“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Which esteemed South American archbishop uttered these thought-provoking words?
It was not Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, now known to the world as Pope Francis. But be assured, Francis is deeply familiar with the famous quotation, spoken by Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil, who died in 1999.
Like Bergoglio, Camara was deeply connected to those in poverty, also shunning the material trappings of the church. Unlike Bergoglio, Camara stood up and challenged the right-wing military dictatorship that ruled his nation through murder and terror.
In coming weeks we will read and hear much about what Bergoglio did or did not do during Argentina’s “dirty war” of the late 1970s. Did he clear the path for the secret police to kidnap two Jesuit subordinates active in the poor barrios, or did he intervene to free them? Did he help hide the junta’s political prisoners from international humanitarian observers, or did he hide dissidents from the Argentine security forces?
This historical interlude matters, but it is not all that defines Francis. His actions and words paint a picture of a humble, pious and yet determined prelate. He is unambiguously conservative, but he may well challenge the Catholic and non-Catholic powers that be on the problem of poverty with a vigor not seen in recent years.
This is what a pope from Latin America can bring to Rome, an attunement to the nature of poverty, how it sustains and grows. Here is what Bergoglio said at a 2007 gathering of Latin American bishops, according to the National Catholic Reporter:
“We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”
This is the social question of the moment. How far will Francis go to press his natural constituency on the right wing to establish a more just economic order?
Shortly after the announcement of the new pope, well-known American Catholic conservatives offered their praise. Former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum said he was ecstatic about the choice of Bergoglio, impressed by his outreach and commitment to the poor.
Then, without missing a beat, Santorum couldn’t help but pontificate a bit himself. It should be the church, he said, not government, that cares for the poor.
That’s a good Catholic Republican for you, using his faith as a fig leaf for a libertarian philosophy that grinds the poor.
More moderate American Catholics found fleeting cause for hope upon hearing that the new pope was a Jesuit. But this too is a simplistic reading.
Bergoglio is indeed a Jesuit priest. But he has been an explicit opponent of liberation theology, the leftist political tendency within the clergy first articulated by Latin American theologians, which attracted no small number of Jesuits.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio clashed openly with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on matters relating to gays and lesbians. As the Argentine government was about to legalize gay marriage, the cardinal had this to say: “Let’s not be naive: This isn’t a simple political fight, it’s an attempt to destroy God’s plan.”
He has called gay people raising children a form of discrimination against those children.
In short, liberals will find Francis irredeemably retrograde. They will find him to be another holdout against modernity who will not accept the reality that some people simply cannot live up to Catholic teaching on sexuality, and that virtually all Catholic women in the developed world use contraception at some point in their lives. Catholics who hoped the church might change its social views to comport with their own will have to wait much longer, perhaps forever, for a liberal pope.
Still, on the question of poverty this new pope may prove to be a scourge to a certain sort of conservative as well. He famously dressed down the “hypocritical” clergy in his see who refused to baptize children born out of wedlock. Moreover, his version of serving the least among us appears to be much more comprehensive than doling out loaves and fishes, Santorum style.
During a visit to the Buenos Aires synagogue, Bergoglio expressed a sentiment one hopes will become a model for the church’s hierarchy and faithful alike. “We must look at (God) and let him look at us, to examine our heart in his presence and to ask ourselves if we are walking blamelessly.”