Like a Biblical verse open to interpretation, Pope Francis wrapped up his South America tour Sunday leaving behind a body of messages that inspired, vindicated — and sometimes unsettled — a region that wildly embraced Latin America’s first pope.
During his week-long trip through Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, Francis built on long-running themes about serving the poor, the need for dialogue and condemning a “throwaway culture” that ostracizes the undesirable.
But he made most of his international headlines with his forceful attacks on capitalism and rampant consumerism.
The earth and people “are being brutally punished,” he said in Bolivia. “And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea — one of the first theologians of the Church — called ‘the dung of the devil.’ An unfettered pursuit of money rules.”
The last time a pontiff visited this swath of the Americas it was the1980s and the Polish-born John Paul II had built his papacy around toppling communism.
“In a similar way, Francis wants to bring down a neo-liberalist capitalist order that screws the poor,” said John Allen Jr., who has written nine books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs and is the editor of the Catholic site Crux.
Through that prism, the itinerary takes on added meaning. While Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay are the poorest Spanish-speaking countries in the region, the first two stops included governments that have embraced “21st Century Socialism,” which, in theory, prize social justice and wealth distribution over bald capitalism.
Allen said Francis’ visit to those nations is a sign of support.
“He’s trying to galvanize the region to become a serious protagonist in global affairs that can challenge what he sees as a badly deficient...economic order,” he said. “He wants [Latin America] to become an economic and political block that can stand up to the Western powers, Russia and China in the defense of the world’s poor.”
Pope of the Poor
Francis has a long history of ministering to the lowliest. When he was still Father Bergoglio in his native Argentina, he focused his efforts on immigrants and other outcasts. That he’s taken that vision to the global stage is no surprise. And it’s likely good policy for a church that has seen its sway over the region slipping.
Through the 1960s, at least 90 percent of Latin America identified as Catholic, according to a recent PEW study. Now that figure has dropped to 69 percent, as Protestant faiths have moved in.
In many parts of Latin America, the Catholic Church is still perceived as an elitist organization — more interested in ministering to the wealthy few and the impoverished masses, said Jason Marczak, the deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.
“This trip has been very much focused on helping the poor, the impoverished and the disenfranchised to gain their rights in society, which have been lacking for a long time,” he said. “[Francis] is fundamentally changing the way the church is perceived and how people can relate to the church.”
Simón Cazal, the director of SomosGay, a gay-rights group in Paraguay, said he had low expectations for Francis’ visit.
But the pope “spoke about diversity in life and that diversity is necessary for society and that a society without diversity cannot be considered healthy,” he said after the pope met with SomosGay and other civil society organizations. “We took the speech as a sort of break with the local church.”
He thought the visit would open up the debate about abortion and same-sex marriage in the conservative country. “Francisco’s message was very clear,” Cazal said.
The pope’s enthusiastic welcome in the region was virtually preordained. It was the first time that a Latin American pope had set foot in Spanish-speaking Latin America. And millions of people flocked to hear Papa Francisco. Paraguay, in particular, was flooded by neighboring Argentines, including President Cristina Fernández, who rushed to see their hometown hero.
Like a savvy diplomat, his message shifted depending on his audience. In Ecuador, where he began the trip July 5, Francis hammered home the need for dialogue and family unity. That message resonated in a country that has been split by anti-government protests.
In Bolivia, Francis apologized for the church’s crimes against Native Americans. And he reiterated his concerns about the evil empire of money, which, he said, created a “subtle dictatorship.”
“Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society,” he said. “It condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home, sister and mother earth.”
That anti-capitalist message was only amplified when Bolivian President Evo Morales gave Francis a hammer-and-sickle shaped crucifix.
In Bolivia the imagery is well understood: it’s a replica of a cross owned by a Jesuit priest, Luis Espinal, who was murdered by paramilitaries in 1980. (Francis would later visit his grave). But internationally, it sent a troubling message, said Jorge Quiroga, the former president of Bolivia (2001-2002) and an opposition leader.
“We understand what Luis Espinal means but the rest of the world doesn’t,” he said. The hammer-and-sickle, a Russian symbol of communism, “can be interpreted as sacrilege — a distortion of our faith,” he added.
The gift, which a Vatican official described as “compromising,” also overshadowed the pope’s message that Bolivia and Chile should find a negotiated solution to their longtime dispute that has denied Bolivia access to the sea.
“If you transcribed what Francis said here in Bolivia and printed it on letterhead from The Hague, it’s precisely what we’ve been asking for” in the international court, Quiroga said. “We’re not asking for a new map, or that someone put a gun to the head of Chile’s foreign minister but real dialogue, a negotiated solution.”
Francis’ mixture of politics and gospel has earned him critics, but the messages are much needed in the region, said Francisco Ortiz, a Paraguayan lawyer and opposition leader.
“The great inequalities that exist in the country — with a governing class dazed by power and the people asleep in their ignorance,” require subtlety and strength to resolve, he said. “And Francis, it seems, is the most suitable in all aspects.”
What lasting effects the trip might leave remains unclear.
After the pope’s departure from Ecuador, President Rafael Correa announced he would be expanding national talks (a papal plea) to try to overcome an impasse over tax reforms. And he also pardoned more than a dozen people jailed on accusations that they tried to topple his government in 2010. (The opposition, unconvinced by the concessions, has resumed street demonstrations.)
Marcial Gómez, the head of Paraguay’s National Farmer’s Federation, said he believed the pope’s visit and powerful messages against government corruption, which he called “society’s gangrene,” might improve the plight of rural workers.
“He underscored the need to develop a political economy with a human face,” Gómez said, “and he questioned the model that only benefits the rich and not man or nature.”
Francis’ core messages resonate in Latin America — which is one of the most unequal regions on the planet and where poverty thrives. But his upcoming trip could be trickier. In September, he plans to travel to Cuba and the United States.
Will Francis, who warns about the perils of totalitarianism and speaks of the “dictatorship” of money, stay on message in Cuba, which has been ruled by the Castro brothers since 1959? Will he talk about protecting mother earth when he faces climate-change skeptics in the U.S. Congress? Will he speak about the evils of consumerism during his Mass at Madison Square Garden?
In Havana, Francis will be on a tightrope, said Marczak with the Atlantic Council.
“The church has always had to play a very delicate role because it works with the government and facilitates different opportunities for the Cuban people and it needs to maintain that opening with the government,” he said “At the same time, it has the moral imperative to question the democratic process.”
If this Latin American tour is any indication, Allen, who has watched the pope closely, doesn’t think Francis will pull punches during the U.S. leg of the tour.
“When Francis talks about interests and powers and forces that he thinks are propping up this unjust and unsustainable global economy, you always know that in part he’s talking about the United States,” Allen said. “He’s coming to America to deliver a pretty challenging message.”
Wyss, the Herald’s Andean bureau chief, reported from Quito, Ecuador and Bogotá, Colombia. Special Correspondent Cálcena contributed from Asunción, Paraguay.