role in overthrowing the Soviet Union. This, though, is the unforgiving milieu in which Pope Francis will have to live, often appealing to the world over the heads of the media.
Illustration by Michael Daley
One gauntlet that he will inevitably have to run is the lazy assumption that because he is a Latin American, and a Jesuit to boot, his main aim will be to steer the Church sharply to the Left. Andrew Brown in the Guardian exulted that Bergoglio's election was "an extraordinary leap away from the conservative and cautious nature of the last two papacies". Others, rather keener on conservatism and caution, agreed; and, though they kept their heads down, were privately appalled. They too assumed that his origins in the villas (slums) of Buenos Aires, where he is justly celebrated as a man of compassion and simplicity, must imply sympathy for some version of typically Latin American anti-capitalist populism — the politics that has brought Argentina, like so much of the continent, to its knees.
But neither the exultation of the Left nor the dejection of the Right is justified. Pope Francis does not fit the stereotype of the Latin American Jesuit of a generation ago, steeped in liberation theology and politicised to the point of lending support to revolutionary Marxist regimes. There were once many such priests, often Jesuits, but in 1978 their seemingly unstoppable force encountered an immovable object in the shape of John Paul II, a man who had had a lifetime's experience of Marxists in his native Poland. Early in his pontificate, the Polish Pope took the Society of Jesus under his personal supervision. Then, together with Cardinal Ratzinger, he issued his Instructions on liberation theology, which explicitly banned the translation of Christian terms into Marxist ideology, while also challenging Catholics to develop a more authentic humanism of their own, including the "option for the poor" so beloved of priests working in Latin America, where the Church had traditionally been associated with extremes of social and economic inequality. On visits to the continent, John Paul reinforced his message by confronting, sometimes in person, those priests who persisted in their disobedience. The turning point came on the airport tarmac at Managua, Nicaragua, in 1983, when John Paul arrived to be greeted by the Sandinista government. Squaring up to Father Ernesto Cardenal, the minister of culture, the Pope wagged his finger and declared: "Regularise your position with the Church!" The spell of the Catholic Marxists was broken and they have been in retreat ever since.
Pope Francis is a product of that epic confrontation: a Jesuit who sided with the Pope against the Marxist faction within his own order. He served as the Jesuits' Provincial (head) in Argentina from 1973 to 1979, but was then banished from Buenos Aires by his more left-wing colleagues to run a seminary in the northern city of San Miguel de Tucumán. Eventually, however, his loyalty to Rome was noticed by the Pope and he was promoted, first to be auxiliary bishop and eventually, in 1998, to be Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
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