Curtain Raiser

Popping Questions to the Pope, Colltalers

Pope Francis I will do this week what Jorge ​Mario Bergoglio could never attempt in 78-odd years: visit the U.S.. The nation Francis will land on tomorrow, however, coming from Cuba, is several degrees of separation from the country padre Jorge once avoided.
In fact, it’ll be curious to see him facing this disconnect in the U.S. between those more or less admiring of his recent liberating statements, and those who claim being deeply Catholics but have shown signs that they don’t care much about what’s he has to say.
Something to do with supporting same-sex marriage, or women who’ve had abortions, or some mambo jumbo about the poor and climate change, no doubt. But this selective ignorance will mean less by the time he returns to the Vatican than whether he’s proven by then to be a galvanizing force behind a new church, or merely the bearer of a message hopelessly loss among the religious right.
The now minority among 72 million Catholics in this country paying attention to the first Latin American pope – trying to gauge his impact on church’s doctrine and global influence – have their job cut out to them, for sure. But it’ll take them time before any discernible conclusion is reached. Most likely, at least the entire length of his papacy, which is not too say much, considering his age.
What’s already clear now is that, as a religious leader of an one-billion strong flock, Francis is a skillful politician, touching once taboo subjects just enough to awaken heated discussions, but without leaving many prints that could trace it all back to him.
Also, despite the explosive nature and reach of some of his statements in the two years he’s been the Vatican’s chief executive, there’s been little in way of structural reforms that would allow, for instance, his encyclicals to pierce the inner membrane of church bureaucracy and become actionable policy. Thus, like most CEOs, the pope is but a figurehead of a ruling, and opaque, organization.
If in the outside, Catholicism has been shaken by his controversial appeal and ostensive displays of personal humbleness, the way denser waters of the church structure remain relatively undisturbed, and away from prying eyes as far as anyone can tell.
There remains staunch strongholds of conservatism inside the Vatican, and the shadowy doctrine keepers at the Holy See,

once led by former pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, continue their business as usual approach to religion matters, for all we know.
And just like many deceivingly smart world leaders have done in the past, Francis has already made clear that he, as formidably powerful as he may be, is too subject to constrains preventing him from pushing too hard for reforms. He may be outwardly humble and play the simple man card to public consumption, but that shows that he’s as concerned about losing his job as you and me.
Or is he? In that kind of rarefied atmosphere, history has been brutal to dissenters at the top, and conspiracy buffs have usually a field day just detailing tales of betrayal and poisoning at the organization to which the very term ‘holier than thou’ was created.
But for all his sunny public persona, and his ‘man of the people’ demeanor, Francis has so far successfully concealed the enigma that hides in plain sight at the center of his rise to papacy. Misinformation and a shallow media coverage have been his allies concocting willfully or not this tale of a Latin American rebel priest who faced the continent’s darkest political era in history.
This is the part of any story about Francis that gets shortchanged and, full disclosure, this post won’t exactly change that. But the gist of it is that he presided over the Argentine Catholic Church during a military junta dictatorship that mercilessly punished its enemies with anonymous death, creating, along Chile, Uruguay, and to a lesser extent, Brazil, the profound trauma of the Desaparecidos.
Those ‘disappeared’ victims, many of which remain unidentified and without a proper burial 40-odd years later, are the haunting legacy of those regimes that terrorized Latin America in the 1960s and 70s. They could’ve never perpetrated their crimes without tacit support of organizations such as the church to which padre Jorge belonged to and within which he rose to Bishop of Buenos Aires.
Even devoid of formal accusations, and with only one proven instance where his name is linked to the Dirty War, such tales have swirled around him and preceded his arrival in Rome, and he hasn’t really gone out of his way to disprove them. In that way, he’s been less transparent than even Ratzinger, who was forced to account for his past as member of the Hitler Youth.
That he surprised everyone with his clarity about contemporary issues former popes wouldn’t touch with a 20ft cross, is a statement to his ability as a leader to control the narrative that concerns him, and direct it to a most favorable light. That he may lose support in the ultra right may be part of this calculated risk, for who in his or her right mind can afford to side up with those religious nuts, anyway.
Oh, that’s right, there’s the U.S. church, its losing space to other Christian groups, and in the larger context, to the revival of Islam in the world. For even being a minority, with less public expression than many a charismatic faith, has been no impediment for radical groups to influence the political debate and even compete with billionaires and interest groups for the attention of policy makers.
In fact, the Catholic Church has lost so much ground in the country, a fact often pointed out by the rising minority of people who don’t particularly care to invisible beings one way or another, and have little to do with professed atheists (no, they’re not the same), that Evangelicals represent a much bigger political risk of destabilization in the world, today, with their obsession with Zionism.
By investing heavily in real estate and proselyting in Israel, hoping to provoke its neighbors, supposedly to deflagrate the vindictive biblical Armageddon, they pose a real threat of a final Middle East conflict. Ask any devout Muslin, in case you doubt it.
So Francis’ soothing rhetoric about a possible opening to groups the church’s historically rejected may suit just fine Vatican hard-liners, for the publicity and repositioning of Catholicism as a relevant power. All as long as it doesn’t imply any real change, that is.
He’ll end his tour of the U.S. east coast with a speech at the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals Summit on Friday, where he’s likely to dazzle all 193 member-state delegates by picking an important subject, climate change and poverty, from his speech tool box.
To be fair, it is a crucial subject and his embracing of it has been so far arguably the strongest stance any pope has ever taken over a secular issue. It no doubt took guts to even approach it, specially taken into account the hidden pressures he faces on his job.
But we’re not holding our breath, expecting his visit will convince the unconvinced or bring the Catholic Church a bit closer to the 21st century. That won’t happen with speeches, as charged as they may be, or small gestures designed to inform his humble origins.
Not until women may be allowed to become priests, although one wonders what for. Or priests allowed to marry or be openly gay, and that’s just what other denominations have already had for years, without any noticeable change in the needle of their relevance.
These will almost certainly not be on this week’s headlines about Pope Francis. Most likely, it’ll be his ‘sympathy,’ ‘straight talking,’ and personal demeanor that will make up for media coverage. And some petty venting by New Yorkers about his cavalcade clogging streets and ruining traffic. You know, the usual, who he thinks he is, etc. As for the rest of us, let’s have a safe and happy time. WC

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7 thoughts on “Curtain Raiser

  1. Pope Francis astonishes me. He can make a difference. Other popes couldn’t. Jesus of Nazareth left a message, just one: unconditional love. This could be what we are seeing.:-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. unclerave says:

    Reblogged this on Unclerave's Wordy Weblog and commented:
    Interesting point of view. What do you guys think? — YUR

    Liked by 1 person

  3. unclerave says:

    I always like the way you write, Wes, but with this you really sound like a jaded New Yorker. I’m a Pantheist with a pretty good memory. I lived through the Pope Paul VI years, and remember the shady situation of Pope John Paul I, and the ultra-reactionary (but oh so cute and personable) John Paul II. Benedict XVI continued in the JP II vein, but was not warm and fuzzy. His resignation was VERY welcome to anyone who sees the parallels between the Catholic church and Western governments/public sentiment. Francis represents a lot of hope for change. You can argue that up to now it’s all been rhetoric, but I think that he/they are trying to gauge public sentiment before employing any doctrinal change. Paul VI had the benefit of following John XXIII, so he *could* more easily make changes. But, Francis is following 35 years of staunch conservatism. Institutionally, he has a much tougher road to hoe.

    I also think your choice of the word “complicit” is a little too strong, as it applies to the the “Desaparecidos’. He likely knew what was going on, but was just powerless to do anything about it. The people who were in power would think nothing of disappearing a mouthy Bishop, or whatever he was at the time.

    He’s not a spring chicken, but he seems strong enough to be around for a while. I’m just going to enjoy the fact that he’s riling up the right, and hope that the talk will, eventually, lead to progressive change.

    — YUR

    Liked by 1 person

    • Colltales says:

      Point taken, YUR. More than the usual New York-ish skepticism, I may also betray a certain Latin American weariness too. People close to me were personally affected by both the Dirty War and the scandal of pedophile priests and that sort of guarded attitude never really leaves you. I do hope you’re right, though; he’s surely Catholics’ best shot for change at the core of the church in a long while. Thanks for your input.

      Liked by 1 person

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